Only with change will Africa – confined by the expectation of being influenced rather than influencing – realise its true architectural potential
It has often been said that the number of times the word ‘Africa’ is heard in a song is in almost inverse proportion to its quality: in other words, ‘Africa’ has become a lazy substitute for any number of ideas from the political to the social, cultural, historical, economic – you name it, ‘Africa’ covers it. In 2005, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina published a controversial essay, How To Write About Africa, which, to this day, remains Granta’s most forwarded article. With its uneasy combination of laugh-out-loud satire and sarcasm, Wainaina offers a number of tips for would-be writers on Africa: ‘always use the word “Africa” or “Darkness” or “Safari” in your title. Subtitles may include the words “Zanzibar”, “Congo”, “Big”, “Sky”, “Shadow”, “Drum”, “Sun” or “Bygone”.
After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them.’ The essay grew out of a ‘long – truly long – rambling e-mail’ he wrote to the magazine’s editor in a ‘fit of anger, maybe even low blood sugar – it runs in the family’. Frustrated by the narrow bandwidth of tropes that define the African literary landscape, he turned each cliché on its own head – and established himself in the process as one of the continent’s sharpest and most critical voices. In many ways (at least for me), Wainaina’s anger is a useful starting point for a longer – and possibly even painful – look at the contemporary African architectural paradigm.
Mr m. toliver highres
Literature, music and architecture aren’t always the easiest of disciplinary bedfellows. The former are mobile, relatively cheap to produce and fairly immediate; architecture is anything but. Labour-intensive, expensive and time consuming to make, [A]rchitecture on the African continent remains in the hands of two somewhat dubious elites: the wealthy or the development brigade. However, lest you think me churlish, let me quickly say that the past couple of years have been good ones for African architects. Kunlé Adeyemi won the Venice Silver Lion, David Adjaye’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has been lauded as an outstanding success, Issa Diabaté is collaborating with IKEA, and Diébédo Francis Kéré is set to become the first African to design the annual Serpentine Pavilion in London.
But this article isn’t about the individual achievements of African architects, per se; it is about the context in which meaningful architecture is created and built. Despite their uneasiness, music and literature do share certain things in common. Churchill’s famous maxim, ‘we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us’, applies equally to language as it does to architecture: we shape the world through the means by which we describe it, both to ourselves and to others. One might also say architecture is a form of language, if not the form of language. As Derrida argues, ‘language can [also] be seen as a prominent architectural concern. Architects approach certain forms, shapes and configurations as the design elements of architecture in the same way as they approach word choice, grammar or sentence structure.’
Infrastructure, dwelling and myth-making aside, both language and architecture are powerful shapers and vessels of culture and cultural identity specifically. This relationship presents a particular dilemma for African architects, most especially for those living and working in Africa (as opposed to building abroad). In no particular order, the four official languages of the African Union are Arabic, English, French and Portuguese, none of which is indigenous to the continent’s 54 countries. The colonial encounter between Europe and Africa left more than blood and style in its wake; it fundamentally altered the way Africans express themselves, both in spoken and written language and in the built environment alike. Aside from the obvious linguistic challenges of speaking and writing in a language other than one’s mother tongue, at a much deeper level the uniquely intimate and intertwined relationship between people and place (which is the life force of cultural production in its broadest sense) has been permanently compromised, even wounded. The implications for African cultural identities are immense. The insistence on ‘official’ language (a public language, one might call it) at the expense of an indigenous or ‘private’ (read: domestic) language has brought about its own peculiar pathology, on which every prominent postcolonial or critical theorist from Fanon to Foucault has written.
For the most part, contemporary Africans live in an uneasy truce between tradition and modernity, suspended somewhere between aspiration and alienation, which I would argue, is the nature of the vast majority of cultural production across Africa at present. Of course this is not unique to Africa. All artists (in the widest sense of the word) must struggle through what the poet Pablo Neruda called the ‘labyrinths of his/her chosen medium of expression that is an essential condition of being’. But there can be few parallels in history where the fundamental balance between people and place has been altered as intensely or violently as it has on the African continent. Sartre summed it up well: ‘The exploited experience exploitation as their reality’. For the African artist, confronting his or her reality in order to move beyond it is key.
The words ‘to move beyond it’ imply expansiveness, even generosity – qualities that are fundamental to creativity and design. For those who have been following news from the Global South over the past 12 months or so, there’s been precious little expansiveness or generosity; instead, a potent combination of rage, bitterness and denial has fuelled a conflict that started off with the removal of a statue and ended up on the streets of Johannesburg in a blaze of rubber bullets, protesting students and burning cars. It is too early to be able to categorically state exactly what the consequences and long-term ramifications of the student protests of 2015 and 2016 in South Africa will be. The country is still coming to terms with the immediate aftermath, never mind the direction the future may – or may not – take. And this isn’t to imply by any means that what happens in South Africa is applicable, or even of interest, to the rest of the continent. South Africa currently has one of the highest number of architecture schools on the continent and holds the record for the largest number of practices; its potential influence on the rest of Africa is therefore greater than anywhere else, even if historically it has overlooked its neighbours to the north in search of European or American inspiration and validation.
Finally in South Africa, if belatedly, the terms ‘decolonisation’ and ‘transformation’, with which the rest of the continent has lived since the 1960s, are everywhere and, even if few of us know what they mean, we certainly know what they sound like. Perhaps this is how change really occurs? A statue fell; fees did not. The academic project did not collapse. But the edifices, both literal and metaphorical, of knowledge production have changed and the entire landscape of African tertiary education felt the blows. ‘If it goes here, it’s over’ – a succinct, oft-repeated and ill-understood phrase that was repeatedly trotted out in the weeks and months that followed the first campus shutdowns. Meaning? South Africa is the continent’s last great hope: the Maghreb aside, its universities are the only ones to feature anywhere on the list of world-class institutions. If they fail or fall, there’s nothing left. It’s not quite true or the whole and complete picture, of course, but it is true to say that the infrastructural capacity of South African universities far outstrips that of most other African countries, and that the potential (that word again) they hold in terms of driving an exciting, new and relevant African pedagogy forward, is enormous.
And therein lies the rub.
What is a relevant African pedagogy? In terms of architecture, what do we consider relevant? Appropriate? African? For a discipline that has had such an uneasy and ambiguous relationship on the continent with the politics of race and space, there is no clear answer. ‘Development’ is our paradigm, ‘poverty’ is our context and ‘progress’ is our aim. An article in Time magazine, dated 4 March 1957, two days before independence in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), is revealing: ‘Architect Harry Weese was in trouble. He had just arrived in Accra, the palm-fringed capital of West Africa’s Gold Coast, and what had seemed like a minor problem back in his Chicago office suddenly began growing like a tropical weed.
Young, function-minded architect Weese had been commissioned by the State Department on a low budget of $300,000, to design an embassy and staff residences in hot, humid Accra with the stipulation that his design must harmonise with the indigenous architectural tradition. But apart from thatch or corrugated iron and mud, he found that there was no indigenous architecture, let alone any tradition, to harmonise with. About the only buildings that could qualify as architecture were some modern boxy structures put up by Europeans. But they were Mediterranean in style, not equatorial. Telling himself that, “If there is no native architectural tradition, you have to start one,” he set about solving his problem. Stone-and-steel man Weese went native.’
In the 1950s and ’60s, as the winds of change swept across Africa and Asia signalling the end of Empire, the Modern Movement’s preoccupation with the social forces surrounding architecture – specifically ‘progress’ and ‘development’ – dovetailed neatly with the emerging discourses of independence. In more ways than one, the bond between those terms has endured. In 1994, 23 years ago, South Africa similarly ‘won’ its freedom, though with considerably more bloodshed and pain than anywhere else, and it too joined the ranks of the ‘developing’ world. Formerly spatially, economically and racially segregated into first and third ‘worlds’, it has now taken on a schizophrenic ‘both/and’ identity that is almost as debilitating as its historical ‘either/or’ (black or white). Now it is possible to be both ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ in the same breath, same city … same street. This is not simply a question of style (informal settlements sitting cheek by jowl with skyscrapers), it is also a question of materiality, form, construction and sometimes engineering.
The ingenuity with which contemporary architecture is fashioned is often described as ‘makeshift’, ‘making do’ or ‘adaptable’ but, as a former student of mine put it so eloquently, ‘sometimes it’s about finding local ways of doing Western things’ that brings about its own vocabulary: bamboo scaffolding left in place; corrugated tin sheeting in lieu of steel; adobe in exchange for concrete. To be absolutely fair to the hundreds of foreign-aid projects often undertaken by northern hemisphere architecture students, this intentional blend of global/local is often highly sophisticated, aesthetically ambitious and materially robust, and is in itself en route to becoming a bona fide African ‘take’ in itself. Some 95 per cent of Africa’s published architectural output falls into this category, partly as a result of the poor publishing infrastructure within Africa, but since African architecture students and practitioners avidly consume these images and articles alongside their Western counterparts, it risks becoming the continent’s official architectural ‘language’, eerily similar to the continent’s official spoken (and written) languages of English, French and Portuguese: someone else’s ‘tongue’.
At the other end of the scale – predominantly in South Africa – a new breed of project emerges: cutting-edge, contemporary, hybrid. Heatherwick’s new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town or London-based Steyn Studio’s Chapel at Bosjes in Witzenberg municipality have garnered both local and international acclaim, but both projects – impressive as they are in their own right – take context and landscape, not culture, as their starting points. In the rich cauldron of African histories, experiences, climates and cultures, we cut and paste our way to a contemporary idiom, rather than the careful, slower and more self-reflective act of translation, which might produce an unexpected and hitherto unknown architectural result. Instead of the Tuscan-style gated communities, bland, shiny high-rise towers and sprawling, rusted shanty towns that dominate the landscape, is there the potential for a new vocabulary that could be simultaneously traditional and modern? African and Western (or Eastern, Southern)? ‘Native’ and ‘other’, both ‘here’ and ‘there’ in the same space, form and material? It’s a daunting challenge but equally also an exhilarating one, full of ambition, enormous possibilities and creative opportunity. Yes, there will be false starts and accidents, U-turns and disasters, bad attempts at translation and pastiche. But there is always the tantalising possibility of a genuinely new language emerging, such as we’ve never seen before. It’s a confusing time and nowhere is this confusion felt more keenly than in the academy.
To return to the point made earlier in this essay, education – particularly in South Africa – is emerging as the key battlefront in the quest to decolonise, transform, self-identify. South Africans are being challenged to collectively decide how they wish to describe themselves and others: if not African, then what?
‘The paradigm of development-aid-charity is only one facet of Africa’s potential architectural output, albeit one that has come to dominate to the exclusion of almost everything else’
The conundrum is not dissimilar to that faced by African architects at large: if not ‘developing’, then what? The four pre-eminent African architects mentioned earlier either trained or work abroad. Of the 42 African entries submitted to the 2016 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, only four were commissioned or executed by Africans themselves. The vast majority (98 per cent) were undertaken by foreign aid organisations, NGOs, ‘development’ professionals – in other words, relying on external patronage for design expertise, technical knowhow, funding and, most debilitating of all, imagination. This isn’t to say the projects aren’t worthy or deserving of attention, per se, but rather that the paradigm of development-aid-charity is only one facet of Africa’s potential architectural output, albeit one that has come to dominate to the exclusion of almost everything else.
The United Nations’ description of ‘development’ is both wonderfully clear and confusingly ambiguous. There are six basic pillars of human development: equity, sustainability, productivity, empowerment, cooperation and security. Equity is the idea of fairness for every person, between men and women; we each have the right to an education and healthcare. Sustainability is the view that we all have the right to earn a living that can sustain our lives and have access to a more even distribution of goods. Productivity states the full participation of people in the process of income generation; this also means that the government needs more efficient social programmes for its people. Empowerment is the freedom of the people to influence development and decisions that affect their lives. Cooperation stipulates participation and belonging to communities and groups as a means of mutual enrichment and a source of social meaning. Security offers people development opportunities freely and safely with confidence that they will not disappear suddenly in the future.
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These six basic pillars were undoubtedly arrived at after years – if not decades – of sustained discussion and intelligent debate. But they say little about, or to, architects regarding how to translate the profound and complex multiple belief systems, diverse cultural practices, wide-ranging climatic conditions and divergent political, social and economic contexts that make up modern-day Africa. Is it perhaps easier to fall back on the overarching paradigm of ‘development’, which implies an ongoing, continuously deferred process than it is to attempt a definition that, by its own definition, will fall on its sword?
By treating Africa as a world apart, separate from the movements, trends, shifts and forces that shape architectural culture everywhere else and yet able, simultaneously through advances in information technology over the past two decades, to see and experience (albeit remotely) those same forces in real time, we remain trapped in our own developmental bubble, perpetual children peering through the looking glass at the ‘adult’ world.
Correction: The print version of this article in the Africa issue wrongly credited the Silo Hotel as being by Heatherwick Studio. Heatherwick Studio did not design the hotel, which is a tenant of the building.