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African Architecture: 21st century “Afritecture”

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African Architecture: 21st century “Afritecture”

African Architecture: 21st century  “Afritecture”. A new book and exhibition, which celebrate innovative approaches in “aesthetically pleasing” African architecture – designed with local conditions and requirements in mind, and suited to the needs of its users and climatically attuned to its location. Is this where contemporary African architecture stands in the early 21st century? Juliet Highet reports

There’s a serious lack of attention paid to Africa’s (continentally and internationally) abundant potential is coping with the challenges of urbanisation. An exhibition this month in the Germany city of Munich, and a book titled Afritecture: Building for Social Change, cover 28 projects in 10 countries, all of which have been planned by African as well as European and North American architects. In many cases, the future users of the buildings are directly involved in the design and construction, of these projects.

In addition to the use of the latest technology, the projects in question, were developed using local materials rather than imported, and revive abandoned building traditions. By taking on board environmental and social aspects, the architects have promoted sustainable approaches and found solutions to some of the Africa’s most demanding design challenges.

Many regions of Africa are enjoying economic growth, accompanied by brisk building activity. Rapid urban growth is decidedly altering the continent, especially the breakneck, unplanned expansion of large cities in an unending sprawl, creating slums characterised by barely endurable living conditions.

The pull of these horizontal megacities of people from rural areas is unrelenting, but the inherent problems are rarely addressed by the politicians, building developers and investors in whose hands ‘new towns’ are being developed, paying scant if any attention to the sociological perspective of their architecture.

In 2008, a soulless new Angolan town called Kilamba, covering 5,000ha, 30 kms outside the capital Luanda, was erected by Chinese investors and workers. With its identical high-rises, surrounded by barren land devoid of anything natural such as a tree, it is an archetypal example of a culturally alien approach, implemented with no regard for actual needs or indigenous traditions. Furthermore, ironically, it was built to house a hitherto non-existent middle class.

This controversial power structure for new buildings, of government and urban planners and through private investment, pays little or no attention to small-scale but significant connections that people negotiate on a daily basis to make a living and survive in an urban context. These include fields and gardens, streets and markets, entertainment venues, mosques and churches.

Currently, around 61 per cent of sub-Saharan urban dwellers live in slums, hardly an ideal way to exist, but defined by necessity and typified by undignified hardship and stressful precariousness. Meanwhile, foreign direct investment has never been higher in Africa, and the building sector is booming, with an ever-burgeoning middle class. It is clear that the benefits of the growing economic upturn are far from equally distributed, with the risk of a deepening divide between the haves and have-nots.

The official vision of the urban future totally overlooks and excludes the vast majority of those surviving in the harsh realities of the existing and ever expanding informal megacities. And, as we have seen at Kigala, foreign real estate investors construct huge gated communities. Other alien satellite cities include Takoradi, Appolonia and Kilamba in Ghana, Tatu City and Koza City in Kenya, and Cité du Fleuve in Kinshasa, DRCongo, to name just a few.

Aspects of traditional African architecture, some of which can be traced back thousands of years, such as building with clay or adobe, are in danger of disappearing, displaced by imported building materials and technologies. These require considerable levels of fossil energy and cannot be produced by local workers. After completion, such buildings dictate a continuing reliance on further energy-guzzling technologies, such as air-conditioning.

But there are important developments and innovative approaches in today’s African architecture, some featured in this exhibition and book, which could serve as pioneering prototypes. In most cases, finance for the featured projects often comes from aid organisations and private contributions, but in this case, all were achieved with direct support and participation of the local communities, with their architects developing appropriate designs through a precise knowledge of local conditions and requirements. Not least, they are all aesthetically pleasing. What we are currently seeing is a genuine emergence of an African vernacular contemporary architecture, suited to the needs of its users.

Nigerian architect Okwui Enwezor gives as an important example of a blend between traditional architecture and contemporary sculpture the work of Austrian Suzanne Wenger and her Nigerian colleagues, creating the sacred groves for the Yoruba pantheon at Oshogbo, in clay reinforced with cement. He recalls his grandmother’s clay house: “We lived in the city in a modern building. But my grandmother preferred to live in a simple adobe home. During sweltering periods, her house remained cool. In terms of its structure and form, it is the type that Westerners would disparagingly call a ‘hut.’ With its peaked thatched roof, which sloped down to provide shade, and its low, thick adobe walls, it solved the science of climate control and ecological conservation.”

Around 800 years ago, the first kingdom in southern Africa was located at Mapungubwe, on the borders of Botswana and Zimbabwe. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and nature reserve, its recently built visitor and administration areas, called the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre, incorporates the natural contours of the landscape. South African architect Peter Rich created a group of vaulted pavilions using centuries-old building techniques and sustainable construction. Multiple layers of flat earthenware bricks were used, because of their high compressive strength, appropriate for vaults and arches. The bricks were made with hand presses, operated by 60 local labourers, who were trained in brick manufacturing techniques. Air-conditioning was completely omitted, owing to the thermal storage capacities of the bricks.

The vaulted buildings are a brilliant re-interpretation of traditional ‘huts’, whose exteriors are covered in layers of local stone, so that they give the impression that they have grown directly out of the landscape.

The Central Market at Koudougou, Burkina Faso, is a massive complex constructed from bricks made of pressed earth. It too was produced by local companies and workers in the ancient Nubian style of vaulted ceilings and large round-arched arcades. It won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2007. The Central Market is largely operated by women, can be locked at night and is considered key to the economic advancement of the region, which is some distance from the capital Ougadougou. The concept behind this is to foster financial stability in under-developed mid-sized cities, and prevent excessive population drain in rural areas. One of the stipulations for financing was that part of the profits of the market should be invested in new social building projects, such as schools and bus stations.

In Ethiopia a two-story prototype also using vault construction was developed by the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building, Construction & City Development (EiABC), as an alternative building model for Ethiopian cities. Subsequently four different sustainable units were created including Urban, Rural & Emerging City Units. Two different construction techniques were used – rammed earth and loam brick. The roof was sealed with a water-resistant mortar made of mud, salt and the fermented juice of the cactus pear, an old and almost forgotten technique reimported from Mexico by an Ethiopian artist.

At the Sustainable Emerging City Unit (SECU) the support structure is made of prefabricated straw boards. Traditionally straw has been used as a cost-effective building material with good insulation properties, and it is easily available in amounts in Ethiopia, in contrast to wood. The boards are coated with recycled cardboard packaging.

Ethiopia is starting to surmount many architectural problems. Up till now, the Ministry for Urban Development & Building has implemented only expensive, imported Western materials and technologies, creating serious economic trouble. Around 80% of the country’s enormous trade deficit can be attributed to the import of cement, steel, glass and construction machinery. The local lack of familiarity with using such materials and techniques results in serious deficiencies in building quality, and a feeling of alienation against the Western – and now outdated – Modernist style of architecture.

These problems are common all over the continent, and are beginning to be solved by innovative approaches in architectural education. The same institute, EiABC, which is currently training 3,000 students in architecture, seeks to integrate valuable international technological standards non-intrusively with local methods and materials. For instance natural products like bamboo, mud and straw are processed using new locally developed technologies.

In South Africa architectural education for everyone came late, but with the advent of the democratic government in 1994, dramatic changes began taking effect. A new Council of the Built Environment (SACAP) has ensured two-tier degree programmes in new architectural schools, and universities of technology offering professional degrees.

But due to financial constraints, many students have not been able to complete their courses. So a solution has been found whereby they work for a registered professional architect, while continuing their studies via the internet. All that is required is a laptop and good internet connection. Within two days of announcing this new course, it had received over 80 hits on Facebook. 

Another hopeful sign in South African architecture is the Ubuntu Centre in the township of Zwide, built  to promote the health and education of children. There is a roof garden with raised beds for cultivating vegetables, used for the nutrition programme and to familiarise urban children with growing food. At Mitchell’s Plain, Cape Town, the architect Luyanda Mpahlwa developed his attractive Sandbag Houses. These are two-story, wood-frame homes in which sandbags are used for the in-fill of the walls. Sand is not only cheap and readily available, it is also an outstanding insulator. Neither machines nor electricity are necessary to install the sandbags, augmenting their energy efficiency. Furthermore, the Houses are situated to one side of each plot. The remaining free space makes it possible to extend the home or plant a garden, and verandas promote social contact.

Again in Cape Town, at Khayelitsha, an architectural project called Violence Protection through Urban Upgrade (UPUU) has radically transformed an area of extreme poverty and violence. A combination of social institutes and live-work units has changed what was just a dormitory township into an arena of improved public amenities and small-scale business opportunities.

A Rwandan student of the Kigali School Class of 2013, Jean Bosco Ndungutse, said: “When we first enrolled in the architecture programme, we didn’t know what it was. We had to search on the Internet to find the definition.”

How would he and his friends know? Only a few licensed architects are working in Rwanda, all of them educated abroad, and most swamped with work. Yet the entire continent of Africa has the same number of architects as Italy, despite the fact that, according to a UN Habitat report, six out of 10 of the fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. Recognising the dilemma in Rwanda, the Ministry of Education started the first school of architecture at the Kigali Institute of Science & Technology (KIST) in 2008. Its members have developed a curriculum built on Rwandan values to inspire a generation of Rwandan architects.

The concept enables students to be conversant with contemporary and classical international practices, and to embrace the intelligence inherent in indigenous practice, which is fundamentally environmentally and locally appropriate. Not least, in a country where growth and stability in the last decade has permitted young architects to address urgent needs such as affordable housing, an enlightened approach is helping Rwanda to move beyond a troubled past.

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