PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE: In conversation with Samia Henni and Yasmin Abdu Bushra
In this conversation we invited Ethiopian architect and researcher Yasmin Abdu Bushra to reconnect with Professor Samia Henni to reflect on evolving notions of architectural practice.

In this candid exchange, we invited Ethiopian architect and researcher Yasmin Abdu Bushra to reconnect with Professor Samia Henni — herself amid the presentation of her touring exhibition Performing Colonial Toxicity — to reflect on evolving notions of architectural practice.

KOOZ Samia, I've seen so many programmes, lectures, talks and tours related to your recent book, Colonial Toxicity: Rehearsing French Radioactive Architecture and Landscape in the Sahara, and the attendant touring exhibition, Performing Colonial Toxicity. Congratulations, and thank you so much for making the time today.

SAMIA HENNI Sure. It’s a pleasure to speak with you and share this work with your audience.

KOOZ Yasmin, tell us about yourself, what have you been up to?

YASMIN ABDU BUSHRA I am based in Addis Ababa. I work as an architect, urbanist and as a researcher. I also manage a bookstore and publishing house called Ankeboot. In terms of my practice, I work with community organisations based in Addis Ababa and Nairobi. I'm looking into hyper-local community organising skills, the way that they're evolving and how that relates to the right to the city. My research takes a suggestive position in the possibility of restructuring power relationships, because they are organising and performing tasks that fall under state actions — voluntarily, while also paying their taxes. So that's an interesting area to look into. I am now part of a mentorship programme called Building Beyond with the Prince Claus Fund, expanding and mutating this research; it involves mentees and mentors from all over Africa coming together to learn from each other through regular meetups over the course of 12 months and two symposia. With the Building Beyond programme, I am working to diversify the method of documentation for the research I've been working on in various intensities for the past few years, including my master's thesis.

KOOZ When I approached you, Samia, you quickly suggested inviting Yasmin to join this conversation. You met at the 2023 Biennale College of Architecture at Venice Biennale, a month-long architecture school that ran under the guidance of Lesley Lokko, last year. What was it about Yasmin's work that prompted the suggestion?

SH We — myself and my co-tutor Alice Clancy — titled our unit ‘Practice’. We tried to discuss the practice of architecture, through those practices that were exposed at the 18th International Architecture ExhibitionArchitecture at Venice Biennale — that is, through the exhibition themes of decolonisation, decarbonisation and the laboratory of the future. We invited eight participants in the unit — Yasmin Bushra, Yannick Joosten, Anton Kuzmin, Catharina Meier, Oratile Mothoagae, Nicole Moyo, Abdulrahman Samhouri, and Devesh Uniyal — to visit the Architecture Exhibition and to choose practices to examine and so that they could explore and think of their own positions.

The way that Yasmin was working, thinking, analysing and reflecting on her own practice was inspiring and unique. I appreciated her enquiries and intentions — I think I told you already, Yasmin, right?

YAB Yes, yes. Thank you for the incredible energy you continue to bring to this space. It’s also really great to be continuing that conversation after the Biennale College, we have been doing a fairly regular monthly virtual meet up. It's really enjoyable to connect with each other, but also a really enriching experience to continue reflecting on the discussions we started at the college and how each of our practices are evolving, seeking advice from each other and building a companionship.

"I think the important takeaway was to situate myself in my work. It asserted thoughts I had at the back of my mind: to create what we want to talk about, to situate myself in super-local conversations while also being conscious of global discourses."

- Yasmin Abdu Bushra

KOOZ Yes, a school can foster lots of different types of communities and forms of discussion; sometimes these are helpful structures and it can be so hard to retain those in adult life. What did you learn about your practice during the intense meditation on that subject at the Biennale College?

YAB I think the important takeaway was to situate myself in my work. It asserted thoughts I had at the back of my mind: to create what we want to talk about, to situate myself in super-local conversations while also being conscious of global discourses. For me, working with an active community practice that is disappearing — that is seen as archaic or not valuable anymore — is incredibly important. With my work I nurture and maintain the agency to valorise that knowledge and to document it, to speak about it in academic spaces but also in other much more accessible spaces.

KOOZ Tell me more about what you mean by situating yourself in your work.

YAB For me, it's about identifying who I am before I start to write or talk about a particular subject. I need to locate myself first, where I am with my work, but also as a body and being; to understand what my privileges are as well as my stress points. Then I will be in a much better position to move forward in terms of what my contributions can be, but also to not lose sight of what my responsibilities are. So for example, while working with all these community organisations in my locality, I had never questioned the position of myself, my family, and my identity. How is it contributing to and supporting these types of groups? How have I benefited from them?

KOOZ It’s worth noting that this precise act — of situating oneself — is not often demanded or required in the academic realm.

SH Maybe I could comment on this: I wanted to consider the 2023 Biennale College of Architecture at Venice Biennale as a not-academic space, but rather a space from which to develop one’s own practice, whatever that practice might be. The tutors and participants in the College didn't know each other and were invited to create that space together. These circumstances were unique for everyone. Usually, if you teach in a school or a department of architecture, you teach a studio or a seminar or in history and theory lectures. You know that the students are here for a few semesters, you meet them again and again. The Biennale College was just a very different oscillation. It allowed us to insist upon this question: how do I want to work? Not ‘how does the world want me to work,’ or ‘how does my family, my field, my discipline or my colleagues want me to work’. That was a very important aspect of the unit that Alice and I called ‘Practice.’

What we tried to ask each of the participants was how do they want to exist in this broken world? How do they want to work, how do they want to represent themselves? All of the participants in Practice Unit were coming from architectural education — where they were usually confronted with a studio brief, strict deadlines, abundant productions and deliverables. We wanted to step back, decelerate a bit to understand: what do they want to share with others? How do they want to share it? How do they want to address others? It was quite a unique situation: the question ‘how do I want to work’ was really at stake, and it’s a question I always ask myself — although it’s not that you ever come to a static or permanent answer.

"What we tried to ask each of the participants was how do they want to exist in this broken world? How do they want to work, how do they want to represent themselves?"

- Samia Henni

KOOZ As you say, architectural education usually teaches you a certain order of progress or success, so when did you really start asking yourself that question, Samia? What snapped or gave yourself that freedom to question what you want?

SH Dissatisfaction. When I am dissatisfied, I ask myself: ‘do I just swallow it and move on? Or do I say, no, that’s not satisfying.’ When you know that some ways of producing and transmitting knowledge are not okay, what do you do? When those ways do not speak to you, or they are offensive or even disgusting, what do you do? Those were the moments when I started thinking if there are other ways.

I think the epic moment was when I started writing my doctoral dissertation at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture at the ETH Zurich. The dissertation became the space from which to think about how to produce knowledge and who to address certain topics and why. The protocols of the discipline of history of architecture do exist of course, but one can write differently or narrate stories that are underrepresented or ignored. So I think that was, for me, a period when I took time to select, organise, think, write, rewrite, and try to understand how I want to work, how do I want to share these architectural histories of the French colonial rule in Algeria.

Performing Colonial Toxicity, exhibition at Framer Framed. Photo: Maarten Nauw.

KOOZ Do you feel a sense of responsibility? I mean this from an intellectual point of view, if you felt you had a perspective to share that is under-represented —

SH When I was a PhD student, no. I just thought that my job was to do it and say it and write it and share it and publish it and make sure that people know. I was really convinced. I was committed to it. I needed to follow the protocols of architectural history, which meant dealing with archives and citing sources, just as you should be doing it.

There were three committee members in my PhD defence and they were all very excited; they nominated the dissertation for the ETH doctoral medal, which is the highest accolade you can get — and it won. For me, the lesson was: yes, we really need to believe in what we think. Of course, it’s not a recipe that you can repeat over and over again, but believing in what we do, trying to be insistent, to reiterate and rehearse our positions — it's a practice, it's really a practice.

The responsibility came later when people like me started to get in contact, saying ‘Look, we can exist now because of this work!’ There was a sense from people that now we can do our work because we can say, look, this doctoral thesis exists and it was even recognised and published in a European institution, awarded by European and North American scholars and associations. People were thinking that if this exists, why can I not do it? It becomes a precedent. I didn't know about this when I was writing it; it really came after. So the role of precedent became a responsibility for me — I thought ‘Okay, now I am also speaking on behalf of others, and we have to continue doing this.’

"At the Biennale College of Architecture, we asked each of the participants to not reproduce or copy what we know, but rather to think of other ways to represent work, to tell the stories, to narrate what each of us is trying to do."

- Samia Henni

KOOZ I think you were acting in responsibility to yourself, which is admirable. I can see how your work on specific Algerian histories have come from a place of personal conviction, but also this responsibility of holding and gathering other voices. How are you working through that now?

SH I'm thinking about the micro and macro colonial and military histories of the built and destroyed environments. So, the French colonial rule in Algeria really defines the cases that I know quite well, with all their consequences. Then, there are the edited volumes, like War Zones and Deserts Are Not Empty. These volumes place architectural practices into a much more global perspective and a much comparative one. So to say that the field is not only about these cases — rather these are models, unfortunately, of other realities and geographies around the world. It's really important to be as specific as possible in architectural contributions — like the first book Architecture of Counterrevolution: The French Army in Northern Algeria and Colonial Toxicity: Rehearsing French Radioactive Architecture and Landscape in the Sahara as the second — but also to create dialogues between these and other histories. So War Zones was an edited volume on other armed conflict areas where architecture and planning played a big role; Deserts Are Not Empty is also very similar. For me, it is very important to be specific, and at the same time show that this is part of a huge system of colonial oppression, of dispossession.

In the case of Architecture of Counterrevolution, the contribution of architecture is more about control, psychological warfare, and counterinsurgency. The question of representation is really important in all of that. At the Biennale College of Architecture, we asked each of the participants to not reproduce or copy what we know, but rather to think of other ways to represent work, to tell the stories, to narrate what each of us is trying to do. And I remember in Yasmin’s case, what you tried to do was really fascinating.

YAB At that time, I was working from a third person point of view, trying to look at iddirs from a point of view of ‘academic objectivity’. Since college, I have been confronted with the questions of how I want to progress with my work. I've put myself in the position of telling this story, but how do I tell it? That's when I start thinking, okay, maybe before I transmit the story, or decide on the method of telling it, I need to situate myself. I think my work has evolved in this aspect. It is in this thought process that I started exploring mixed media storytelling with photography, writing and composing in film. The main objective for me was to test different skills and open my practice to different mediums.

Night of Ideas, Credits: Yasmin Abdu Bushra.

KOOZ You mentioned that it has continued to influence the way that you work. Can you share how those approaches have played out for you?

YAB Absolutely. What I'm working on is particularly related to community organisations in Addis Ababa called iddirs. Sometimes these organisations are overlooked or not valued in spaces of urban discouses, yet they continue to operate and influence the social fabric of the city. Iddirs are an evolving mutation that started around the 1940s, during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. The local communities were affected by a lot of deaths, such as the Yekatit 12 massacre in Addis Ababa as a consequence of resistance to occupation. Due to events like this and other sporadic instances, the community needed to assist each other; Iddirs then started as funeral associations to support families. Through the years, their concerns evolved into all sorts of other life events — like weddings, celebrations. Over time, it also became a way that people came together to maintain their neighbourhoods; based on where a house is located, a single household might be part of between one to four iddirs and each maintain their own specific set of concerns and histories; so you see their activities branch out to all sorts of aspects of urban life - you look at iddirs that manage and maintain heritage buildings, others that nurture playgrounds and sports locations and some that have set up allotment gardens within shared spaces.

"What I'm working on is related to community organisations in Addis Ababa called iddirs. Sometimes these organisations are overlooked in spaces of urban discourse, yet they continue to operate and influence the social fabric of the city."

- Yasmin Abdu Bushra

Now, these are services that — under regular circumstances — should be executed by local government entities, right? However, due to a lack of funds or perhaps political will AND the strength in sense of community within these organisations, the local entities have resorted to handing over these responsibilities of provision, repair and care. As an architect, I situate myself in this story in terms of taking a propositional attitude. If this is where we are in terms of relational structures between local governments and community entities, what sorts of alternative futures are possible? What is the counter imaginary in terms of what a citizen means in this relationship? How can these communities take a better position within political spaces? How can power be structured between entities so people can claim a right to their city —where people can have a say as to how their local areas are changing or transforming?

This research has also taken me to Nairobi where I am looking into a similar type of community organisation that is much more integrated within decision making aspects of physical urban transformation, but also evolves through forms of social purpose. The main difference is that with iddirs, the focus is on social responsibility within a community. That relationship, based on a range of strengths, evolves into something bigger — something that expands into physical space. In Nairobi, the organisation’s concerns start from things like waste management, traffic control and other infrastructural services within an area — then that strength trickles down into the community level, through things like health care funds.

Spatial Illustrations, ethnographic site study-cp.r. Credits: Yasmin Abdu Bushra.

KOOZ This geometry, your way of looking at the two approaches is so interesting.

YAB That’s really a bird's eye view. So I've been telling the story in different presentations, research formats and articles. But I am looking to make this accessible to a bigger audience through video documentation or with publications — maybe other methods as well. This is the story I was thinking about in terms of situating oneself. How do I view myself within it? I don't personally participate in iddirs, but other close family members do and are involved and invested, and this is true for many families. Okay, so how does one benefit from this? It helps to clarify what one can do to further strengthen these types of structures. In this space, I think it is important to continue iterating this work to build the muscle of language to valorise this daily practice of urban living but also to create leverage.

KOOZ Sounds like you’re really enacting these ideas of situating yourself, both as an individual and an architect. Right, Samia? Does this relate to how you work?

SH Well, yes and no — maybe not. What I can tell you is that people always say, Oh, you are from Algeria so you work on Algeria… I say, no, actually I work on France, on French colonial measures in Algeria. There is always this notion of perceived subjectivity versus objectivity. I don't want to satisfy the people who assume that if you are from the country that you write about, you are automatically biased. Personally, I'm tired of dealing with this monotonous question. I started responding to this question by saying: read the work and take whatever you want from it, instead of projecting your assumptions. These people do not say to French people writing about French histories: well, you are French so you are automatically biased, nor to French people working on French histories in Algeria: well, you are French so you are automatically biased, so they stop their colonial assumptions.

Close-up view of Jerboasite and entrance wall of “Performing Colonial Toxicity: An Exhibition by Samia Henni” at gta exhibitions, ETH Zurich, 2024. Photo: Nelly Rodriguez

KOOZ Ah. That seems like a hard-earned perspective.

SH Ten years ago I couldn’t say it the way I just said it. Gradually, I understood this as a system of diminishing or undermining the work; by saying that you are biased without even reading your work, they undermine your position. I mean, in the very first sentence of the first book, Architecture of Counterrevolution, I state ‘colonialism is not a positive force’. Here, I am positioning myself already — but not me as a human being, not where I come from, my race, my gender or my age. I am positioning myself intellectually. I am responding to a French law issued in 2005, which obliges French schools to teach the ‘positive role’ of French colonialism. The French law used the terminology ‘positive role.’ Taking that as a starting point, if you want me to position myself, it is in relation to that law. In the second book, I position myself in relation to the toxification and the contamination of the Sahara. The book is about how this form of colonisation is toxic, contaminating the lives and environments of people now and for the next hundreds of years — as you know, radioactivity is irreversible, it goes on forever. So that's how I position myself: in relation to the colonial project, not in relation to where I come from.

KOOZ Perhaps this is the difference between subjectivity as performance or posture, as others might imply, and situating yourself as you are doing, Yasmin, in terms of defining and discovering your practice.

YAB It is also useful to draw parallels between historical events and those perpetuating themselves in our current realities. Where do I stand in terms of the practitioner or person who holds space within this specific environment and is cognisant of patterns? I think it's important to see parallels and draw solidarity from that. If I identify my posture as privileged, then the next role I take becomes determinant to my practice - am I vocal or complicit?

SH Just to respond to this point again. The thing is that even if you situate yourself the way you decide to situate yourself, other people cannot resist to situate you another way, and another way, and another way. People wherever you go see you differently. So that's why I try to say that it is always about the work; it’s in relation to the text, the book, the exhibition, the songs, the poems — anything that is shared with others — but not in terms of identity, even though you are who you are. Because in my experience, this question of identity might become a particular form of attack and condemnation.


KOOZ Samia, you mentioned earlier the important moment — as a sort of validation — when your thesis won the ETHZ medal. Right now, you are being quite intentional about where and how you present Performing Colonial Toxicity. Maybe you could both your experiences across the various contexts where you present your work.

YAB It's interesting to think about the Biennale College, because Italy had occupied Ethiopia and had left abruptly without reconciliation — particularly in Ethiopia, but also affecting others in Eastern Africa; Somalia, Eritrea, and Libya. I'm conflicted because all of the experiences and the ongoing ripple effect of Venice are and continue to be so valuable. So many beautiful conversations, practices and ways of working came out of people who are from different backgrounds, with diverse ways of thinking. I'm conflicted about feeling validated by such spaces — even more when that recognition comes from the very same institutions that continue to refuse to acknowledge the damage they caused or the lives they destroyed. Are we as practitioners looking for recognition from these spaces? Is it right to seek recognition from these places? And if we are not holding these institutions accountable, what does that say about the way we want to practise?

KOOZ Samia, how do you feel about navigating and perhaps even translating your research for the rather privileged spaces of academia that we sometimes inhabit?

SH My work is about colonial institutions: French institutions, government, and army. I really try to understand how colonial policies influenced not only the lives of people in Africa, but also how these strategies — tested in Africa — were exported to the rest of the world. Military practices and strategies of independence were theorised, collected and written as books in French, translated into English and became a reference to the US for tackling insurgency, for example, but also for Argentina, Chile and other countries. We see those practices in Iraq, Afghanistan and again in Kosovo, in many places where this knowledge has been captured and exported; it has been disseminated.

I'm very much interested in showing and sharing these colonial and imperial narratives in North America and in Western Europe. With the first exhibition, Discreet Violence: Architecture and the French Army in Algeria, I wanted to expose the forms of violence in architecture deployed during the French war in Algeria, for instance the so-called ‘regrouping centres’ — or rather, concentration camps — that the French army created in Algeria. It is clear that people in Algeria knew about them because they lived through them; indeed some people are still living in those camps, unfortunately. For me, it was so important to bring this knowledge, to expose these narratives, histories, stories and memories in the Western world.

"My work is about colonial institutions: French institutions, government, and army. I really try to understand how colonial policies influenced not only the lives of people in Africa, but also how these strategies were exported to the rest of the world."

- Samia Henni

It's similar with the exhibition, Performing Colonial Toxicity, on the French nuclear weapons programme in the Algerian Sahara — but it goes beyond Algeria. Radioactivity doesn't have any borders, as you know; it circulates through the winds of the Sahara, contaminating neighbouring countries and Europe and other parts of the world. A few years ago, there was a law that said that all nuclear states have to decontaminate — they are obliged to clean nuclear sites and really to respect the dignity and life of people living there. I want to call for attention to these human and environmental and spatial disasters. That's why for me, priority number one is that the exhibition travels to as many places as possible, so that people know about it, talk about it, copy it, maybe write about it — any mode that other people can think of to put pressure on French and Algerian governments to clean these spaces.

The book Colonial Toxicity is like a repository of documents. A lot of the institutional documents are top secret, classified. My question as an historian is, what do we do if an institution doesn't allow you to write about certain histories? Do you obey or disobey? If you disobey, then you have to find other ways to gather information, data, evidence, reports and so on. That's what the book is doing: it is gathering as many documents as possible, bringing them together, and now this knowledge can be read and used all over the world. We tried to keep this book as cheap as we could so that it remains accessible, while the exhibition moves around. It’s against secrecy, as there are many things here that we can see: the landscapes, the testimonies of witnesses and survivors both in France and in Algeria — so we can know about it. I’m travelling to different places, really for the purpose of engaging the audience with what they see. For me, these are tools to open the conversation.


KOOZ A very embodied form of situating yourself intellectually. We look forward to seeing the Performing Colonial Toxicity exhibition at The Mosaic Rooms in London and beyond. Thank you both so much, it was a privilege to listen to both of you.

SH Thank you very much, also for being in conversation with us.

YAB Yes, thank you so much for opening up this space.


Samia Henni is a historian of the built, destroyed and imagined environments. She is the author of the multi-award-winning Architecture of Counterrevolution: The French Army in Northern Algeria(gta Verlag 2017/2022, EN; Editions B42, 2019, FR), and Colonial Toxicity: Rehearsing French Radioactive Architecture and Landscape in the Sahara (If I Can’t Dance, Framer Framed, edition fink, 2024), and the editor of Deserts Are Not Empty (Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2022) and War Zones (gta Verlag, 2018). She is also the maker of exhibitions, such as Performing Colonial Toxicity (2023–04), Discreet Violence: Architecture and the French War in Algeria (2017–22), Archives: Secret-Défense? (2021), and Housing Pharmacology (2020). Samia was an invited tutor at the first-ever Biennale College Architettura 2023 at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition, The Laboratory of the Future, at Venice Architecture Biennale. Currently, she is an invited Visiting Professor at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture, ETH Zurich, and the co-chair of ‘Beyond France’ at Columbia University. In the fall of 2024, Samia will join the faculty of McGill University’s Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture in Montreal.

Yasmin Abdu Bushra is an architect and urbanist based in Addis Ababa. Her work seeks to draw attention to aspects of urbanity that remain obscured if global capitalism is the primary reference point. She works to recenter knowledge production on African identities and environments in the imagination, reading, and production of space through a practice that sources inspiration from and oscillates between methods. She was part of the inaugural Biennale College Architectura at La Biennale di Venezia in 2023. Her most recent work on community organisations in Addis Ababa and Nairobi focuses on increasing the visibility of everyday works of repair and care in the urban so as to build a ground for the imagination of an alternative.

Shumi Bose is chief editor at KoozArch. She is an educator, curator and editor in the field of architecture and architectural history. Shumi is a Senior Lecturer in architectural history at Central Saint Martins and also teaches at the Royal College of Art, the Architectural Association and the School of Architecture at Syracuse University in London. She has curated widely, including exhibitions at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Institute of British Architects. In 2020 she founded Holdspace, a digital platform for extracurricular discussions in architectural education, and currently serves as trustee for the Architecture Foundation.

25 Mar 2024
Reading time
20 minutes
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