by Lesley Lokko
As the spotlight falls on Africa following the death of Nelson Mandela, a timely exhibition on the continent’s built environment gives cause for hope.
Last month in Munich, a group of architects, activists and academics met to talk about African architecture under the rubric of ‘building social change’. On Friday 6 December, the world woke to the news that Nelson Mandela had peacefully passed away the night before. I happened to be in Johannesburg at the time; shortly after 9am, someone sent me an image (which I won’t share with you) of an angry-looking young (black) man, staring into the camera with the words, ‘RDP Mandela. We Will Remind You’ stamped across it. I looked at it for a moment, unsure whether to laugh or cry.
RDP, South Africa’s Reconstruction and Development Programme is perhaps Mandela’s most troubled legacy. It was implemented in 1994 by his ANC administration to address the immense socio-economic disparities brought about by the consequences of apartheid across a range of sectors from land reform to healthcare, and nowhere has it remained more controversial than in the realm of the built environment, particularly housing. By anyone’s standards, it was a wildly ambitious project: to ‘decently house’ 12.5 million South Africans without proper housing, access to clean water, electricity, sewage systems, and so on. Nearly two decades on, the dream of a better life for all remains disappointingly unfulfilled.
Perhaps the most damning criticism (if you’re an architect, at least), lies not just in the overall design of the programme, but in design itself. RDP houses are uniformly cheap, dreary and ugly, resembling the bleak building programmes of the apartheid state Madiba fought his whole life to bring down. In Long Walk to Freedom, he recalls Soweto, which he visited after his release from prison, as ‘the teeming metropolis of matchbox houses, tin shanties and dirt roads, the mother city of black urban South Africa, the only home I knew as a man before I went to prison’.
Parts of Soweto have changed beyond belief, granted, but it’s also true to say there’s often little difference between the new models of urban development, and the old. In the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer’s collection of essays, The Essential Gesture (1998), there’s a sentence that I cannot forget: ‘Row upon interchangeable row of identical brick cabins in barrack formation without any architectural reference points to community − add or subtract a row here or there, nothing would be noticed, the dreary paradigm of black segregated townships. With all the world’s experience of humanizing low-cost housing at their planners disposal, [rural South Africans] are passing from their round thatched huts to this?’
‘This’ − architecture, planning, building social change − was the topic very much at the heart of the discussions in Munich last month. South Africa (and by extension, the rest of the continent) will be the focus of the world’s attention for the next few weeks, and although it couldn’t possibly have been predicted, in a curiously elegant way, the TU Munich’s somewhat risky decision to put on this exhibition has already paid off.
Why risky? Well, ‘Africa’ is always risky. At the best of times, ‘Africa’ is a difficult subject, for inhabitants and visitors alike, dogged by a potent mixture of emotions that are often difficult to disguise or deflect. Guilt, anger, passion, fascination, sorrow, hope and joy … all of human emotion is embedded in the discourse, no matter how we try to hide it. We’re careful with our language, cautious with our thoughts, often unsure how to proceed, how to work out what we think or say, or even why. In terms of architecture, the potential for our words (and works) to fall into that murky territory between good intention and bad deed, is huge. Currently showing at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, the 29 practices whose work features in this ambitious exhibition straddle this line (or lines) with varying degrees of sophistication, success and ease.
Part of this has nothing to do with the selected practices, or even their projects. There’s an ambiguity in the exhibition title itself − ‘Afritecture’ − and its strap-line − ‘Building Social Change’ − that manifests itself across the exhibition and accompanying symposium in different but compelling ways. To begin with, there’s the unspoken but hopeful expectation that the term ‘Afritecture’ will finally deliver a concrete (sorry) vision of contemporary African architecture, almost irrespective of building typology or programme. We’ve all been waiting for it and for quite some time, too. But ‘building social change’ promises something different − architecture with a conscience, heart, that promises to do good, make things somehow better … and therein lies the tension. The uncomfortable twinning of desires is further provoked in the ways in which so many of the projects featured in the exhibition have come about. Roughly two-thirds are ‘development’-driven, products of that complex intertwining of local interests, and those of the international aid-and-development agencies for whom Africa remains a primary stomping ground.
It’s a complicated cauldron, one that inevitably produces its own distinctive cuisine. But how are we to judge the results? By whose standards of taste, sensitivity or ethics? At what scale and in what context? The vast majority of the works featured are by Western-trained architects, and although more than half of the projects are by African architects, most studied or worked in the West, tasked with that difficult job of translation between local, culturally specific practices and global standards of aesthetics and production.
And yet it’s even more complicated than that. The Irish architect Killian Doherty (whose own project, the Kimisagara Community Centre in Kigali, Rwanda, is featured in the exhibition), sums it up perfectly. ‘How can Western practice outrun the ghosts of the postcolonial and come closer to a modern African architecture? As interests between local (African) government, international NGOs and architects are inextricably linked, is this contemporary mode of practice simply the newest face of neocolonialism?’ It’s a tough and uncomfortable question and my guess is that the answers will take time to emerge. Happily, Afritecture: Building Social Change isn’t afraid to put these contradictions centre-stage and let its authors, architects and audience thrash it out.
There are some beautiful and moving projects: Diébédo Francis Kéré’s Educational Facility and Women’s Centre (Burkina Faso); Luyanda Mpahlwa’s Sandbag Houses (South Africa); the TU Munich’s Skills Centre (Kenya); Doherty’s Kimisagara Community Centre (Rwanda) and Sharon Davis’s Women’s Opportunity Centre (also in Rwanda, see p62) stand out, for different reasons. Some are sensuous, poetic spaces; others have a history of design development and community involvement that eclipses what they might look (or feel) like. Some are almost über-urban, some remote and rural, and others lie in that indeterminate, ‘informal’ space in between that is somehow particular to Africa.
At the day-long seminar that accompanied the exhibition, there were some memorable moments; frank, provocative and perhaps even painful conversations over the course of the day. A brilliant closing presentation from an Austrian architect that wasn’t about Africa at all, but about building a centre for the homeless in Vienna, which neatly brought the subtext of social change back full circle − a poignant reminder that Africa doesn’t have a monopoly on social injustice.
Over the past decade, there have been a handful of key events in the emerging discourse around African architecture that really stand out. This is one of them. In spite of the complexities (and possibly even because of them), there is enormous creative potential constantly welling underneath the surface of this discourse, flammable, like oil. RDP planners are duly reminded. Please take note.
This article originally appeared at The Architectural Review on 18 December 2013.
Lesley Lokko is an architect, academic and the author of eight best-selling novels. She is currently Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg. She was appointed on the day of Mandela’s passing.