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Is it possible that by embracing change rather than resisting it, we might produce an African idiom/praxis?

Lesley Lokko

If change can be said to be Africa’s ‘natural’ condition, what role can architecture play in either stabilising or exacerbating it to produce tangible, material, even formal results?

I recently spent 48 hours in Lagos after which I required a week in Accra to recuperate. This isn’t to say that I had an anything-less-than-exhilarating experience in Lagos, but rather to say that I arrived anything-but-prepared. It’s an overwhelming city, on all fronts, no matter how you approach it − chauffeur-driven armed escort or humble airport taxi (I chose the latter). I was only there for 48 hours and you can only form the briefest of opinions − impressions, really − from a stay of that length, but my trip, taking place as it did after the über-fest of African architecture that was UIA Durban 2014, meant that I was unusually primed and alert. But for what exactly? I was there ostensibly to ‘do’ research but the subject of my research − a charismatic ‘prosperity church’ in the heart of the city − declined my request for an interview and suddenly, despite a month’s worth of back-and-forth e-mails, the prospect of my research went up in smoke. No matter. Two young pastors saw an opportunity, as I trudged disconsolately out of the door, and came running after me.

I got the ‘research’ I wanted, they received a small ‘gift’ and everyone was happy. As I drove towards Murtala Muhammed International Airport the following day, face pressed up against the glass, mouth hanging open at the sight of a city that pulses with hustle, a sign on an overtaking taxi caught my eye. ‘All Change!’ Taxis across Africa are moving message boards, often carrying proverbs and phrases intended to provoke thought, laughter, critique … even political satire, regimes permitting. Some are laugh-out-loud funny, others are stop-you-in-your-tracks profound. I fumbled for my camera but it was too late: in a second puff of exhaust fumes, the taxi wove through the traffic and was gone. All Change! was written only for me.

At a pre-UIA Durban workshop, generously hosted by the Goethe Institute, six African architects and a German curatorial team came together to discuss the idea of an exhibition in Munich in 2016, a possible follow-on − not follow-up − to the Afritecture exhibition held at the Pinakothek der Moderne (which I reviewed in AR January 2014). After two fairly intense days of talking/thinking/drinking/brainstorming and arguing, we came up with a working title: All Change! Yes, even the exclamation mark. It’s an apt metaphor for a continent that, like Lagos itself, is in an exhilarating state of flux.

On the short flight to Accra, I kept returning to the question of change, rather like a dull but persistent toothache. If change can be said to be Africa’s ‘natural’ condition − which, living here, I do believe it is − what role can (or should) architecture play in either stabilising change, which seems to be the discipline’s ‘natural’ bent, or exacerbating it to produce tangible, material, even formal results? Is it possible to work with change, productively, creatively? To speed up the processes by which we make/think/draw/design/build architecture to produce otherworldly (otherwhere) results that could only take place here − nowhere else. If flux and fluidity are the dominant paradigms in which African architects (or anyone working here) practise, is it possible that by embracing change rather than resisting it, we might produce a different, more ‘authentic’ result, an African idiom/praxis that is uniquely African precisely because it couldn’t happen anywhere else? The complex question of identity in architecture, so long in the discussion yet no closer to any definition, might just slip its own noose by coming at the issue from a different angle altogether.

At one of the events in Durban, I overheard someone (possibly a student) say, ‘the problem for us African architects is that we’re always seen in Europe’s shadow. That’s how everyone describes us,  as being in the shadows.’ It was the stuff of a taxi windscreen. Yes, Europe casts a long shadow; as does Architecture. I don’t mean to sound trite here, but a sideways step might help. A change of direction; of energy; of intensity and thought. After a day’s recuperation in the lobby of the Golden Tulip Hotel in Accra, I got in another taxi and headed to Makola, the sprawling market in the centre of town.

As soon as I got out of the car I saw a man with brightly coloured fishing nets, cut into lengths to make bathing sponges. He festooned them jauntily on his head, secured the bundle with a clip and strode confidently off with head-dress flowing behind. All Change! A metaphor for life.

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