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Africentricity

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Aerial view of Tema under construction, November 1959. Distance left-to-right is 3.5 miles.

Under contemporary conditions of globalization, Africa has among the highest rates of urbanization in human history. Tema —the city closest to the planet's 0-0 origin—offers a unique opportunity to measure the social and economic performance of modern architecture and planning in this context, because it is a new city built from scratch over the last fifty years. Designed by Doxiadis Associates of Greece for the newly independent Ghanaian postcolony, the purpose of Tema was to anchor nation-wide agro/industrial development. After several coups and a successful transition back to democracy two decades ago, Tema is now a city of half a million that was designed for a population half that size. Some administrators/ planners still pursue a garden-factory city ideal that may not be entirely applicable. The idea of africentri-city refers to mobilizing instead to retrofit African cities according to the way they work not, by default, development models from aburokyiri.

Architecture and Imperialism

In graduate school, I received an assignment for a final paper in 19th-Century Architecture; every suggested topic building was located in Europe or North America. The answer—in essence—to the question, "What about architecture in Africa [and elsewhere in the world]?" was "It only exists when someone utters the word 'Africa' [etc] in Paris."1 The late Edward Said expertly splices from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park a geographic inconsistency that parallels the relationship between the 'Architecture' that continues to define architecture's 'History' and the networks of commerce and geopolitics that circumscribe the globe:

Far from being nothing much 'out there', British colonial possessions in the Antilles and Leeward Islands were during Jane Austen's time a crucial setting for Anglo-French colonial competition. Revolutionary ideas from France were being exported there, and there was a steady decline in British profits: the French sugar plantations were producing more sugar at less cost. However, slave rebellions in and out of Haiti were incapacitating France and spurring British interests to intervene more directly and to gain greater local power. Still, compared with its earlier prominence for the home market, British Caribbean sugar production in the nineteenth century had to compete with alternative sugar-cane supplies in Brazil and Mauritius, the emergence of a European beet-sugar industry, and the gradual dominance of free-trade ideology and practice.2

Said notes that while the owners of sugar plantations populated Austen's novel, within the story they exist exclusively in England, while the landscapes of exploitation that finance their lifestyle are rendered invisible. Similarly, the "great buildings" of every era, like the 19th-century Paris Opera House, are born of the ashes of the Haitis of the world (3): The alchemical wealth-creation that financed the construction of Modernity emerged through mercantilist and colonialist global networks of trade and resource-extraction. Today this web of capital flows—which not only pay for the buildings that architects build, but also transform territories elsewhere (plantations, mines, factories, etc.)—has transmogrified into the Empire of globalization, where multinational corporations, NGOs and transnational organizations challenge the sovereignty of nation-states and flatten the world into a homogenized marketplace. At the same time, Africa—like Asia, the Amazon and the Caribbean—has always been a part of the history of art and the human environment, long before Picasso et al looked to the Dark Continent for inspiration.

Defining the "African City"

While architects write about African cities far less than do journalists, novelists, lyricists, anthropologists, sociologists and development policy “experts,” Africa is back in the discourse thanks in part to Rem's Lagos. What was it before? Mandela, Mali, Maasai, mud and magic... African architecture is typically considered through several lenses.

  1. Tradition: The African artisan as indigenous genius. This approach echoes previous preoccupation with organic architecture and the vernacular, embracing traditional techniques of construction and the spiritual dimensions of the culture of building (Labelle Prussin’s work on gender and space, Suzanne Blier’s study of the Batammaliba, Ron Eglash’s ethnomathematics of African fractals).

  2. Conflict: African as refugee. Africa’s defining conditions are poverty and war, but design can help (Architecture for Humanity, Shigeru Ban’s earlier emergency architecture for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees).

  3. Crisis: African as innovator. Citizens of African cities are remarkable because they collectively (mysteriously) develop tactics for survival in cities that are so deeply in crisis that they approach total breakdown of social and physical infrastructure (Boeck and Plissart’s Kinshasa, Koolhaas’ Lagos).

So what is the African city, and what is its future history? It depends who you ask.

For Koolhaas, Lagos is important because it “might be the most radical urban condition on the planet.”4 This latest attempt to conquer the enduring mystery of Africa replaces the focus on traditional techniques and materials of construction (mud mosques and village housing) with Africa’s new urbanism, an alternate culture of congestion, emergent entrepreneurship and the interface of infrastructure and the informal. Rem’s Lagos research deliberately plays with the historical idea of “the expedition,” but takes as its territory of discovery Lagos’ “dangerous” and “unexplored” urban spaces: an ultimate urbanism produced by people who survive despite the collapse of the city, the future of the West. His search for the future primitive glosses over the fact that for the millions of Africans who live and trade in the city, Lagos is not unknown.

Technocrats argue that the dysfunction of African cities is bad economics, derived from the continent's failure to adopt good governance. The World Bank in November 2009 issued its "Urban and Local Government Strategy," a plan to leverage the 70 million new urban dwellers projected annually (2 billion over 20 years) primarily in the developing world, for economic growth and poverty reduction.5 The plan—billed as both pro-city and pro-poor—makes sense from the perspective of the World Bank, i.e. a business with a vested interest in integrating the global economy by promoting urban economic clusters. Thus the World Bank foregrounds private property rights—in both urban and rural land systems—to incentivize private development and economic activity. But the citizens of the African city who operate on the edges—of roadways, property lines, bankruptcy and legality—are a central part of its dynamism, and their collective approaches to using the city are not the same as those of aid donors and foreign direct investors.

Tema's Urban Dynamics

Tema is among the African cities that can be described as thickly transactional spaces. That is, the urban network that connects houses to workplaces and markets via paratransit (tro-tros or converted passenger vans) and private cars is highly redundant: there are a great many individual instances (places) where one can find transportation, buy cement blocks, get a haircut, a dress, a metal gate (or something else made by hand), kenke, water or mobile phone credits. In areas of the city under the most construction, and in those areas least regulated, there are the greatest number of temporary or semi-legal structures, including distributed manufactories—small kiosks that house low-tech production of shoes, doors, braids, burglar-proofing, tro-tros, DIY electronics, etc. While many things (many of them the same) are accessible simultaneously at many places, the problem is uniquity: if someone has a unique product, question or ambition, how do they make that known? More globally, how does one acquire knowledge about how best to improve on an existing scenario or to innovate with as much information as possible? I would argue that the limiting constraint in many African cities is not physical capital but rather access to information: How to locate a particular product, procedure or protocol/ Where exactly to find something specific, How to connect to remote markets, How to optimize productivity,...

Tema as Information Factory

The Tema case suggests that the real challenge for many African cities may be less how to create a city of 'clean lines' with no poor people working in the streets, and more one of how to amplify existing ways of living and working in the city into an advanced regime of higher information density. The anti-hawker and anti-kiosk stance of the political elite and economically mobile hurts many people's livelihoods and lines many policemen and womens' pockets. Alternatively, this active edge of infrastructure and economies can be understood as a future-oriented system of organization for the city—one in which flexible urban ecologies absorb new human material through a network of small-scale and low-tech productive nodes. V.K. Desai, whose company Tiny Tech Plants develops technology for "tiny enterprises" argues that smaller-scale development precipitates freedom through self-reliance:

Governments of Africa follow the same pattern of development as Europe and U.S.A. followed. So every African country is trying to establish big industries, is trying to develop highways, cities, power stations, ports, airports and infrastructure required by giant industries. I VENTURE TO ASSERT THAT THIS IS NOT THE PATH OF HAPPINESS BUT THIS IS THE PATH OF EXPLOITATION AND PERMANENT SLAVERY OF AFRICAN PEOPLE. If you want homogeneous development and progress of entire society of millions of masses, you have to evolve your own economic strategy based on local self reliance at least for primary needs of people i.e. for food, cloth and shelter...this type of local self reliance can be achieved through cottage scale family size industries based on small and simple technology.6

For architects, this means rethinking typologies and waste/energy cycles and thinking beyond buildings to fields of technology and local fabrication—to drive ecological and economic sustainability by building active architecture—a project of open source architecture robots—that input Africa's environmental wealth and output not only shelter but also energy, food, water, Internet access and information about how to make and market designed products from raw material.

Typically architecture serves to provide shelter. This is equivalent to—if architecture were an equation or a chemical reaction—a function's output or chemical reaction's product being: shelter (a process that consumes energy, and has economic value). Architecture as a process is contingent on inputs (capital, technical expertise, preferences, etc.) and has associated effects (on psychology of users, on internal micro-climate and exterior conditions such as environment, real estate markets, etc.) However, it is possible to reframe the concept of architecture, from the perspective of its design, from a project of creating a building to creating a building that does things—still a building but an active architecture.

This is the focus of my current research in Tema. Taking as point of departure a survey of the active edges of Tema's industrial urbanism—what I refer to as “kiosk culture”—the research folds into the discourse of architecture not only the networks of low-cost (and often low-quality) informal shops and manufactories throughout Tema, but also the spatial practices of commerce and production that they support (see for example, the log-log chart of construction cost versus “effective micro-territory,” i.e. the urban footprint of a given kiosk or workshop). A host of technologies already exist that can upgrade this active edge of physical infrastructure within the city. Technologies that would allow upgraded kiosk architectures to collect and purify rainwater, recycle graywater, grow food, passively cool micro-climates, use the sun to cook food, heat water, generate electricity and deliver wireless Internet are not new, and in many cases they are low-tech and low-cost. Despite on-going improvements across the continent, many buildings and many people are still held hostage by unreliable or expensive delivery networks (i.e. water, electricity, telecommunications, etc.) in Africa. Therefore, determining how an active edge of kiosk culture can contribute to wider adoption of (economically and environmentally) sustainable technology on the ground in Tema, as well as Africa more generally, is critical.

I argue that it can be beneficial to think of Tema as not just an industrial city in the conventional sense, but also as a distributed information factory. That is, if we want to “build better kiosks” at the same time that we advance the scope and quality of the local manufacturing that occurs within “kiosk culture,” then we have to focus on building networks for sharing information. In Tema, the tiny- and small-scale industry at the edges, as well as the more formal medium- and large-scale businesses sited within officially zoned industrial areas, are well positioned to manufacture more sophisticated components for the local building industry—products like solar water heaters, rainwater collection, solar PV electricity or DIY wind energy, and alternative building materials. If a greater number of entrepreneurs within the informal economy have access to information about how to make these products, they will. Consequently, citizens of Tema and the city itself can exploit existing networks of production and information-sharing to amplify local innovation.

Max Bond once made a powerful observation regarding the social content of design: that the techniques of construction specified by architects affect who builds buildings.7 This observation speaks volumes. Materials and techniques of construction impact the local building and fabrication industry, economically. In Ghana, key materials and equipment—ranging from glass, tiles, door handles, air conditioners to cell phones and laptops—tend to be imported (as well as models of the ideal city). In Tema, a city founded around an Aluminum smelter that does not source Ghanian bauxite, the frontier of the locally-made is the poorer edges, the peri-urban, buildings and developments still under construction, the periphery, the tiny and small businesses along roadsides, the kiosks, the spaces where improvisation is automatic. The prototypes I am now developing in Ghana are for bamboo kiosks (that can eliminate construction cost entirely), bamboo-reinforced concrete floors (that can reduce construction cost), integrating stairs (to increase density), solar electricity, water collection and purification into kiosk mini-typologies, and strategies for wirelessly networking the active edges of the informal. The complexity of survival within African cities contains nontrivial clues for urban development. Africentricity is a call for architects in Africa to strategize for retrofitting African cities based on the everyday reality of how Africans use the city, independent of foreign prescriptions that at times echo of neocolonialism.

Notes

  1. I wrote a paper about the bizarre union of abolitionists and slave-owners who pressed the United States to colonize Liberia, and who gave rise to the phenomenon of former slaves from the United States rebuilding the plantation houses that they built in Southern US America in West Africa. See <http://issuu.com/osseo-asare/docs/gsd4203m3_final> For incredible photographs of trans-Atlantic building transfer, check out Holsoe, Herman and Belcher, A Land and Life Remembered: Americo-Liberian Folk Architecture (University of Georgia Press, 1988).

  2. Said, Edward, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage/Random House, 1994), p.107-108.

  3. For an angle on Haiti's history, see UC Berkley journalism professor Mark Danner's 11 January 2010 New York Times Op-Ed, "To Heal Haiti, Look to History not Nature." <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/opinion/22danner.html>

    Today too in Africa, terrains of conflict diamonds, conflict minerals and oil, biopiracy, agro-business and other forms of exploitation brokered by multinational corporations mirror Haiti's geopolitical experience.

  4. This is the subtitle of the Harvard Project on the City Lagos Handbook. P. Belanger, M. Cosmas, A.D. Hamilton, L. Ip, J. Kim and N.L. Slayton. Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2000 (unpublished). Koolhaas supervised this research and essentially composited his “Lecture on Lagos” from the student work contained in the Lagos Handbook. My take may seem critical; however, in my view the Handbook is an impressive text and I argue for more of this type of research, not less. The key is that architects from outside Africa move beyond the Dark Continent narrative of environmental determinism (i.e. the mysterious nature of African landscapes)

  5. Urban populations of Asia and Africa will double over the same period. Full report online at <http://www.wburbanstrategy.org>

  6. V.K. Desai's "Appeal to African Elites" <http://www.tinytechindia.com/appeal.htm> India has since independence prioritized self-reliance, based in part on the Gandhian political framework. Charles and Ray Eames, in their 1958 Eames' Report for the Government of India, called to expand this model of local production and innovation through professional (industrial) design training. Hat tip: Emeka Okafor <http://twitter.com/emeka_okafor/status/8585493026>

  7. “For example, if one were to design a building completely out of aluminum products, very few minority people in America could work on the building, because the aluminum industry is one in which not many minorities are involved, from plant to fabrication to erection. If one were to design a building in brick or block, there would be a much greater chance of employing more minority people. Designing a building in materials that are more labor intensive obviously has other benefits as well.” Max Bond and Paul Broches, “Social Content in Teaching and Design,” Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 35, No. 1, With People in Mind: The Architect-Teacher at Work, (Autumn, 1981), pp. 51-56. Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, Inc.

View of VALCO aluminum smelter, the heart of the industrial city

View of VALCO aluminum smelter, the heart of the industrial city

Map of West African electricity grid, Volta river watershed and shipping network via Tema harbor

Map of West African electricity grid, Volta river watershed and shipping network via Tema harbor

Map of trucking and paratransit in the twin cities of Accra and Tema

Map of trucking and paratransit in the twin cities of Accra and Tema

Informal parking lot for trucks carrying goods to and from Tema harbor

Informal parking lot for trucks carrying goods to and from Tema harbor

Tema Market in Community 1, taxis and small shops invade the “sidewalk”

Tema Market in Community 1, taxis and small shops invade the “sidewalk”

Kiosks like this one - selling credits for mobile phones - have replaced pay phone infrastructure

Kiosks like this one - selling credits for mobile phones - have replaced pay phone infrastructure

Small shops and workshops occupy the edges of roads, not only in Tema but throughout Ghana

Small shops and workshops occupy the edges of roads, not only in Tema but throughout Ghana

Fabricators that squat alongside Tema’s roads are sites of local production and innovation

Fabricators that squat alongside Tema’s roads are sites of local production and innovation

Many roadside kiosks offer specialized services, like electronics repair and even manufacturing

Many roadside kiosks offer specialized services, like electronics repair and even manufacturing

Log-log chart of the cost of kiosk construction versus size of business it can support

Log-log chart of the cost of kiosk construction versus size of business it can support