Archives for posts with tag: Architecture

What might be Lagos’s most internationally recognizable building project since the 1980s isn’t a skyscraper or a suspension bridge — it’s a one-room schoolhouse. The now well-known A-frame bobs in the murky surf of Makoko, one of Lagos’s largest slums, providing a learning space for a community of 100,000+ people not officially recognized by the city government. Designed by Nigeria’s rising star Kunlé Adeyemi, the project made waves in the architectural world last year for its simplicity, adaptability, and humanity. I first read (and blogged) about the project last fall and was struck by the auroral beauty of the blue-roofed building set against the cooking smoke and plain timber structures of Makoko where new homes are often constructed on a soggy foundation of raw sewage (see episode 2 of the BBC’s documentary Welcome to Lagos). Here was a project that had actually succeeded in that often sought but rarely realized gauntlet of creating low-cost, high-design buildings from recycled material to benefit poor communities. Write-ups poured in from the New York Times, The Guardian, and many others, and Makoko Floating School splashed across my newsfeed for several weeks.

Last summer when I was in Lagos for the first time, I saw the school from the Third Mainland Bridge moments before glimpsing the city’s skyline and I have to admit that the school stole the spotlight. The Third Mainland Bridge is the longest bridge in Africa, meandering from Ebute Meta to Lagos Island, and, about halfway along, it provides the perfect balcony to view Akeyemi’s school (where I took the photo below). Akeyemi certainly knew how to make the most of a small-scale project that other architects might have scoffed at. For making a name for himself Akeyemi had good training — he worked at Koolhaas’s firm OMA for nearly a decade before founding his own firm NLÉ in 2010. His relationship with Koolhaas adds a fascinating dimension to Adeyemi’s project since Koolhaas’s Harvard Project on the City produced some of the most provocative writing on Lagos to date. Koolhaas challenged outside observers to see Lagos as being at the “forefront of globalizing modernity” — a dynamic urban space that had outgrown Western notions of the city and carrying capacity to become a “self-organizing” entity that completely disorientated visitors but somehow “worked.” Within this paradigm, it’s not surprising that Adeyemi saw that the future was in Lagos and returned to set-up shop. But of course his move and the civically-concerned design he’s been involved in since being back puts a twist on Koolhaas’s “self-organizing” thesis.

Away from the stratosphere of starchitects, the school itself has become the pride of Makoko, a place for a handful of youths to get an education long denied to the unincorporated fishing community. Every day local children park their hollowed out wooden canoes around the floating school and gather on its open-air decks for class, and in the evenings the buoyant building becomes a community center for local leaders. The project is only the prototype of a much larger masterplan that Adeyemi envisions for Makoko, and if funding comes through all of the neighborhood’s stilt-supported shacks will one day be replaced by floating A-frames. When that happens, it may just be a sight to rival Eko Atlantic — the megaproject of office buildings developing on the other side of the city and architectural spectrum.

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(Mark Duerksen 2014)

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In 2009 David Adjaye and Philip Freelon’s plans for an inverted and stacked trapezoidal building encased in bronze screens won the design competition for the construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). When the building opens in late 2015, it will have been 100 years since African American Civil War veterans first proposed a DC memorial honoring various African American achievements. This centennial timeline illustrates how long the struggle has dragged on to construct a monument to African American history, it also reminds us just how recently millions of Africans were enslaved in America by the fact that men who actually fought to end slavery were connected to this ongoing project. The building itself mines the more distant connection of the African origin of American slaves for its defining tripartite trapezoids, which evoke Yoruba carved wood columns–specifically the crowns at the top of the columns (not a king’s “crown” as many articles mistakenly assume)–found on traditional buildings in southwest Nigeria. The reference to Yoruba pillars subtly suggests the prominence of African American scientists, artists, and politicians in the creation of America, and also–to use the museum’s term–“the darker corners” of the reality that America was built on the backs of enslaved Africans. Revisions to the original winning design, including a third tier, have further brought out the form of a sculpted Yoruba column, whereas before the plans looked equally like a shimmering fire above a base of a flat funeral pyre…not exactly the imagery a museum to African American culture wants to evoke. The redesign removes the red-stone base, integrating the crown with the ground level. While these have been improvements to the original vision, budget concerns have scrapped plans for an entrance that would have crossed a series of intricately landscaped waterways, reverently breaking the stride of visitors as they approached and serving as a reminder of the middle passage crossing. Another victim of the budget has been the bronze facade, which will now be fashioned from some kind of coated composite. There are concerns whether the new material will shine and if it will eventually flake off. Perhaps, in an America where pernicious racism chips away at any optimism for a united union, nothing could be a more fitting symbol for the dream of a nation that recognizes and honors the contributions and heritage of African Americans…except for maybe a funeral pyre…or, maybe yet, the shift in the form of the building’s tragic flaw from funeral pyre to a million paint specks speaks to the shifts in the way American racism operates.

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Yoruba columns in the house of Susanne Wenger (Mark Duerksen, 2014)

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Columns carved by Olowe of Ise (source)

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Original design (source)

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…are profiled in this CNN article. This exciting new generation of camera wielders are rapidly changing the image of the continent and many share their work with thousands of followers on instagram (check out “truthslinger”‘s profile and the incredible images of life in Kenya he shares with 35k followers). I especially like the “Future Memories” series by Michael Tsegaye that captures bleak frames of recent large-scale Addis Ababa construction projects juxtaposed with more rural imagery (cattle, hand-washing clothes, and a great one of silhouetted wooden scaffolding). I don’t usually love black and white photography, but in this case, the medium does a perfect job of capturing the rapid inevitableness of the fading and cracking that the buildings will endure as they age. Do these images give a glimpse into the memories of this new wave of large-scale construction projects? Will they be remembered differently than the grand independence era towers and monuments that now look painfully optimistic in photographs from the time of their celebratory completions.

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A summary of a book by the title of this post was published last month on the African Research Initiative’s Website (an awesome resource), so here’s my summary of that summary. The book by Vanessa Watson (U of Cape Town) and Babatunde Agbola (U of Ibadan) looks at the future of African cities and examines current planning practices and emphasis in the continent. The book has a strong belief that African planners should plan the future based on planning theories that originate in the global South, not the top-down, formalization-centered European and American norms. Rather than perceiving planners as part of the status quo of plans that benefit big business and political elites, the book imagines a proliferation of a network of planning schools in Africa (from the current dearth of only 90 in the continent with 30 of those in Nigeria and 10 in SA) that tailor their curriculums towards addressing inequality through participatory, survey-based planning methods (getting “shoes dirty”) that strive to account for informality as a fact in Africa instead of a nuisance to be eradicated through eminent domain (Makoko, Harare). One interesting fact from the summary was that currently the majority of African city dwellers were born in the city they are living in, which challenges the perspective of African cities as transient hubs for migrants who plan to return to the countryside. The authors critique the current “fanciful” master plans for African urban areas as “unsustainable in the extreme and inappropriate in terms of climate, available infrastructure – particularly power – and affordability.” Like Philip Harrison, in his article “The Edge of Reason,” this new book looks to redeem planners from the image of nefarious technocrats to the liberal, clipboard yielding, muddy boots lifeblood of participatory democratic institutions in Africa. Now to get this new breed of planners jobs and decent pay upon graduation…

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An excellent article in the New Republic by Eve Fairbanks about the attack on Westgate Mall as an attack on what has become a popular symbol of Africa’s future:  shopping malls. The article is worth reading in its entirety, but in it Fairbanks recounts how large shopping malls have proliferated in the last couple of decades in many African countries, becoming the most popular hangout spot for all kinds of people from ex-pats to artists to very poor people, not just angsty teenagers. They’re the physical symbol of Africa’s rising middle class and the consumerism comes with it (retail is the hottest area of investment in Africa according to the article)–they’re where all kinds of African urban dwellers come “to act out a dream of the African future.” And in striking contrast to much of the surrounding cities, it’s a dream where has been planned with beautiful and clean infrastructure, running water, and electricity. It’s also a place where new identities can be experimented with, and where anyone is permitted to visit–it’s an open space unlike many walled and gated restaurants or hotels in African cities. Unfortunately this may begin to change in the wake of Westgate…security will certainly be beefed up, and Fairbanks wonders if rougher-looking people from the slums who used to come to window gaze and to dream about the future might begin to be turned away, stratifying what used to be a welcoming and cosmopolitan vision of Africa’s future.

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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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Images in the New York Times of the rubble of Kenya’s Westgate Mall. What happens now to the devastated concrete structure with a crater in the middle of it? Will it be rebuilt with loads of security? Will it be left for squatters? Will it be bulldozed and replaced by a memorial? And here is another troubling detail from the article:  “Western security officials say they believe that several fighters slipped out of the mall during the attack, dropping their guns, changing clothes and blending in with fleeing civilians, an account echoed by some witnesses.”

Here’s a summary I wrote of Stephan F. Miescher’s article, “Building the City of the Future: Visions and Experiences of Modernity in Ghana’s Akosombo Township,” which appeared in the November 2012 issue of the Journal of African History:

In his article, Miescher details the history of the Akosombo Township that the Nkrumah’s government commissioned in the early 1960s to house the workers for the accompanying Akosombo hydroelectric dam. He compares the high modernist visions for the Akosombo township (that Greek Urbanist Constaninos Doxiadis designed) versus the reality that lived out over the years as local workers and their families moved in and brought their own knowledge and lifestyles. The dam and Nkrumah’s modernist agenda has attracted past scholarship, but the visions and experiences of the township’s residents have been ignored. Almost immediately the resident’s modes of living clashed with the official plans as rural workers brought families and animals with them into the city planned for single industrial labors. A makeshift “shadow city” known as the “Combine” sprang up as they tend to in planned modern cities in developing nations (Brasilia), resulting in contention between its inhabitants and the VRA (Volta River Authority) who wished to level it to preserve the model city. Eventually the Combiners were relocated (with the support of the national government) and provided with a slab of concrete and building materials to construct approved housing in an orderly, new, and visually sanitized community.

Having recounted Akosombo’s history, Miescher evaluates the legacy of Ghana’s venture into high modernist city planning:

“Thus, is Akosombo just another instance of failed modernization, of which there are many in postcolonial Africa – another example of the ‘flaws of hubris in high-modernist urban planning’…?…Not quite. Akosombo continues to be an attractive place to live. While most urban areas in Ghana have chronic power failures, insufficient water supplies, roads with potholes, and limited health care, the infrastructure at Akosombo remains among the country’s best and the reputation of its schools and hospital ranks high. Akosombo is the township that works.”

Just because a city does not fulfill the original (often high modernist) vision laid out for it does not automatically doom it to failure, and Miescher does a great job not following into the easy mistake of tossing Akosombo into the pile of failed planned African cities just because it did not follow the original vision of Doxiadis to a T. What I think separates Akosombo from the pile is that there was a continued dialogue (even if contentious at times) between its residents and the government and instead of the Combine simply being torn down, a solution was arrived at that seems reasonable and allowed the city to continue functioning and serving its residents. The other day I was reading Philip Harrison’s article (On the Edge of Reason:  Planning and Urban Futures in Africa) in which he draws on post-colonial theory to arrive at a theoretical approach to planning in Africa that balances planners’ desires for efficiency and order with the wisdom found in the “multiple rationalities” of local residents of the Global South. The abstract notion of what Harrison wrote seemed to be sensible, but he was only able to point to Johannesburg as what to avoid, which made reading about the concrete example of Akosombo’s success extremely refreshing. This is the kind of project that planners can build off of for future African cities, striving for what Miescher calls “high modernist local knowledge.” And is why historical awareness and a long view of history is essential to planning.

The only thing that I wish the article had gone farther into was the design of the individual houses–how residents found the boxy (western) style, how the material held up over time, and what alterations residents undertook. Images of Akosombo:

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BUILDING THE CITY OF THE FUTURE: VISIONS AND EXPERIENCES OF MODERNITY IN GHANA’S AKOSOMBO TOWNSHIP

 

Highlights from McKinsey report on “How to Make a City Great”:

-by 2030 60% of the world (5 billion people) will live in cities.

-While cities are world’s economic engines, they also account for the most resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

-The report focuses on what successful leaders do to make their cities great. Cites 3 things:  smart growth (that balances the economy, social conditions, and the environment), doing more with less, and winning support for change by delivering results swiftly.

-Smart growth:  simpler tax codes, focus on clustering industrial sectors in city, invest heavily in infrastructure, train English speakers, constantly set short term achievable goals, adopt regional perspective and collaborate within that region, make planning inclusive (bottom up), build high-density areas (smaller more compact infrastructure), regulate construction projects to build “green” projects, provide opportunities and infrastructure for the marginal residents of the city.

-More with less:  embrace technology, rigorously monitor expenses.

-Win support for change:  be accountable, provide citizens information, build a high-performance team, invest in education, create culture of accountability.

Not surprisingly, there was little ground breaking information in the report. What did strike me was actually how balanced and, in my view, spot on much of the report was (although it was corporately vague and general also). I guess I was hoping it would be actually prescriptive rather than just descriptive couched in prescriptive language. I was looking for it to layout steps and priorities at each stage of development rather than a laundry list of everything cities should be doing (even when doing more with less it’s impossible to do everything). I have an image in my head of representatives from a global corporation equipped with the McKinsey report on Africa sitting down at a meeting with the governor of an African city who has a copy of this city report in his briefcase, and each side being miffed at McKinsey:  the governor annoyed of the portrayal of Africa as a fruit ripe for the picking, where resources can be extracted and consumerism sold, and the corporation disappointed that the governor is demanding infrastructure investment and environmental pledges in exchange for business licenses and trading rights. I guess that’s the nature of soliciting information from a consulting firm.

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Following up onmthe last post, here’s another article (from the August New Yorker) questioning whether Mayor Fashola is leaving behind the city’s poorer residents in his pursuit of glamorous projects like Eko Atlantic that provide clean water and reliable power for the ultra rich. The article points to the Makoko slum built over polluted water on boards and logs and asks why solutions like the floating school designed by Kunle Adeyimi isn’t being developed for the people struggling in Makoko. For a look into life in Makoko read this article on the slum’s high teenage birthrate. After years of predominately positive coverage of improvements in Lagos the media seems to definitely be going through a more negative phase…I imagine that much of Fashola’s legacy will be tied to Eko Atlantic for better or worse and making sure the project is completed is consuming the majority of his time currently. What EA will mean for the rest of Lagos is yet to be seen. I have a chance to ask Mayor Fashola a question during a group video conference next week and am thinking about what I should ask and will be sure to share his response here. The article did a nice job juxtaposing these two images of EA and Makoko:

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