The Past Is a Foreign Country

‘There are maps now whose portraits have nothing to do with surface.’ — Michael Ondaatje

This is an essay in three parts, each concentrating on some aspect of the complex relationship between ‘home’ and ‘away’, between ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ and between ‘origin’ and ‘destination’. It focuses on one aspect of African mobilities – migration – and attempts to situate it within a much broader and longer history of the movement of peoples in general. Parts I and II are meandering and discursive, drawing on the work of scholars in the fields of linguistics, geography, biology and literature. Both attempt to look beyond and between the often lazy and clichéd descriptions of migrants as well as migration. Part III is visual and speculative, drawing on the work of two studios (Units) at the Graduate School of Architecture (GSA), University of Johannesburg, at projects that have attempted the difficult and knotty task of translation into form. Aissata Balde, a Guinean-born graduate of the GSA, was the trophy winner in the Speculative Category of the 2017 Africa Architecture Awards. Her project included in this essay, The Territory In-Between, draws directly from her own experiences of migration and displacement and show, however tentatively, that it is indeed possible to think (and make) in a manner that does not flatten the complexities of contemporary discourses on migration, but rather constructs new spatial material and temporal possibilities. All the drawings and illustrations are both suggestive and illustrative, meaning that the relationship between image and text may not always be direct, much less literal. Particular attention is given to the relationship between image and text in order to make a deeper point about looking beneath ‘the surface of things’. One issue stands out throughout: the answers (such as they are) are often to be found in the ‘how’, and not in the ‘what.’ After thirty years spent working with, through and around issues of race, identity and diaspora and their impact, if any, on architecture, Italian architect and urbanist Stefano Boeri’s notion of an ‘oblique’ gaze, ‘looking at space while it is changing’,[1] intuitively informed my work as a teacher and designer long before I was conscious of it. In the Eclectic Atlases: Four Possible Ways of Seeing the City, first published in 1998, Boeri describes four ‘gazes’, ways of seeing urban phenomena that are ‘normally hidden by our maps’.[2] Writing nearly twenty years ago, he describes being ‘in the middle of a transitional period in the disciplines of architecture and urbanism. Most of these symptoms are linguistic, weaknesses in our architectural vocabulary faced with the complexity of contemporary urban spaces.’ Of the four gazes – detective, oblique, sampling and mobile – it is the oblique gaze that offers the most to thinkers and practitioners looking at phenomena historically located outside or peripheral to mainstream architectural discourse (issues of migration, race, identity and gender, for example), a framework that is both creative and controlled. The oblique gaze moves between space and society, observing and analysing the ever-changing shape and form of physical territories. Boeri speaks of European cities and urban spaces, of course, but his attempt to ‘merge the codified angle of axonometry with a poetically arbitrary perspective’[3] encourages a visual approach which allows a far more nuanced and powerful spatial language to emerge. Since everything begins with language – visual, spoken, written – the possibilities that a new language can offer marginal discourses are endless as well as immense. The Eclectic Atlases, ‘multidimensional, spurious and experimental’,[4] ‘attack laterally […] because they believe in the existence of profound connections between the forms of vision and the forms of things seen’. The relationship between how one sees and what one sees is primal, primordial.

Fig. 1. Members of the Libyan ‘Misurata Task Force’ out on patrol, looking for African migrants in Ubari, Libya, one of the main smuggling routes north to Europe. © Photo: Mark Micallef


The artist Yohann Quëland de Saint-Pern lives and works in La Réunion, where he was born in 1980. His work is simultaneously dreamily poetic and gut-wrenchingly political, often involving large-scale video performances or installations which question authority, irrespective of context, location or locale. Two recent works, video pieces Désert # 1 and Urban Scénos both reinvoke and reinforce this primordial relationship. The first is a short video of himself walking through an unnamed desert, bringing to mind the image of the Misurata Task Force (fig. 1). In the video, Quëland de Saint-Pern is walking with a camera strapped to his forearm, recording the desert unfolding in front of him. Cleverly, however, a mirror is affixed to the camera, allowing him to simultaneously capture where he has just been, collapsing future (what’s in front of him) with the past (what’s behind). Nifty. Profound. How you see something frames what you see. I’ll return to this point more forcefully in Part III with Aissata Balde’s work, and that of Units 11 and 12 in general, but for now … a return to the beginning, to ‘time’ and ‘place’.

Part I: Space + Time = Place

‘Yet maps, like any other representation of events or things, are just that: representations. Not reality, merely facsimiles, stitched together with garnered evidence and made whole by our trust in them. For representations can manipulate and distort; lie, disguise, skimp on detail, slant the evidence. Lead us astray. And if one map is suspect, surely all are?’ — James Bradley

Fig. 2. Dicotyledoneae Asteraceae, plant root system. © Open Source


The overall title of this essay is taken from L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go-Between, whose opening sentence, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’, has become almost proverbial. The novel is about many things: memory, astrology, class, risk, scandal, betrayal, love and loss. Although The Go-Between was written over sixty years ago, its particular conflation of place, time and attitude is both topical and prescient. (To wit: Brexiteer to Remainer: ‘Europe is a different country; they do things differently there.’) Indeed, the last thirty years have been so dominated by the question of belonging – Where do I belong? – that migration itself seems less a physical description of movement from one place to another than a state of mind, of being – metaphysical in the truest sense of the word.

Geography was once the discipline most closely associated with place, certainly in the sense of territory or location, and architecture perhaps most closely aligned to the shaping of place, which, in turn, gave it [place] form, meaning and identity. But, as Neil Smith and Cindi Katz noted: ‘The [current] breadth of interest in space is matched by the breadth of spatial metaphors newly in vogue. In social theory and literary criticism, spatial metaphors have become a predominant means by which social life is understood. “Theoretical spaces” have been “explored”, “mapped”, “charted” […] “de-colonized” and everyone seems to be “traveling.”’[5] A Google search for the word ‘refugee’ reveals 115 million hits, ‘migration’ 68 million and ‘nationality’ 30.4 million. Perhaps more tellingly, ‘illegal immigrant’ scores only half as many hits – 5.2 million – as ‘African migrant’, weighing in at 10.8 million. Clearly, African migrants are on some people’s minds.

But the history of mankind is the history of migration at its most fundamental level. It began with the movement of Homo erectus out of Arica some 1.75 million years ago and we’ve been ‘on the move’ pretty much ever since. Homo sapiens, our earliest direct ancestors, appear to have occupied all of Africa (and moving considerable distances within Africa, not coincidentally) roughly 150,000 years ago, moving out of Africa (again) anywhere between 70,000 and 125,000 years ago across Asia, Australasia, Europe and, more latterly, the Americas. So movement – geographical, biological, linguistic – is in our blood, quite literally. Although it has been criticised,[6] the mini-documentary Momondo: The DNA Journey – produced by the Danish travel search engine company Momondo in 2016 (see a clip from the documentary here) – provides a moving (I defy anyone to remain dry-eyed), if stylistic, interpretation and account of human migration.

Fig. 3. Still from the film Momondo: the DNA Journey. © The North Alliance


There are multiple disciplines whose business it is to trace the tangled roots/routes of human migration. Molecular and evolutionary biology (amongst others) offer the comfort of scientific enquiry[7] but I’m drawn to others, such as literature and art, particularly in their working methodologies, as creative models for architecture. Toni Morrison, the African American Nobel laureate whose work has fundamentally and irrevocably changed the field of American literature, is perhaps the best example of a writer who fuses origin and memory so closely together that it is impossible to distinguish between past, present and place. Song of Solomon (1977), often cited as Morrison’s most permanent achievement, puts forth a complex, intertwined narrative in which Native American history, African American culture, Islamic imagery, Greek mythology and Judaeo-Christian symbolism are woven, ‘giving life to an essential aspect of American reality.’[8] At the time of the Nobel award, Morrison had written six novels. She has since written seven more, together with numerous essays, works of non-fiction and plays and, in addition to the Nobel Prize, has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a National Humanities Medal. ‘She delves into language itself […] to liberate it from the fetters of race.’[9] In other words, a literary giant, and a powerful model for any discipline wishing to do the same.

Yet language, too, has its ‘sides’. Linguistics – the ‘scientific’ study of language – is another of those disciplines with just as many entangled and conjoined roots: in disciplinary parlance, one easily finds cognitive, evolutionary, comparative, forensic, diachronic and even computational linguistics, all branches of the same field of study that seeks to analyse language form, meaning and context. Of particular interest to me is evolutionary linguistics, a subfield of psycholinguistics, which looks at the psychosocial and cultural factors involved in the origins of language. Its main challenge is the lack of empirical data: spoken languages leave practically no traces. Of the approximately 2,000 languages spoken on the continent, only Amharic has an indigenous alphabet (writing system) in contemporary usage. Latin and Arabic dominate the rest. What does this mean for largely oral cultures, such as the majority of African languages? Are we to vanish without trace?

Part II: Erratic Citizens

‘Talk of citizenship today is often thin and tinny. The word has a faintly old-fashioned feel to it when used in everyday conversation. When evoked in national politics, it’s usually accompanied by the shrill whine of a descending culture-war mortar.’ — Eric Liu

Fig. 4. Drawing of the New Port Authority, Stone Town, Zanzibar. © Joana Valgôde Ferro, Unit 3, GSA


Few words evoke quite the same excitement for architects as those that contain some reference or other to cartography. ‘Mapping’, ‘tracing’, ‘charting’, ‘plotting’, ‘surveying’ […] that heady combination of precision, imagination and power speaks directly to the architect’s near-mythical ability to project representation onto reality (or, more accurately, the other way round). Geometry, often referred to as the oldest science,[10] is a branch of mathematics concerned principally with questions of size, shape, relative positions of figures and the properties of space – coincidentally tasks that are not dissimilar to architecture. Geometry arose independently in a number of early cultures, from Mesopotamia and the medieval Islamic ‘world’ to India and China, as a way to understand length, area and volume, and in the West, it has been most heavily influenced by Euclid, whose mathematical treatise Elements set a standard that would be followed over the next millennium. Euclid’s geometry is idealised, of course, an abstract world where space is neither real nor curved, as Einstein later proved. Euclid’s rules are most poignantly tested in the shift from two dimensions to three, and probably nowhere more tellingly than in maps. In a two-dimensional representation, there will be only one shortest distance, and therefore only one line. On the globe’s surface, where things are curved, multidirectional and unpredictable, straight lines do not exist; rather, there are infinite numbers of lines between two points, all of which are the shortest distance. Maps, which attempt to chart the earth’s surface, cannot accommodate an infinite number of lines and therefore distort the ‘facts’ to suit their purposes. Like linguistics, cartography is a territory of subfields, themes, technologies, processes and imperial cul-de-sacs. Some of the most influential names in cartography – with the exception of Mercator and Petersen, perhaps –mean little to us today: Miller Cylindrical; Van der Grinten; Plate Carée; Gall Stereographic; Winkel Tripel; Azimuthal Equidistant and Sinusoidal are all descriptions of attempts to transform the latitudes and longitudes of locations from surface to sphere. Ask Mercator. Cartography is less an attempt to represent facts as accurately as possible than it is an endeavour to distort the least.

Fig. 5. A transverse Mercator projection, ‘one of the most complex projections ever devised’; part of the Space Oblique Mercator (SOM) projection. As shown at a Landsat course lecture given by Jeff Dozier of the University of California, Santa Barbara. © John Parr Snyder


Descartes is often described as the bridge between algebra and geometry, two distinct branches of mathematics concerned with space. As ever, etymology uncovers what we no longer hear or see. The word ‘algebra’ comes to us from the Arabic al-jabr, meaning ‘the reunion of broken parts.’ It, too, is almost prescient. Although centuries apart, Lefebvre’s investigations of Descartes, which preceded The Production of Space (Lefebvre, 1974), clearly distinguish between space as thought and space as an experience. ‘[He] fluctuates between two contradictory positions: the reduction of geometric space to thought and the “realisation” of space outside all thought.’[11] The line(s) between Euclid, Descartes, Lefebvre and Boeri are not hard to see. Just as non-Euclidean geometries describe spaces that lie beyond the normal grasp of human experience, so, too, have new forms of space evolved that are ‘hidden from our maps’.

One such space, I would argue, is the ‘new’ space of citizenship, formed over the past thirty years both as a direct consequence of advances in communication – travel, telecommunications, information – and of the break-up in a number of post-World War II certainties – the Cold War, 9/11, the Arab Spring and so on. The origins of the word ‘citizen’ lie, not surprisingly, in the city itself; from the Latin civitas to Middle English denizen to contemporary citizen, meaning less an inhabitant of a city than of a country or state, native or naturalised. Boeri’s description of ‘erratic citizens of new urban dimensions’ speaks very clearly to the new relationships formed as a result of the mass migrations of the past thirty to fifty years, not only, or simply, linear movements from Africa to Europe, but transverse migrations, from Europe to Europe; from its edges to its centres; from one Mediterranean coast to another; from the southern fringe of the Sahel to its northern borders; from Kurdistan (Erbil) to Kurdistan (Kirkuk) to Kurdistan (Slemani), each within a different nation state.

Fig. 6. With their fine leaves, plants are difficult to 3D scan with accuracy. An additional rig of cameras has been created to aid in the photogrammetry process.[12] The large round table is computer-controlled, allowing a different plant to automatically be brought into the scanning area every five minutes. © Prof Lynn Cazabon, Department of Visual Arts, University of Maryland, Baltimore

Like an infinite number of lines, points and planes, modern migration occurs everywhere, in every dimension, all the time. Migration has become its own topography, a photogram in which ‘landscapes are not just physical sites but sit within our cultural imagination, as projections of our choices, icons of our actions’.[13] Part of Diploma Unit 6 at the Architectural Association, run by architects Liam Young and Kate Davies, Unknown Fields is ‘a nomadic design studio that ventures out on annual expeditions to the ends of the earth’. Unit 6 student Yufei Li’s Atlas of Vanishing Landscapes ‘reconstructs a fragile nature by translating the live city data-scape into a set of digital apparitions. In this artificial geography, we drift along the dashed routes and contour lines, on an ever-changing map of a data-driven landscape. The digitised terrain is presented as an instrument, appearing and vanishing in response to our daily consumptions. When real places are no longer reachable and maps fade to blank, the digital ghosts of these remote landscapes exist in the city as placeholders for their vanished physical counterparts.’

Fig. 7. Drawing of A Vanishing Glacier, from AA Diploma Unit 6 (2015). © Yufei Li, Department of Ghost Cartographies


Part III: Furious Rhythm

‘The two elements the traveller first captures in the big city are extrahuman architecture and furious rhythm. Geometry and anguish.’ — Federico Garcia Lorca

‘In Europe, people read nothing but bad news about Africa. In the same way, the young in Senegal grow up believing Europe to be some golden land. We are taught the language and shown pictures of happy people, grand buildings and monuments, lives of comfort. Then I came here. I learned that there is so much stress. What I saw in Spain is that few people have real freedom. In Africa, it’s true that people die from violence and disease. Here, it’s stress and suicide. Both places paint an inaccurate picture of the other.’[14]

Mamadou Dia is the founder of Hahatay, a Senegalese NGO dedicated to stimulating the development of his home town, Gandiol, a seaside village on Senegal’s border with Mauritania. Dia is a ‘former migrant’ (as though it were a profession or an occupation, like ‘former gang member’ or ‘former CEO’) and the author of 3052: Pursuing a Dream, a best-seller in Spain. He visits Spain regularly to raise awareness of what drives people to risk everything to come to Europe. At home in Senegal, he works to counter myths about the migration from Africa to Europe. Hahatay has the obligatory community centre, designed by Spanish architect Nerea Pérez-Arróspide, who tragically passed away in a motorcycle accident in Senegal, ‘where she was living out her passion for improving lives through design’.[15] Design and humanitarian merits aside, the Sunu Xarit Aminata Cultural Centre in Gandiol has depressingly familiar goals: ‘a participatory process, where the community works side by side with the NGO at all levels [and] is stimulated to take over the Centre […] a process [designed] to convert the Centre into a community-led initiative and an instrument to achieve Gandiol’s self-development.’ Oh, those terms. In the sprawling, networked manner in which research is often produced nowadays, I came across both Dia and the Centre via the website of AiD, an Amsterdam-based ‘collective project that invites the world to research collaboratively the cultural, social, economic and various contexts behind the architecture projects’.[16] ‘Development’, that catch-all term behind the majority of such projects and organisations, isn’t mentioned at all. The Sunu Xarit Aminata Cultural Centre is one version of an architectural expression rooted in migration; The Territory In-Between is another.

Aissata Balde’s Major Design Project description states: ‘This project explores the interplay between physical and imagined spaces in ways that allow us to rethink our understandings of state, boundary and space. Migrants’ journeys are commonly portrayed as a linear progression from home to host nation. In reality, their movements are full of interruptions, discontinuities, periods of waiting, displacement, limbo and escape. Through drawings, I probe these fluid notions of territory, exploring the in-between spaces that contradict the two conventional underpinnings of territory: “site” and “state”. Whilst “state” often refers to an organised political community under one government, it also denotes one’s condition at any given time. My architecture considers the relationship between the formation, contestation and contradictions of territories, the production and maintenance of edges and borders. It is a pit stop, a way station for migrants on their journey from home to destination unknown. It questions laws of entry and exit; it manipulates the rules of a conventional harbour or airport, traditional sites of arrival and departure. It includes a crematorium, a bathhouse, a fish farm and a desalination buoy. Only the smoke from the crematorium is visible from the mainland of Cape Verde, itself the physical site of diaspora.’

Fig. 8. Hand-drawn tracings of surveillance maps, coast of Praia, Cape Verde. © Aissata Balde, The Territory In-Between
Fig. 9. In the protected harbour at Praia, Cape Verde: the city seen from the sea. © Darren Sampson


Aissata’s inclination to blur the traditional boundaries between hand and machine (evident in her hand-drawn tracings of computer-aided maps); between drawing and model (evident in her bas-relief drawings); between sea and land (the floating buoys); and between ‘site’ and ‘sight’ (smoke, death, ritual, crematorium) point to a remarkable ability to embody her own position – that of the in-between, the hybrid, the migrant – in all aspects of her architectural production: representation, form, programme, site, user – in other words, the building blocks of any architectural project, any where. The site is less the physical terrain on which the building sits than it is the conceptual terrain of her imagination and experience, both (here, once again) conjoined, intertwined, blurred.

Fig. 10. The Territory In-Between seen from the coast at night. © Aissata Balde


To return to Boeri momentarily, the primordial relationship between ‘how’ and ‘what’ is joined by a third aspect – the consequence of interrogating both the manner and subject of one’s gaze. The term ‘design’ (disegno, in Italian, ‘of the sign’) implies not just a literal drawing or line, but equally the bringing forth of an idea from the depths of the mind’s eye out into the world. As Oscar Niemeyer once remarked: ‘It was the drawing that led me to architecture.’ Aissata takes it a step further, a step beyond. It is the experience (of migration) that leads her to drawing, and from thence to space, form, sound, site. In her work are the beginnings – tentative, testing, tasting – of a language of migration in which possibility, not its absence, is the dominant theme.


1. S. Boeri, Multiplicity, ‘Eclectic Atlases’, in USE: Uncertain States of Europe, Milan: Skira (2003). Also available at: [accessed 30 December 2017].

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Neil Smith and Cindi Katz, ‘Grounding Metaphor – Towards a Spatialised Politics’, in Michael Keith and Steve Pile (eds.), Place and the Politics of Identity, London/New York: Routledge, 1993, p. 68.

6. [accessed 30 December 2017].

7. See M.E. Weale, D.A. Weiss, R.F. Jager, N. Bradman and M.G. Thomas, ‘Y Chromosome Evidence for Anglo-Saxon Mass Migration’, in Molecular Biology and Evolution, vol. 19, no. 7 (2002): 1008–21. [accessed 30 December 2017].

8. ‘The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993 – Press Release’. Nobel Media AB 2014; [accessed 30 December 2017]

9. Ibid. [accessed 30 December 2017].

10. From the Ancient Greek: γεωμετρία; geo- ‘earth’, -metron ‘measurement’.

11. Stuart Elden, Understanding Henri Lefebvre, London: Continuum, 2004, p. 187

12. Photogrammetry is the science of making measurements from photographs, especially regarding the exact positions of surface points. Stereo-photogrammetry, a branch of photogrammetry, involves estimating the three-dimensional coordinates of points by employing measurements made in two or more photographs taken from different positions. In the first Gulf War, the technology was used to produce digital terrain models, allowing pilots to navigate terrain digitally from a cockpit prior to flying into unknown zones.

13. [accessed 31 December 2017].

14. [accessed 31 December 2017].

15. [accessed 31 December 2017].

16. [accessed 31 December 2017].