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Editorial: Building, like birth, is an instinctual act fraught with radical risk and reward

Smara camp editorial

Even in an architect-free zone, beauty is in the detail

I write this, ripe with my third child. Tiny legs pumping, she kicks at the taut membrane that will contain her for only a few weeks more.

Is birth an act of violent optimism or, like an apple tree that fruits extravagantly when threatened, a desperate rebellion in the face of one’s own mortality? As a mammal – genus: human – I could invent rational arguments as to why I’ve chosen to have children, but there are some things that I do because I am. 

And so it is with architecture – much as we might engage in erudite exercises in pre- or post-rationalisation as to the form or plan of a building, much as we might overindulge in the explanation of a masterplan or detail, so many decisions are made for the joy and humanity of striving for the highest achievable result, in the craft and the making itself.

I’m often asked how architects can articulate (read ‘justify’) the value of their services. For me, it lies in their expertise in the midwifery of a project: to deliver the best of what is possible for the future. For some clients, this isn’t of interest – value is a spreadsheet, and profit is in delivering to the lowest requirement – but most share in the pleasure of building a legacy.

For this special issue on Africa, writers and photographers travelled the continent, from Djibouti to Joburg, to report on architecture and identity. What we found are nations undergoing drastic change at breakneck pace, much of it without architects as cities burgeon with expedient, if ugly and shortsighted, China-style developments. The kind of neo-vernacular architecture created by NGOs also persists in the brickwork and roof trusses of breathable clinics and schools.

‘Going forward, architects must not work for people, but with them’

We also found urban acupuncture projects such as Pixley House in Durban, which improve rather than reinvent. In contrast, over the next few years, the work of global stars will create key flagship buildings – Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Thomas Heatherwick and David Adjaye. Taken together, it’s a pivotal moment for architecture in Africa.

At the heart of this magazine is a Notopia edition by Manuel Herz on West African settlements, and how there is little difference in aspiration as expressed in a temporary camp versus a permanent city. From the moment Sahrawi refugees arrived at their new home in the Western Sahara more than 40 years ago, they immediately started setting up schools, shops and recreation spaces.

Herz contrasts these settlements with the top-down approach of present-day UN refugee camps, which provide the minimum to the greatest number of people. Instead, in the self-governed camps, education, trade, home improvement and play do not come second to base needs; they begin on day one, when people come together to make a place. Documented by photographer Iwan Baan, in my favourite image a tyre has been used to form an elegant mud arch above a doorway. Even in an architect-free zone, beauty is in the detail.

What I’ve learned from the camps is just how far the global citizens of Notopia have been emasculated and infantalised, barred from acting on their natural urge to self-organise, trade, improve and build, sometimes under the aegis of aid. Fed up with being sold the mean, they clamour for delight and agency. 

Building, like birth, is an instinctual act fraught with radical risk and reward, passion and power. Going forward, architects must not work for people, but with them. As Herz writes, it is all about ‘providing the maximum possible, to allow a full life from the very beginning’.

Click here to buy the Africa issue