Lesley Lokko, an architect, academic, and best-selling novelist, has been named the dean of the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at The City College of New York, in Manhattan.
She will leave the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, which she established in 2015 at the South African institution.
Born in Scotland, Lokko grew up in Ghana. She received her first architecture degree at London’s Bartlett School of Architecture and earned her doctorate in architecture from the University of London in 2007. She began her architectural practice in Ghana. “We had lots of travel and movement even as children,” Lokko said, when reached in Johannesburg. “When you start to understand the world at a young age, you see a picture bigger than what’s right in front of you.”
Lokko is also a novelist with 11 books that have been bestsellers in the UK. “I took up fiction about 20 years ago. I wanted to engage race, identity, and culture that were very difficult to talk about in architecture at that time.”
She says she was drawn to the Spitzer School by the chance to bring those concerns to students of a public university of unusual diversity. “They reminded me of many South African students: hungry, quite curious, many juggling jobs to stay in school.”
“Lesley has a deep intellectual acuity, a sensitivity to pressing current matters of equity, representation, and what these mean for conversations around architecture,” said June Williamson, a Spitzer School Associate Professor and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia, who has just been elected chair of the department. “Yet she’s warm and generous in the way she engages these questions.”
New leadership cannot come too soon for a school plagued by leadership gaps and budget cuts. The last dean went on leave in 2015 and later retired after a sexual harassment complaint was filed against him, as well as the college for allegedly ignoring the complaint. The dean denied the charges, and the case was dismissed. The college paid the accuser $80,000.
Then the department’s budgets were cut amid the distraction of an investigation of financial misappropriation by City College’s then-president Lisa S. Coico. She stepped down in 2016. A new president, Vincent G. Boudreau, was not appointed for more than a year.
Given the need to energize the school, faculty and staff were impressed by how successfully Lokko had increased the size and stature of the University of Johannesburg, expanding it from 11 students to more than 100. It’s now Africa’s largest dedicated postgraduate school of architecture. “She built the architecture school from nothing,” said Williamson.
Lokko joins the ranks of several other women assuming new positions of leadership within architectural education. This August, Harriet Harriss will step in as dean of the school of at the Pratt Institute, coming to Brooklyn by way of the Royal College of Art in London’s post-graduate research program in architecture and interior design. And in less than a month, former Rice Architecture dean Sarah Whiting will become dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
The Spitzer School’s new dean will begin her tenure this December.
Editor's Note: This story was updated on June 14.