Can a city be understood by sight alone? On October 18th, the Royal Institute of British Architect’s ‘Echoes of Accra: Recordings from a West African Metropolis’ attempted to answer this question. Here, the recipients of the 2015 Boyd-Auger Scholarship (Lucy Paton, Anthony Staples, Bendetta Rogers, and Matthew Eberhard) walked us through their research project, one that set out to determine how the Ghanaian capital of Accra can teach London how to positively respond to the 21st-century pressures of mass migration, rising land prices, and economic insecurity. In so doing, the researchers drew much of their inspiration from the work of Joan and John Comaroff and their ‘Theory from the South’. Here, the Comaroffs disrupt traditional understandings of global cores and peripheries through the notion that an understanding of the dynamics of the world at large can best be observed through an observation of the Global South, and moreover, that it is within this South that the most dynamic and innovative responses to the contemporary pressures facing the world today can be found.
Of particular personal interest was the manner in which this research took place. Having undertaken initial investigative walks on Accra’s bustling streets, the group soon came to the conclusion that the traditional methods of architectural observation, drawings and photography, were failing to capture the rich experiences of life particular to this urban environment. It is for this reason that audio recordings were instead turned to as the principal mode of observation. Two distinct forms of audio recording were therefore presented at the RIBA, the first being ambient soundscapes and the second formal interviews.
In a world dominated by visual culture, closing one’s eyes during a presentation certainly felt unnatural. But if one was prepared to listen and not just hear, those ambient sounds, through their shifting volumes and pitch, instilled in one’s mind a clear and vibrant vision of the messy, overlapping spaces of the city. Whether it was the whizz of a moped flying by, the at-once inviting yet daunting clamour of a busy bar, the faint call of a choir practising on a distant sport’s field, or the soothing tranquillity of a tucked-away garden, I found myself engaging with the landscape with a focus that felt both novel and exciting. It felt good to be free of the lazy preconceptions so often reflexively triggered through shallow glances at a visual image.
With the ambient sounds responsible for one’s spatial transportation, it was through the interviews that the nuance and complexity of life in the city came to the fore. It was through an interview with Dele, grand-daughter of Efua Sutherland, the great independence-era education reformer and friend of Kwame Nkrumah, that one could gain a real grasp of how it is to live with competing visions of land ownership and value in Accra. Dele’s family have opened their large private garden in the city centre to the public, driven by a belief in the value of environmental and social space. What the interview provides is an insight into what the lived struggle to establish such a place entails. It is clearly not easy to defend both one’s property, or the belief in the importance of spaces of a particular nature, from the eye-watering offers of commercial developers or the alienation of now-rich neighbours who struggle to comprehend your motivation. It is an experience that is clearly long, messy, and frustrating. And yet through Dele’s words, residents of both Accra and other cities can begin to understand both how it is to fight to preserve an urban space, as well as the great rewards to be gained when an alternative vision of a space is realised.
Equally as educational was the interview with Charles, a resident of the demographically diverse neighbourhood of Nima. Nima is well known in Accra for its compounds: residential courtyard-like structures in which a multitude of families share a living space. From blueprints and photos of the compounds alone it is likely that one would see only a poor neighbourhood, over-crowded with inadequate infrastructure and construction. It is through Charles’ interview however that the structures come alive and one begins to understand their significance, and that of Nima as a community, for those migrants who now find themselves in Accra.
Charles excitedly tells us how Nima is celebrated for the warm welcome with which it receives migrants from all over West Africa and how it is the mutual respect amongst those residents, those “people who are just looking for a better life”, that makes the neighbourhood such a vibrant place to live despite its material and infrastructural flaws. It is in this way that Charles’ testimony, captured through the audio recordings, effectively communicates the magic of Nima, rendering it accessible as model migrant community for all cities with mixed-origin populations and limited resources to follow.
Having previously exhibited their findings on London’s own Ridley Road, the team now want to put their work online and make it available to Ghanaians themselves, effectively ‘closing the circle’ and giving back to the community who so warmly received them. In fact, at this point it should be noted that it was perhaps the people of Accra themselves who deserve special credit for the success of the research project’s methodological switch to audio observation. The team made special mention of the fact that if the Ghanaians they encountered had not been as warmly receptive to their inquiries, it is highly likely that a project of this nature would simply not have been possible. Accordingly, it is highly plausible that the special qualities of certain neighbourhoods in London, whose visual appearance may also trigger negative preconceptions amongst casual observers, could also be better represented through the use of audio observation, as has been done here with Accra. What is less clear however is if the gruff and personal-space-loving Londoners that we know and love would be equally happy to start talking.