What do you know about architecture in Africa? The March issue of Dwell is its best in ages. Where the magazine started out focusing on radically new housing and inclusive community design, the years since have seen it devolve into a slide show of stylish homes for the rich and famous (like so many other architecture magazines). A unique voice was lost.
This month’s issue, though, sees a return to roots — with a cover story featuring small affordable homes and another on inexpensively incorporating sustainable energy. The real gem of the issue, though, is a fabulous interview with Tanzanian architect David Adjaye. Here’s the best bit:
Dwell: You’ve been compiling a book of photographs from African capital cities. What inspired that project, and what is its ultimate goal?
Adjaye: It was really just an archive that I started. I was extremely interested in a sort of anthropological survey of the continent in the 21st century, when its image is still predominantly that of poverty. If there is an image of an African city, rarely do you see a skyline; you see a shantytown or a village or a mud hut.
I’ve found that even architectural students have no idea about the urban quality of African cities! We know South American cities; we know Asian cities like the backs of our hands; we know European cities because they’ve been done to death; we don’t know the last continent.
It’s not a book about architectural style; it’s about the way in which these buildings are used and the way in which the urbanism of the city works.
The African continent has a very particular quality — and I fear that this quality is being lost by leaders who are trying to replicate places like Los Angeles or Chicago. But from my point of view, Chicago is a 19th-century city; it’s really not the way to plan a city now — with this massive infrastructure that gets decrepit and falls apart and is impossible to update because it’s too expensive. There’s got to be a better way to think about the city.
My mouth fell open. Standing in Africa when I read it, I’d been searching for words to describe what I was seeing in the buildings and how they interact with people. This captures it cold. While Adjaye speaks largely of the interaction of architecture and social structures, his quote could just as easily refer to anything from art to politics to health care. Africa is seen as a place where very little works and less works well. Nothing could be further.
A South African friend we met on our travels put it this way: “So many people come here fearful; expecting safety to be a constant challenge. What they don’t realize is that Africa is like anyplace else: some parts of it are safe, some parts aren’t. You have to do your homework traveling here just like anywhere in the world.”
This couldn’t have been made clearer than when I traveled to an informal settlement on the outskirts of Soweto. With no police, makeshift homes that are impossible to secure, a semi-transient population, and no formal records system, you’d expect the worst. And you’d be wrong. Residents were welcoming and the settlement is known to be one of the safest areas in Johannesburg. Safer than some rich neighborhoods. How did this happen? How can new architecture design to support the kind of community that has developed here?
And on the flip side, spending time in cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Dakar drives home a very different architectural and design sense. They all have towering modern buildings but the way those buildings interact with their surroundings — their interplay with communities — is fascinatingly different. Western design language just can’t do it justice.
I have to give Dwell credit for publishing a quote that very well could be taken as a criticism of its own editorial policy — focusing on the rich and sexy and western rather than going the extra mile to communicate why we should care about architecture in developing nations; what we can learn from them. It’s good to see Dwell sticking its neck out again. Here’s hoping that continues. And here’s looking forward to Adjaye’s book!