Today I wrote a response paper summarizing and comparing this article by Filip De Boeck and this powerpoint presentation by Vanessa Watson. I’m not satisfied with what I wrote so I’m going to attempt to hash out my ideas a little better here. So the Watson presentation is intended for her architecture students at the University of Cape Town and in it she runs through the big African planned “future cities” or what she calls “fantasy cities,” showing glamorous designs of them, and then on the next slide shows the “reality” of the actual slums that make up most of the area of these cities. I haven’t been in her actual lecture, but her criticisms seem to be, 1. these cities create islands of wealth that don’t help most of the city’s poor, and 2. the designs of these cities are transplanted from the West via Asia and are not fitted for the realities of African cities. Both points seem fair and accurate, but then the De Boeck piece seeks out the voices of Kinshasa’s urban farmers who are surprisingly attracted to the skyscraper-centric plans, saying “Yes, we’ll be the victims, but still it will be beautiful.” The dream of these new cities can also be alluring and captivating even to the urban poor who will not have access to them…the thought of one day being part of an international megacity frequented by the world’s who’s who evokes pride in one’s hometown and offers hopes that that wealth may find its way throughout the city. These are the similar sentiments to what Wole Soyinka expressed when he said Eko Atlantic is “[r]ising like Aphrodite from the foam of the Atlantic.” Many African urban dwellers desire symbols of beauty and pride to rise from the centers of their cities—buildings that are “so beautiful that it makes one dream.” In this light of these local reactions, current plans for shiny business districts of African cities might rather be looked at as monuments to the potential of the surrounding city, not as unsustainable parasites of corporations. Yet Watson is absolutely right that many of the “monuments” that are being sold by international corporations and architectural firms to African politicians are problematic in that they segregate cities often more than their colonial predecessors did:  De Boeck describes how Belgian colonial planners divided Kinshasa between the white island of wealth—La Ville—and the surrounding ocean of poverty—the black townships—with railroads and army barracks. Now the new wave of planned cities are gated island or 40 km away from the old city, taking the colonialist exclusionary model even further than before. Yet they’re still beautiful and desirable to the urban poor….their allure stimulates dreams for the future….and dreams are what keep everyone going. And also if you were an African doctor or lawyer or business person who might be tempted to leave for opportunities elsewhere where it is safer and stabler to have a family and raise kids (the brain drain), wouldn’t you be more likely to consider staying if you could have a home in Eko Atlantic or Cité du Fleuve? The ways in which the urban poor of Kinshasa have navigated and adapted to their infrastructurally scant neighborhoods (as described by Koolhaas and De Boeck) and the construction of Eko Atlantic and Cité du Fleuve can both be seen as different manifestations of the very human drive to create order and predictability in life. For me this is where the state comes in–as both a creator and moderator of human impetus for stability and security. Here again, the mayor of Lagos, Fashola, seems to be doing a better job at this than his counterparts in much of Africa, including in Kinshasa. Fashola has attracted investment in the glamorous dream of Eko Atlantic but he has also raised tax revenue by not just promising but delivering services, including housing and bus lanes to improve traffic. And the success of Fashola’s incrementalist approach of improving services and infrastructure for neglected, “informal” communities suggests that De Boeck’s prescriptions for slow and achievable planning goals for Kinshasa’s slums are dead on. When rapid changes come to poor neighborhoods, they’re more likely to be uprooted and turned inside out after years of self-organization than to be improved. But the political will has to be there, and the planners, lawyers, business people, and doctors have to be (live) there too….and in subtle but significant ways they will appropriate and alter this “imported” architecture as their own.

Kigali:  “Fantasy and Reality”

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