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Portrait of Lesley Lokko

"Revolutionary force" Lesley Lokko wins 2024 RIBA Royal Gold Medal

Ghanaian-Scottish architect and educator Lesley Lokko has been named the recipient of this year's Royal Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects, making her the first African woman to win the award.

Lokko, who is also an author and curator, is the third woman to receive the prestigious accolade in her own right – rather than as part of a team – since it was established in 1848. The others are architects Zaha Hadid and Yasmeen Lari.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) said Lokko has been selected for "relentlessly pursuing inclusivity and equity in the field".

Lesley Lokko Arsenale exhibition
Top image: Lesley Lokko has been awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for 2024. Photo by Festus Jackson-Davis. Above: she was the curator of the 18th International Architecture Biennale in Venice. Photo by Lizzie Crook

"A fierce champion of equity and inclusion in all aspects of life, Lesley Lokko's progressive approach to architecture education offers hope for the future – a profession that welcomes those from all walks of life, considers the needs of our environment, and acknowledges a broad range of cultures and perspectives," said RIBA president Muyiwa Oki.

"A visionary agent of change, Lesley has dedicated her life to championing these values, not only through academic endeavours, but through her work as an author and curator," he continued.

"She remains a humble revolutionary force, with her ambition and optimism etching an indelible mark on the global architectural stage."

Lokko is best known as the founder of African Futures Institute (AFI), an independent school of architecture in Accra, Ghana, which exists to reimagine "Africa as the crucible of the future".

More recently, she has made waves as the curator of the 18th International Architecture Biennale in Venice. She was the first person of African descent to curate the event.

The Arsenale at the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale
Lokko's edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale focused on Africa. Photo by Lizzie Crook

Lokko described her RIBA Royal Gold Medal win as "such a surprise" and "a testament to the people and organisations I have worked with that share my goals".

"This was never on the cards," she reflected.

"I'm delighted to be considered alongside some of the great past winners of the Royal Gold Medal. Although this is a personal award, this isn't merely a personal triumph, this is a testament to the people and organisations I have worked with that share my goals," Lokko continued.

"I came into architecture seeking certainties, looking for answers. Instead, I found questions and possibilities, far richer, more curious, and more empathetic ways to interpret and shape the world. Architecture gave me language, in all its forms – visual, written, built, performed – and that language, in turn, has given me such hope."

Lokko has a PhD in Architecture from the University of London and is the author of essay collection White Papers Black Marks, as well as 13 novels including Sundowners.

Over the last two decades, she has taught architecture to students around the world. She founded the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg and served as dean of The Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at The City College of New York.

Her edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale was named The Laboratory of the Future and explored the themes of decarbonisation and decolonisation through the lens of Africa. In an exclusive interview with Dezeen before the event, she said Africa is a "powerful place from which to examine the issues that will dominate the next century".

The 2024 Royal Gold Medal will be formally presented to Lokko in London on 2 May 2024. It follows several other awards given to Lokko, including an OBE in 2023 for her services to architecture and education and the RIBA Annie Spink Award in 2020 for her "outstanding contribution to architectural education".

This year's selection committee was chaired by president Oki and consisted of 2023 Royal Gold Medal winner Lari, RSHP senior partner Ivan Harbour, London School of Architecture's head Neal Shasore and Walters & Cohen partner Cindy Walters.

Other women to have won the RIBA Royal Gold Medal include Ray Eames, Patricia Hopkins, Sheila O'Donnell, Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell.

Norman Foster, Nicholas Grimshaw, Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright are also among the previous winners.

Read the full jury citation below:

Professor Lesley Lokko is an educator, author, and curator. A luminary architect and renaissance figure who has etched an indelible mark on the global stage. For over two decades Lokko has been rightly recognised for her groundbreaking contributions to architectural education, dialogue, and discourse from a Global South perspective – relentlessly pursuing inclusivity and equity in the field. Not only is Lokko the first African woman to receive this honour, but she also now takes her place among architecture's defining figures.

One of her crowning achievements is the Architectural Futures Institute (AFI) nestled in Accra, Ghana – an architectural education centre, that reimagines Africa as a crucible of the future, where novel urban forms are collaboratively conceived. The AFI stands as a beacon, acknowledging the contributions of women from the African diaspora. It extends an invitation to embrace opportunities and exalts courageous and creative voices.

A guiding force for creativity, Lokko's curatorial prowess shone brilliantly in her recent stewardship of the Venice Biennale 2023, a groundbreaking event that united African and Africa-related architectural expressions for the first time. It was a platform where emerging and established African architects and designers converged to create ‘The Laboratory of the Future', a six-part exhibition igniting the discourse on decarbonisation and decolonization. Under Lokko's curatorship Nigerian artist, designer, architect and master builder, Demas Nwoko was the first Black person to be awarded the prestigious Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the International Venice Biennale.

Her pivotal role on the board of the pioneering New Architecture Writers program in London, dedicated to supporting "professionals of colour who are under-represented across design, journalism and curation", underscores her commitment to diversity. Remarkably, Lokko's seminal work White Papers Black Marks was published over two decades ago in 2000. In 2020, she was awarded the RIBA Annie Spink Award for Excellence in Architectural Education for her impactful leadership, passion and an unwavering commitment to architectural education and research, in particular her lectures and published works focusing on the subjects of race, identity and architecture.

While Lokko's impact extends beyond architecture, this honour acknowledges her prodigious contributions to the architectural domain. Her work champions diverse approaches to practice, and pushes the boundaries of what architecture is, and what it can achieve.

She ardently advocates for individuals from all walks of life to partake in the tapestry of architecture; and her interpretation of architecture as culture, an art form that fosters public dialogue centred on ideas and content rather than only function, democratises architecture, making it accessible to all.

Lokko's work is a clarion call for equitable representation in policies, planning, and design that shape our living spaces. Her pedagogical footprint spans diverse cultural landscapes, from the United States and the United Kingdom to South Africa and Ghana.

This medal honours Lokko's resounding voice. It is a testament to her unwavering commitment to advancing architectural education and redressing imbalances by amplifying the voices of underrepresented people in shaping our built environment.