“We need to spread the rug out for the picnic” suggests Rashid Ali, a Somalian-born architect and teacher, whose projects have included ‘picnic rugs’ from a school in Somalia, to the design of the 1:54 African Contemporary Art Fair, whose London exhibition he is now addressing. He is part of a panel chaired by Aaron Kohn of the Museum of African Design in Johannesburg and his comment is an attempt to resolve the panel’s discussion of ‘Antidisciplinarity in African Architecture’. The panel have been asked how architecture in Africa can sit between being simply a tool of design and solving problems that have historically been ‘outside its domain’.

Kunlé Adeyemi, also on the panel, designed the Makoko floating school in Lagos. It’s famous for its success in addressing the practical needs of education on the lagoon as well as being visually striking. But, he explains, it was initially hard to persuade the government to back the project, which shows the difficulty for architects when they try to step outside their ‘domain’. Driss Ouadahi, the final panellist paints pictures of city corners and tower blocks. Although people are scarce in his images, they are nonetheless suggestive of the memories layered onto the ‘blank’ spaces, and the angular bleakness of a skyscraper in comparison with complex lives.

Architecture has a history in Africa of being used to address social issues. In the Independence era in Africa, leaders invested hope and resources into symbolic architecture. Kwame Nkrumah for example saw grand modernist buildings as a way to “consciously manage a national ideal” that signified Ghana’s unity against past domination (1). Manuel Herz documents some of this Afro Modernist movement across the continent, where in the same way as in Ghana the simplicity of the modernist style was meant to both hark back to the clean lines of indigenous buildings and show an optimism for independent countries joining international circles on their own terms (2).

 

The political appetite for that kind of grand project has now fallen away. In 2008 when Flagstaff House, the new presidential palace was opened in Accra, it was lambasted by opposition parties who saw it as money that was sapped from the real infrastructural needs of the city (3). And nor were the panel at 1:54 keen to express any utopian visions. Although Rashid Ali showed the audience a beautiful image of a modernist school in Somalia, the panel as a whole agreed that their work should react to how people actually live in cities.

 

Adeyemi in particular pointed out that it’s a problem that in Africa instead of form following function, it often follows finance. This can lead to a ‘Dubaisation’ of parts of African capital cities. But they stressed it doesn’t need to be that way. Adeyemi’s floating school meshes perfectly with the needs of tightly packed urban populations, as well as the threats of climate change. Ali’s school uses natural corridors instead of air conditioning to make it sustainable in the local conditions. This is why Adeyemi believes that anyone can make locally sensitive buildings as long as they attend to the local situation – which would produce the architectural version of ‘fufu’ instead of a ‘Dubai wedding cake’.

All panellists railed against a false dichotomy of ‘chaos’ and ‘order’ in African cities, with architects and urban planners being called on in the past to ‘impose order’. As Adeyemi’s collaborator Rem Koolhaas’ aerial pictures of Lagos show, the supposedly scattered footprints of hawkers, street traders and pedestrians can be traces to reveal highly developed social networks (4). The panel at 1:54 therefore raised as much admiration for built structures as for projects like IBM’s traffic data collection in Nairobi, which looks at mobile phone date to produce solutions for traffic congestion (5).

In some ways Ali and Adeyemi saw themselves in the same way as the artist Ouadahi: responsive to what’s already there. Which takes us back to Ali’s ‘rug for the picnic’ idea: architecture as enhancing rather than redirecting society. And as the picnic keeps on going in African cities, Adeyemi teased the audience with the idea that ‘pop up’ culture this side of the Sahara is a sign of that ‘picnic’ spreading in the reverse direction.

“Antidisciplinarity in African Architecture”  took place at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair London. Rashid Ali, Kunlé Adeyemi, Driss Ouadahi. Chaired by Aaron Kohn.

 

 

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