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Urban Africa – thoughts on African cities

David Adjaye, a British architect born in Tanzania, was invited to design the space for the platform Africa.Cont Cultural Centre, that intends to “cover the knowledge, the comprehension and the plural creation of all cultural manifestations in Africa while an agent of contemporary globality”. It is in this context that the exhibition  Urban Africa , a reinterpretation of African cities by David Adjaye, is presented: “There isn’t a discourse about the notion of urban and metropolitan in Africa, we only talk about underdevelopment, poverty and war. I intend to reconfigure this discourse, using architecture as a message and an instrument. It’s my tribute to the continent.1

Freetown, Serra Leoa, fotografia de David AdjayeFreetown, Serra Leoa, fotografia de David Adjaye

There are three basic concepts we can distinguish in Urban Africa, that were used on the reading of the 52 cities presented: geographical categorization, recognition of cosmopolitan modernity and the importance given to emotional contents. If we start by reviewing the option of geographical categorization proposed by Adajye: forest, desert, savannah, meadow and mountain, we acknowledge how this categorization puts the cities back on their source, while focusing them on the relation between man and territory. More than a backup plan or a horizon, present or imaginary, it’s the “conception” of the man who, in these places, lives his way of being in the world that is made legible. An attentive reading of the displayed mapping, where Africa is covered by these categories, enables an innovative approach, liberating the perceptive frame of African cities from the constrainful exclusivity of the indicators of its disfunctionality, destruction, poverty and social exclusion, without however ignoring them. Mobilizing all his senses on his approach, Adajye searches for an echo with his concerns as an architect and introduces African cities into a more general current discussion, about contemporary urban areas and their future.

Adjaye’s reinterpretation of contemporary space in Africa and of the relation between its urban areas, nature and emotions, emerges as a counterpoint to other present approaches such as the praise of “urban chaos”, of the “chaotic continuity” and of the “generic city” that Rem Koolhaas presented in 2000 with his exhibition Mutations. Adjaye places himself in opposite of the “generic city”2, of the absence or devaluation of the singularity in these cities, trying to document what he finds as being most specific in each one of them, blending his memories, stories of cities told by his father, with his experience in Africa since 2003, when he started to prepare the exhibition.

Abuja, Nigéria, fotografia de David AdjayeAbuja, Nigéria, fotografia de David Adjaye

However, some ideas explored in Mutations, which refer to the African city of Lagos, address some aspects visible in Urban Africa. As an example, we can quote: “Anguish over its shortcoming in traditional urban systems obscures the reasons for the continued exuberant existence of Lagos and other megacities like it. These shortcomings have generated ingenious, critical, alternative systems, which demand a redefinition of ideas such as carrying capacity, stability, and even order, canonical concepts in the fields of urban planning and related social sciences.”3

What distinguishes Adajaye’s approach can be synthesized in this affirmation: “We tend to mistake cosmopolitan modernity for technological modernity, but cosmopolitan modernity is about a commitment to others. And this happens in a lot of places of the African continent. I found several types of a sophisticated modernity in Africa that people don’t perceive. There are a lot of people that culturally grow learning about everyday life and not necessarily from the contact with technology.”4

Cairo, Egipto, fotografia de David AdjayeCairo, Egipto, fotografia de David Adjaye

In addition to the issues regarding what occurs in a global scale in great urban areas, in the case of African cities we find those related with their non-controlled exponential growth. Adding to the duality centre-suburb, that characterized some African cities such as Luanda and Maputo, in the end of the colonial period and that was aggravated in post-independence, is, currently, the appearance of multiple cities inside each city, which are, as Filip de Boeck refers regarding Kinshasa and its multiplicities and modernities, some exposed and others hidden: “In the postcolonial era, the categories of centre and periphery and the range of qualities these words refer to, often became themselves rather states of mind than objective aspects in space5. This is one of the subjects explored by De Boeck in his exhibition entitled Kinshasa, the Imaginary City6, where a way for a new perspective over the heterogeneity, complexity and connection potential of urbanization in Africa was clearly pointed out. In the exhibition, questions were posed regarding the possibility that a city could exist beyond architecture, and, in this case, that architecture could be a conglomerate of truncated urban forms, of material and mental fragments. In addition, other questions were posed regarding the possibility that urbanity could be immaterial, made from the practices and discourses of its inhabitants as, in the absence of stable infra-structures and technologies, from the appropriation and use of spare technological elements that subsist.

Lusaka, Zâmbia, fotografia de David AdjayeLusaka, Zâmbia, fotografia de David Adjaye

On a recent visit to Lisbon7, De Boeck presented his thesis concerning the new international investments, real-estate projects in height that we could name as “Dubai style” and that have been recently designed in Kinshasa, as in most of the main African cities, though in different scales. These enterprises, which emerge as isolated “islands” inside the city, stand, together with gated communities, as African replicas of spatial and social segregation of the colonial era. De Boeck addressed the paradox that these new projects were dreamed as “modern paradises” and “mirrors of Africa” both by the State and by the population, the most of which will always be excluded from them and, in some ways, their victim.

However, the condition of economical crisis, unleashed from 2009, dragged the collapse of the liberal urbanism and, consequently, of the “Dubai ideal” itself, undermining the maintenance of these urban operations, generally initiated by the same restrict group of investors, even though this situation may not have the same development in all African cities. As Alain Bourdin affirms in his L’Urbanisme d’après crise: “we must not underestimate the local specificities that modulate the global game, specificities which are, without a doubt, increasingly stronger as we exit the circuit of the greater metropolis and of the construction sites of the century.”8

Windhoek, Namíbia, fotografia de David AdjayeWindhoek, Namíbia, fotografia de David Adjaye

These new views of urbanity in Africa force us to re-equate new paradigms, new urbanism models, as Adjaye proposes, and new forms of intervention in urban areas that take into account the multiplicity and complexity of what occurs in each city and that can only be found and managed locally. This applies both to what occurs in the old city centers – some of their “hearts” still beat – as to their replicas that were born afterwards. Likewise, it applies to large suburban areas, that grow spontaneously, as to the relation between those areas with new real-estate investments of larger scale, the so-called “modern paradises”, mentioned above.

Another matter to bear in mind is the fact that the analysis of African cities leads us to a question about occidental cities and their future, and about what also hides in them and is usually unnoticed by us. This subject was already put in debate by Koolhaas’s provocative statement: “to write about the African city is to write about the terminal condition of Chicago, London on Los Angeles.”9

Once again, a disquietude disturbs us and a doubt remains – how to find answers to the urban problems that claim for urgency? How to step from the reinterpretation of the city into new ways of making city? How to find a connection between what has been left unaccomplished or abandoned, with what was left destroyed or is destroyed and with what every day is made in the city. How to re-equate and redefine the complex matters of urban property, where the diverse powers of tradition, of new dynamics that emerge and of the State meet? How to respond to the unpredictability and to the precariousness of the African city when, as De Boeck states, alongside to what has been defended by AbdouMaliq Simone, the main infrastructural unit or building block is the human body, and thus, it’s the body itself that creates the city10?

Abidjan, Costa do Marfim, fotografia de David AdjayeAbidjan, Costa do Marfim, fotografia de David Adjaye

Within this kind of concerns, Adjaye states: “We must abandon the matters of the 19th century, centered in volumes and lines and approach the issues of the 21st century, that address the relation with nature, the new unprecedented forms and emotions. I wish to understand which is, truly, the nature of contemporary space, how it relates with what it produces and how the physical space may generate emotional content.”11

  • 1. in article by Roberta Bosco, published on the newspaper El País, 26.03.2011 / Babelia / page 18;
  • 2. Koolhaas, Rem, (2000) “La ville générique”, Architecture d’aujourd’hui 304:70-71;
  • 3. Harvard & R. Koolhaas, (2000) “Lagos”, in Mutations, Bordeaux , ACTAR arc en Rêve centre d’architecture, page 652;
  • 4. Interview by Ricardo Carvalho for the newspaper Público, Ípsilon, 03.07. 2009;
  • 5. De Boeck Filip, Plissard Marie-Françoise ( 2004) Kinshasa: tales of the Invisible city, Ghent –Amsterdam , Ludion;
  • 6. Venice Biennale 2004, the exhibition obtained the Golden Lion, curated by Filip De Boeck e Koen Van Synghel with photography and video montage by Marie-Françoise Plissart;
  • 7. “Urban Futures in Central Africa: the case of Kinshasa” Conference, ISCTE- IUL 06.05.2011;
  • 8. Bourdin , Alain (2011) O Urbanismo Depois da Crise (L’urbanisme d’après crise), Livros Horizonte , Lisboa, page 14;
  • 9. Harvard & Rem Koolhaas, ( 2000) “Lagos”, in Mutations, ACTAR arc en Rêve centre d’architecture page 653;
  • 10. De Boeck Filip, Plissard Marie-Françoise (2004) Kinshasa: tales of the Invisible city, Ghent –Amsterdam, Ludion, pages 236-243;
  • 11. in article by Roberta Bosco, published on the newspaper El País, 26.03.2011 / Babelia / page 18;

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