26 June, 2022
The list is composed of selections made by participants in Loké and it’s predecessor, BI, which is discussed in the conversation between Erandi de Silva, editor of Loké, and Helen Thomas, editor at Women Writing Architecture:
Helen Thomas: The origins of Loké lie in a project you started over ten years ago, called BI. Would you tell us more about that, and how that began?
Eradi de Silva: BI was an independent publishing project that originated a two-column architectural writing format: exploring one topic with two points of view. This work was a collaboration with my good friend, the architect E. Sean Bailey. Our conversations about BI began in July of 2009. Sean had recently graduated from Yale and was freelancing in Manhattan and I had just graduated from the Architectural Association in London and I proposed that we start an online writing project. We organically pursued a conceptual format that grew from our collaboration as a pair of writers, navigating different contexts, and we landed on the two-column approach quickly. As we had graduated into a recession and had attended schools that were barely within our reach financially, money was tight during this time. Connecting with mentorship opportunities was also a challenge that we never quite met, often a common experience for minorities in the field. Given these particular barriers, it took us a bit of time to figure things out.
On February 14th, 2010, from Rotterdam and New York City, we launched an early experimental foray into exploring design theory online, offering short architectural observations, analysis, opinions, anecdotes, and history in a format that we felt was quite innovative at the time. The fundamental purpose of BI was to build an alternative space, with some distance from architecture’s established institutional systems, outlooks, and approaches. As editors who are underrepresented individuals in the larger field, we sought to explore themes that are not generally prioritized, but nevertheless are important to engage, thereby making room for content that is often overlooked or actively erased.
In late 2013 we released FREE: Architecture on the Loose, a book pairing short extemporaneous texts with longer studied pieces. This volume presented a wide view on the notion of ‘free’, bringing together a multitude of perspectives, drawn from within and beyond the discipline, that together explore the term’s implications for architecture. In FREE we were graced with the presence of some of our favourite thinkers, writers, curators, editors, and architects, including Keller Easterling, Kayoko Ota, Shumon Basar, and many more. BI marked an important period for incubating ideas and approaches that led to Loké Journal, my current project which is an independent publication that presents inclusive, cross-cultural, and global perspectives on design.
HT: What were your inspirations for BI – were there any women writers who were important to you?
EdS: We were primarily inspired by our desire to write, but also architecture’s lack of representation and the gap in architectural writing and publishing. It was important for us to grant ourselves the agency to communicate in this space. For Sean and I, being queer and non-binary and a woman of colour, respectively, it didn’t seem likely that this would be provided to us by institutions, so we built a space for ourselves. In the architecture worlds that we know, there is an emphasis on top-down messaging, rather than dialogue and valuing ideas sourced from a spectrum of engagement. We were interested in building something a bit more grounded and conversational, in a sense. We worked with writers who were at different stages of their careers, and it was important to us to present individuals with some equivalency, even temporarily.
We considered the BI format to be an infrastructure that writers could plug into. So, in this way, the project was built with an openness that individuals could really bring themselves to. For me, this sort of authentic and grounded approach was reflected in works like Minnette De Silva’s worldly autobiography: The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect (1998) and the insightful urbanity of Denis Scott Brown’s writing. The writing of activist and scholar Angela Davis and of the former architecture student and one of India’s pre-eminent public intellectuals Arundhati Roy have also been important in shaping how I work.
HT: How did BI transform into the Loké project, and how did your focus move on to making?
EdS: In the period of making BI, I was experiencing the significant and unexpected pressures of structural oppression that exist within and around Western architecture’s systems and institutions. I say ‘unexpected’ because the message from within the community is often that people in this space are too smart and conscious to be perpetrators of such practices, but unfortunately, that is not true.
A short period after launching, several writing projects made appearances that bore uncomfortable resemblances to BI. Some were independent undertakings, while others were brought forward by institutions such as the Architectural Association’s Fulcrum and the University of Texas’ Trialogue. Beyond the obvious influence of BI’s format on these publications, these projects felt like displays of entitlement, empowered by a system that frequently subordinates women and minorities. The essential mission and value of our project as a progressive space for diverse architectural conversation, built from the ground up by marginalized individuals, was not supported but diminished. The lack of synthesis of our format and concept had the effect of diluting our work and purpose, and in laying claim to what we brought to the space of architectural conversation, we felt they effectively erased our contributions to their journeys. As a recent graduate of the AA, I was particularly disappointed to see the school producing Fulcrum. My first thought when I saw it was: ‘doesn’t the school understand that minority perspectives are not well represented within architectural writing?’. The project website includes a list thanking the mainly White and male group, who gathered their resources to bring the project to fruition. This is accompanied by a statement outlining Fulcrum’s commitment to ‘equality and the struggle for social justice’. If the AA genuinely wanted to get behind equality and social justice, they should prioritise supporting underrepresented community members.
Experiencing what happened to BI, just as we were starting out, provided some early insight into some of the ways in which systemic oppression manifests and is perpetuated within the context of Western architecture, and the difficulty that many people in the field have both recognizing and acknowledging it. Following this experience and other related ones, it was important to take a deliberate step away from this space, to disengage from architecture’s dominant agendas and systems while moving toward a place that is even more open and flexible than BI was. This led to Loké: a journey into a design world that lies beyond limited ways of thinking and doing. It responds to the lack of criticality that can stem from some of architecture’s unfounded beliefs and contextualizes architectural production in the larger field of international design production.
Opening up to an expanded design world presents an important chance to critically converse with what lies outside of architecture’s boundaries. At times, architecture resists the many progressive conversations and considerations that other design disciplines accept and engage. Presenting distinct design spaces together in one publication is an effort to push architecture toward a kind of social progress that ultimately can include those people whose ideas and experiences have long been pushed out.
I chose ‘The Journal of Making’, as the subtitle for Loké, because I felt it was important to claim the act of ‘making’ on behalf of a larger group of people representing a wider pool of experiences. I like the relationship that production has to the realization of agency and self-determination. Also, I’m interested in process and production, and I regard both together as dynamic, but also grounded entry points into design conversations that can explore many directions and uncover very complicated realities around how culture, history, and economics, intersect with the act of making.
Related to these themes, an important aspect of the reorientation that followed BI has been the shifting of content toward an audience that is authentically conscious of issues around equity, often because they themselves are directly experiencing inequity. They are a significant and inspiring part of the work.
HT: You mention ‘nuance’ in your mission statement for Loké. Why is it important to the project?
EdS: If we are to overcome some of the inequities in architecture and beyond, I do think, as much as possible, it’s important for people to find ways to come together. Our individual viewpoints are complex. They aren’t binary. We don’t fall into two categories. An essential feature that is built into BI’s format, is its ability to demonstrate this complexity. Sometimes the writers interpret the topic the same way, other times they go in two vaguely related directions, and at other moments they are in opposition or expressing some combination of these possible positions. With Loké, the format is less formal, but the project does prioritize making room for complexity.
With both BI and Loké, there is an emphasis on architects as writers, meaning most of the writing is done by practicing architects.
BI was a pretty direct reflection of our context during a particular period in time. Many of the writers were friends, or friends of friends, who were mainly architects. Similarly, Loké predominantly features the writing of practicing architects. While Loké’s subject matter reaches beyond architecture’s frame, architects are consistently in the picture. A project that is about making space for a more inclusive design world, has an architectural vision at its core. Unconstrained by disciplinary limits, the content becomes flexible and can lean into socially progressive design topics that perhaps haven’t been given much of a place in strictly architectural conversations. In this way, navigating inside and outside the bounds of the discipline is important for the project.
HT: I am curious about the names – what led you to them?
EdS: BI was named for its two-column format and references identity, which is something that was important to both Sean and I, in terms of our ways of seeing.
The current project is more deliberate about presenting a more expansive picture of design, and to do that it was important to look globally. Loké challenges ideas and concepts that form the hegemonic Western design consciousness that comes from outside of what it deems valuable while destabilizing the sense that it is all-knowing or working alone toward progress. I wanted a name that would be a foundation for carrying this mission forward. Loké comes from the Sinhala word for ‘world’, which comes from Sanskrit, and is used in other contemporary South Asian languages. I appreciate that this word simultaneously exists in different locations. When translating it into the Latin alphabet and dressing it with diacritics, the term’s geographic origins become obscured rendering it increasingly universal.
HT: BI was mainly online but toggled between the Internet and print. Why did you decide to make Loké a print-only project?
EdS: With BI, we wanted to experiment with architectural theory on the Internet while widening the scope of architectural conversation. When we began the project, we never considered that it might become a catalyst for our own oppression. As powerful institutions and others began claiming the format and concepts that we were working with to further dominant perspectives, the openness and relative ease of access of the Internet became an uncomfortable space. For Loké, I wanted to steer away from unwanted attention and external pressures, in order to pursue this work with a peaceful focus, minimizing the burden of structural issues. Making the move to the printed page was a freeing shift that allowed for community building alongside those who value this perspective. Maybe when the moment is right, returning online may be an option, but for the moment, print is where this project will live.
Despite the difficulties of being in an architectural publishing space as a woman of colour, with an interest in subjects that are overlooked and ignored, I do have to say that publishing, more generally, has been a vehicle that has enabled me to move toward design worlds that are navigating the issue of inequity with awareness and skill. This has been affirming. I am grateful for the gift that this work has given me to make this positive shift.
HT: Beyond the writers that you previously named, were there any other precedents that have inspired you?
EdS: While I was working on BI, I was also working with several notable women in the field and witnessing their processes as well as exploring their work and getting to know their stories. These experiences have certainly shaped how I approach my work. One of these people is the editor and curator Kayoko Ota who has worked on numerous publications and exhibitions for AMO/OMA. I had an up-close view of the in-depth research she both performed and facilitated to bring Project Japan: Metabolism Talks together.
You certainly are another person who made an impression, Helen. You hired me to be the Project Editor on your project at Phaidon: 20th Century World Architecture, a book that expands the Modern and postmodern canon beyond the established Western scope, presenting a global view of the last century’s important works. The works were selected in consultation with regional experts making this a very useful resource for architects. Given the scale of the project, few organizations could have pulled off what Phaidon did here. I’m happy to have been a part of it.
I’m also inspired to see the work that you are doing with Women Writing Architecture. This project can do so much to elucidate how women have shaped design thinking. One of the important lessons from my early days, both in regard to making BI, but also in regard to working in offices, is that acknowledgment in the form of a credit, citation, or reference, is an important site of inclusion. In the case of marginalized people, if you don’t provide acknowledgment of their contributions, you maintain the status quo and things continue unchanged. We go on, simply discussing the work of a few.
Around the time we began working together, I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from Elsie Owusu, OBE, someone who has dedicated themselves to bringing forward very real change in the form of greater equity to the architectural community. She loaned me a book from her personal collection called Africa Adorned by Angela Fisher, as a reference for a project that we were working on. This book captures the profound power of bodily adornment, cultivated over generations, across the African continent. One way to deepen our relationship with the larger design context and our collective histories is to fold design references like this into architectural production.
As we were fresh out of school, Keller Easterling’s writings were also shaping our view as Sean studied under her and I was reading her work as a student. Log, which is edited by Cynthia Davidson, is another publication that made an impression on me in the early days. I appreciate its ambition and sense of fun.
With Loké I’ve been given the good chance to be able to delve deeply into the stimulating work of interviewees, so some inspiring publications are ones that I have gotten to know along the way. One such example is the critical fashion publication Vestoj. I interviewed their Founder and Editor Anna Aronowsky Cronberg on her ‘Masculinity’ issue for Loké’s issue on ‘the Body’. Alice Rawsthorn, OBE a design critic who is a consistent advocate for women and increased equity and accessibility in the design world, is another example. While she’s not communicating with words here, interviewee Nathalie du Pasquier’s brilliant contributions to Leonard Koren’s book Arranging Things, remind me of how integral Madeline Vriesendorp’s contributions are to Delirious New York.
HT: Looking back, what has changed in your ambitions for Loké since you published the first edition in 2016?
EdS: I think with each issue the project steps a little deeper into its unique path. As we move forward, I hope that Loké can continue this trajectory as there is so much exciting content to explore here that I think adds something new to conversations of space making and production, while seeking to fortify design’s capacity for criticality.
While this work began ahead of the Me Too and Black Lives Matter Movements, both have served as important and energizing reminders of how much progress still needs to be made in architecture. The path toward a more equitable profession begins with understanding and acknowledging the various difficult experiences that particular groups of people in the field face with regularity. Thankfully, the conversations around equity are increasingly reflecting the actual lived reality of those who experience the oppression that is often tied to being part of a non-dominant identity. I hope that the paradigm shifts that have emerged from the ground up are here to stay and that we can collectively build on them in favor of a more socially progressive architectural landscape.
The barriers faced by non-dominant communities have long been here and there is still far to go toward creating a more balanced space. If Loké can continue to fill gaps and contribute to both realizing and imagining more equitable approaches to seeing and doing within architecture and the larger design world, I will be happy.