The South African Pavilion for the 18th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, explores the architectural representation of social structures through an exhibition titled “The Structure of a People”.  

Curators of the South African Pavilion, Mr. Stephen Steyn, Dr. Emmanuel Nkambule, and Dr. Sechaba Maape explain their vision: “We have a key opportunity with this pavilion to present previously unseen artifacts and thinking that is deeply entrenched in vital Indigenous Knowledge Systems in South Africa – and show how the past can truly be the laboratory of the future and help us to rethink critical issues that we face as a global society.”  

Inspiration for the theme 

The inspiration for the chosen theme of the South African Pavilion is derived from the ruins of a vast civilisation known as the Bokoni. Scattered over 10 000km² of grassland in Mpumalanga, about 200km east of Johannesburg, the particular architectural interest at this site is a large number of low-relief rock carvings depicting building plans. It is widely agreed that the plans were not intended for construction, but constitute a theoretical architectural representation, demonstrating that Bokoni herdsmen made drawings of social structures as they are represented by architectural plans. 

Social structures 

It is with this tradition in mind that the South African Pavilion is themed around the architectural representation of existing and speculative social structures. The exhibition will engage contemporary conditions such as ecological change and inequality. The inclusion of formerly peripheral value systems relies heavily on the appreciation of pre-colonial values, through the study of Indigenous Knowledge Systems, and their role in the reimagining of contemporary human settlements, institutions and communities into the future. 

Structure of a people 

The space of the pavilion is divided into three zones:  

Zone I, The Past is the Laboratory of the Future, traces links to the architectural representation of social structures as documented in pre-colonial southern African societies. 

Zone II, The Council of (Non-Human) Beings, contains contemporary drawings of the topic of animism in architectural practice.  

Zone III, Political Animals presents the organisational and curricular structures of South African architecture schools as architectural objects. Prior to the exhibition, Maape, Nkambule, and Steyn, conducted a national architecture competition aimed at gathering artifacts crafted by lecturers and architecture students to represent the structures of their schools or universities. The six selected models and miniature architectures, produced by ModelArt, are exhibited within Zone III, Political Animals.  

Acknowledgement and thanks go to  for the information in this article.  For more information, visit or email  

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