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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Repost - Improvements needed in Urban Planning

Very interesting article about a future predicament we're all facing, a population increase. I strongly believe that African countries are very well positioned to get ahead of this crisis with great planning. We have the information, what we chose to do with it will determine our future outlook.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

You Lazy (Intellectual) African Scum!

This is a post of an article I read from one of the people I follow on Google Plus. I'm very interested to find out how others feel about the description of African intellectuals and the attitude of the diaspora. Can the name of Zambia be replaced with any African country and still have the story ring true? I highly encourage all to read the article and share your thoughts. Be warned, it is very harsh!!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Djibloho – Equatorial Guinea’s Future Capital City / IDF – Ideias do Futuro

This is a re-post of an article I found on Arch Daily. It talks about a new planned capital city for Equatorial Guinea under the leadership of the current president, and has amazing images of the renderings by the design firm. Click on the link to read more about this great project.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Rwanda 2020

Rwanda 2020 is a great example of an African country taking the initiative to develop itself and become self-sustaining without depending on foreign aid to survive. What I really like about the Rwandan model is the fact that its not based in political talk but rather market research to find out what the country needs, and a transparent master plan to show where funds will be used to make their goals a reality.

Another fact to appreciate is the date 2020. That means the current Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, will not be in office when this goal is realized. That is a politician attempting to leave a legacy for his successors to follow, and that is a quality not found in many African leaders.

This is a truly remarkable undertaking and I encourage everyone to read about Rwanda 2020 and track its progress, and if anyone has recently visited Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, I would appreciate some pictures of the progress being made.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Design of Public Spaces in Africa

The topic of formal urban spaces in Africa has always been a powerful discussion and this article takes a rather interesting point of view.

I'm not sure who in Ghana or Nigeria would say that Africans have no use for public spaces and that it is not in our culture. The very point that every space available is taken up by vendors and kiosks speaks to the fact that public spaces are very much in our culture, they just are not very well designed to enhance the urban fabric.

Growing up in Ghana, any empty building lot (where a person takes too long to erect a building) eventually gets taken over by the citizens. It starts with someone building a temporary wood and tin covered tent to sell some food. Very soon a few others join and it becomes an open air market in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It wasn't designed as such and the location is terrible, but together the vendors cut the grass and try to keep it clean and sustain a business (until of course the owner comes back to retain ownership and eventually build something.

The very few formal spaces we have in Ghana are out of the way and entirely too formal. Think of St. Peter's Square in Rome without the church. Essentially a formally paved area in the middle of nowhere for formal gatherings. Again this is not a good urban move when the space is not enhanced by being along the natural path of pedestrian movement. It becomes a dead space until a time when its use is needed.

I'm very much interested to find out how public spaces (designed or not designed) work in other African cities and if others feel as I do that public spaces are very much a part of African culture and how we can design better spaces to reflect this fact.

Accra Twin Towers - Repost

As we discuss architecture and urban design in Africa, we should also keep in mind that others are actually proposing and building in Africa. The question is whether some of these design and building ventures will enhance the urban infrastructure and architectural desirability of our unique cities.

Here is such a development that I find to be architecturally atrocious but as an urban design move worthy of taking note. This new development is proposed for the capital city of Accra in Ghana, West Africa. Click on the link and read the article from its original location.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

African Architecture and Urban Design: The New Frontier for the next Great Building Campaign

The question being posed is “Which African nation will step up in leading the charge of re-designing their urban infrastructure through a comprehensive building campaign that can effectively change the face of the African continent?”

I ask this question because the current state of most African cities can be described as crowded, chaotic, having a poor quality of life and a very poor urban infrastructure. There are those who may disagree with this description, but before you decide, take the time to look at typical images of African cities (or visit and look around) and decide for yourself if this is how humanity should be living in the 21st century.

All the great places we love to discuss as excellent precedent for good urbanism with a solid infrastructure were not always so. It took lots of like-minded people with the foresight and will to leave behind a building legacy that enhanced these particular places. Think of Rome, St. Petersburg, Washington DC, Chicago and Philadelphia. What all these cities have in common are people who assumed leadership roles in determining the design direction of the city, and over a very long period of time, design decisions were made in order for these cities to become some of the greatest places in the world to visit and more importantly, to live in.

So the question I pose to the leadership of African nations is, which one of you is willing to take on the task of leaving behind a building legacy worth mentioning in our history books? Perhaps a brief description of why some of these cities came to be may help drive my point home.

Edmund Bacon writes in the beginning of his book Design of Cities: “The building of cities is one of man’s greatest achievements. The form of the city always has been and always will be a pitiless indicator of the state of his civilization. The form is determined by the multiplicity of decisions made by the people who live in it. In certain circumstances these decisions have interacted to produce a force of such clarity and form that a noble city has been born. A deeper understanding of these interactions and decisions can give us insight to create noble cities in our own day.” The entire reason for Edmund Bacon to write this book was to dispel the notion that cities are some kind of “grand accident”, when in fact the current form of great cities came about due to the will of man.

With this concept in mind, I’d like to briefly discuss the city of Rome and its proud building history, and if there are any lessons to be learned in order to bring the great building philosophy and tradition to current practice.

Rome like every other medieval city was a series of inter-connected slums. All the great buildings of the time, mainly the churches and palaces of the early Middle Ages, existed as isolated complexes not connected to the urban fabric or built outside the city walls. Through a lot of political turmoil, it took the vision of one pope to design the basic foundation and design philosophy which essentially set the ball rolling to make Rome what it is today, Pope Paschal I (817 – 824). The papacy during this time was always being challenged (by the Lombards, Carolingians, Franks, etc. between the 1st – 6th centuries) and Rome was always under some form of attack and the general state of the city was constant chaos. Battles between the Franks, Lombards, and Romans (in or around 817 AD) for control over the Italian peninsula and control over Christendom was a large political motivator for Pope Paschal I in his decision to transform Rome into a city worthy of being the capital of the very young Christian religion (keeping in mind that the Battle of the Milvian Bridge happened in 312 AD, thus making Christianity a recognized religion in Rome under the emperor Constantine) and started a building campaign with the design philosophy meant to project the official Papal authority in the city of Rome.

Under the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, the new empire chose to recognize Christianity by building basilicas over important burial sites such as St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s basilicas, both outside the walls of the city. In order to bring importance to the city of Rome, Pope Paschal I begun searching for relics of important saints and having the remains brought inside the walls of the city and transforming medieval churches into pilgrimage sites, and building new churches for other saints. This massive building campaign was initiated to project the power and authority of the papacy within the city.

As Caroline Goodson talks about in her book The Rome of Pope Paschal I – Papal Power, Urban Renovation, Church Rebuilding and Relic Translation, 817 – 824, one very important side effect of the church building project was that as Christianity begun to take hold in Rome, the celebration of the saints and the churches where they rested gained momentum, and as the crowds got larger, the celebrations were taken to public outdoor spaces, which then evolved into processional routes, a topic discussed in-depth by David Mayernik, Timeless Cities: An Architects Reflections on Renaissance Italy. As processional routes became more defined (such as The Possesso – the procession route taken by a newly elected pope from St. Peter’s Basilica to St. John Lateran in Rome), buildings along these routes now had to be rehabilitated to enhance the experience of the procession, and that is how Rome started to re-design itself. Without really intending to turn the city into a series of events, Pope Paschal I had built Rome into a city that visitors could recognize and also see how the citizens cared for their city. Buildings were shaped to conform to the larger profile of public spaces, doors were moved to align with certain streets, fountains were placed in public spaces as urban markers while providing much needed water to citizens of Rome, and very slowly a very magnificent city begun to rise, one small building project after the other.

After the precedent set by Pope Paschal I numerous popes followed in his footsteps by putting massive efforts into building campaigns, all with the singular goal of making Rome the center of the world by projecting authority through its urban landscape. For a medieval city with a poor infrastructure, lack of a good sewer system and a lack of potable water for bathing and drinking, every pope took it upon themselves to provide the citizens with any amenity to not only enhance their quality of life, but to also generate love for the city. Grand bath houses and fountains emerged, the famous aqueducts were constructed, and tunnels were dug to install sewer systems. Anytime a building came crumbling down due to an earthquake, fire, or sometime just old age and poor construction, its remains were reused to build something new.

During his five year reign as pope, Sixtus V (1585 – 1590) made perhaps some of the greatest contributions to the city of Rome through a comprehensive urban planning campaign that brought clarity to the city’s layout. At his request, entire buildings and even some neighborhoods were demolished (all for the greater good of Rome) to create streets linking some of the most important religious sites in Rome. As the city had become a pilgrimage site, Sixtus V went through the effort of bringing clarity through the city, and his legacy can still be seen today in the form of the large obelisks that mark the pilgrimage sites in Rome and leads visitors through what used to be a maze. The famous trident (three streets leading from Piazza del Popolo) which brings visitors into the city can be clearly identified in the Nolli Plan as being of a different age from most of the medieval streets of Rome (straight streets vs. winding roads – renaissance planning vs. medieval planning, or lack of planning.)

I even dare say that to some extent, Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945) made some contributions to Rome in his attempt to improve the city’s status just as popes had before him. In his own fascist way, he also tore down buildings and neighborhoods creating wide avenues to visually connect specific places such as Castel Sant’angelo to St. Peter’s Cathedral and Piazza Veneto to the Coliseum (because apparently the view from his balcony to the famous landmark was being obstructed by an entire neighborhood of buildings), and along the way unearthing some of ancient Rome’s most priceless ruins which we see today.

Rome exists today as a series of conscious design decisions made by like-minded people in an effort to create a noble city, an eternal city, and its sentiment is perfectly summed up by GK Chesterton, “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.” Essentially one does not take the time to enhance the appearance of a place if there was no affection for the place to begin with.

Having a design philosophy is paramount, be it the projection of papal authority or making a city the center of a specific religion. However not every city has popes nor wants to be the center of a specific religion. More likely the projection of civic authority tends to be the design philosophy with examples such as Paris, St. Petersburg and Washington DC and I’d like to discuss all three cities briefly.

The city of Paris developed very much like Rome with regard to a medieval city being transformed into a planned renaissance city with much of the credit going to Charles V and Charles VI in the middle to late 13th century. Paris developed much later than Rome and as Edmund Bacon points out, the superimposition of Italian ideas on the medieval city was quite apparent. The basic design philosophy was politically inspired structure and order to a medieval city through the re-structuring of streets, the creation of avenues and boulevards, and magnificent palaces as symbols of civic authority.

St. Petersburg on the other hand is one of the few great cities built in its entirety after Renaissance design ideas had reached their full maturity according to Edmund Bacon. Its planners had available to them the experience of a broad range of completed civic works. In 1712 Peter the Great essentially decided Russia needed a new capital city (since he was tired of Moscow) and decided it would be designed along the banks of the Neva River (possibly an attempt to equal Paris which had achieved a grand scale along its Seine River). Whether it was love of country or love of ones’ self, it can be argued that both reasons were necessary for Peter the Great to initiate a building campaign that would equal Paris and Rome.

Federal Dignity is the title of the chapter Edmund Bacon choses to describe Major Pierre L’Enfant’s original design for Washington DC. The meeting of the city and Potomac River was a focal design point placing it in common with other great cities such as Venice, Florence, Paris and St. Petersburg. To borrow a line from one of my favorite movies, The American President, “Washington DC is a city designed to intimidate foreign leaders,” and this sentiment is carried out through the dominating presence of the Capitol Building and its grand forecourt also known as the Washington Mall, the presence of the White House, also visible from the mall, and later additions of grand structures such as the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials all add to the grandeur of the city. The essence of Washington DC is a physical manifestation of the fundamental civic identity upon which the United States was founded, both in its urban design and architectural details.

So that brings us back to square one, do we love our countries in Africa enough to attempt enhancing her infrastructure and appearance? Which nation and leader will pave the way for the rest to follow? We need a blueprint of sorts, and studying the history of successful cities can be an excellent guide. If there’s one thing we have in Africa, its lots of history. Every country, city, town, village and neighborhood has a story to tell. How do we let our urbanism and architecture tell our story? Who will lead the next historic building campaign?

The answers to all these questions remain to be seen. I’m merely bringing these ideas to the forefront of discussions happening all around the globe on how to bring about positive change to African countries. What I have to offer is my love of Africa, my knowledge of history, experience in urban design and architecture and my appreciation for academic discussions translated into feasible projects. For anyone reading this message and ready to take on the challenge of bringing about positive change to any location in Africa, I hope my message has been helpful and I look forward to hearing your thoughts and discussing any positive ideas.

Bibliography
1. Bacon, Edmund N, Design of Cities (Penguin 1976) 13, 187 – 200, 221.
2. Goodson, Caroline J, The Rome of Pope Paschal I: Papal Power, Urban Renovation, Church Rebuilding and Relic Translation, 817-824, ed. Rosamond Mckitterick (Cambridge 2010).
3. Mayernik, David, Timeless Cities – An Architect’s Reflections on Renaissance Italy (Westview 2003) 66 – 83.

Nana Andoh is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture with a BARCH and a Master of Architectural Design and Urbanism (MADU) degrees. Nana is currently an Assistant Professor of Architecture at SUNY Delhi and is a constant contributor to this blog. Contact him at nandoh23@hotmail.com.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bill Gates: Africa Needs Aid, Not Flawed Theories

After reading Bill Gates’ Notes in response to science writer Matt Ridley’s ‘The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves’, I felt compelled to share my personal thoughts on the subject of giving aid to African countries.

Matt Ridley’s theory, if I can synthesize, is that we worry too much about the need to develop African countries (and Global Warming… but I’ll leave that discussion to the experts) and that if we leave things as is, it will eventually fix itself. As Bill Gates writes, Matt Ridley solution to the current development crises in Africa is “Don’t worry, be happy.” Matt Ridley’s conclusions are based on critics who claim that “Aid doesn’t work, hasn’t worked and won’t work.” I will let you read Bill Gates’ response to Matt Ridley’s commentary, but here are my thoughts on this issue.

I agree with Bill Gates that Africa does need aid, and a lot of good has come from the donations of like-minded people with the resources to help, such as Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Ben Affleck and Cindy McCain, and the list goes on. Some problems just don’t go away and turning a blind eye doesn’t make it cease to exist. Poverty in African countries is a big issue and the quality of life in most of these countries is deplorable. What I tend to find unfortunate is that Africans have to depend on the well-meaning efforts of people such as Bill Gates to bring in aid, ideas and innovation when most of these countries have people capable of at least attempting to address these issues in a more meaningful way.

The critics Matt Ridley cites also have a point to an extent. From an objective outside observer, the efforts of all these philanthropists seem like small pebbles in a large body of water with the ripples dying out before any effects are felt. If perception is reality, then African cities look like slums overrun with poverty and a very low quality of life. It would therefore seem to critics that money is being “thrown away” in an attempt to resolve what we deem to be problems in African countries. Also when looking at the vast disparity between the wealthy and poverty stricken citizens of these countries, one cannot help but wonder about the corruption that exists in most developing countries. It essentially becomes like everything else, a vicious cycle of endless giving by philanthropists without any real evidence of positive change.

As someone who was born and raised in an African country and currently living in the United States working in academia, I believe I bring another perspective to helping the perception of African countries. What most African countries need is political transparency and what philanthropists need to do is collaborate in their efforts and hold local governments accountable and require involvement from the citizens, thus creating a much larger splash with a wider ripple effect in the large African pool of development issues.

To conclude, I strongly disagree with Matt Ridley’s assertions that problems tend to take care of themselves including poverty and the low quality of life in African countries. In that case why pour money into cancer research? Smoke long enough and your body will learn to adjust to all the pollutants being inhaled… it just takes time. On the other hand, how many people have to die of cancer before the body learns to adjust? I guess according to Matt Ridley, if everyone suffering from cancer dies from cancer, then that inevitably solves the problem of cancer? Then what do we do about all the known causes of cancer? Do those disappear along with all the dead people? Probably not. Using my cancer analogy I'm quite sure Mr. Ridley will point to all the advantages that cancer research has made. To that point I would direct Mr. Riddley and his critics to all the positive data (provided by Gapminder) indicating that positive change has been happening in most African countries due in large part to aid. My point is, African countries are faced with complicated issues and we need serious people to solve them. Giving aid is a large part of that solution and the flawed theories that these problems will simply go away over time is a very dangerous thought pattern that needs to be stopped before it gains any real momentum.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Lesson from Pompeii

National Geographic (NAT GEO) network had a wonderful series of shows centered around the assumed notion of what would happen if all humans were to suddenly disappear from the earth (there’ve been other shows based on various notions such as “what would happen if we run out of oil”, etc… which is also a great watch). This particular episode about the disappearance of humans focused mostly on the repercussions of what we’ve done to the earth and how long it would take Mother Nature to repair herself.

During the show an interesting scenario was posed; “what if the world we humans leave behind is discovered later by another race, what would they learn about the human race based on what we left behind?”

This scenario seems farfetched until we take a look back at what happened in the city of Pompeii on August 24, 79AD, the day Mount Vesuvius ended the lives of thousands along the Bay of Naples. In this scenario humans did not simply disappear, they were consumed by poisonous volcanic fumes and buried under tons of toxic ash.

Accidentally discovered in 1599 during the process of digging a by-pass channel for the river Sarno and fully excavated beginning in 1748, one can argue that the city of Pompeii has been a revelation to a lost time and a sobering reminder of many things.

“Pompeii has proved to be a treasure trove to historians and archaeologists. The light it has shed on first-century life in the Roman world is profound. The amount of information it has provided to scholars of many fields is staggering.

Millions of visitors have come to walk its streets, to admire its delicate artwork and to peer into houses, stores and workshops still standing 2,000 years later and wonder what life was like back then.

One cannot go away from the place unmoved—at least I can't imagine anyone doing so. Pompeii is a sobering reminder of so many things—of the fragility and fleetingness of our existence, of how entire cities and civilizations can vanish, of how there, but for the grace of God, go all of us.

Perhaps most of all, it's a reminder of the folly of human beings in refusing to face up to unpleasant realities, of ignoring or misunderstanding the danger signs until it's too late.

Rich and poor, free citizen and slave, young and old—all met the same fate in Pompeii. The only ones who escaped were those who recognized the growing danger. For those who lingered too long, denying the seriousness of their plight or hoping that conditions would somehow change, the city became their tomb.”

Everything we know now about Pompeii and its residents was derived from the physical remains of its urban infrastructure, from the urban planning of the city to its variety of architectural hierarchy and choices in ornamentation and details all lead to academic conclusions about what the citizens of Pompeii valued and treasured, and essentially how they lived (“they way we build affects the way we live”).

And so I now pose this question, what will be said about us years from now based on how we’ve chosen to build our urban landscape and infrastructure? I merely bring up this point as we discuss ways of making a positive architectural and urbanism impact on the continent of Africa that we always need to keep in mind that places can tell stories long after we are all dead and gone. Africa is a place of immense history. Ours is a story that dates back, according to some historians, to the very beginning of time. It would be a shame to lose all our history by re-shaping our cities into images of other places. We really need to research our own histories, building traditions and urban cultures to see what we can learn and return to contemporary practice while building on our advanced technological knowledge. I’m not saying we need to re-design mud huts with thatched roofs and live in the past. What I am saying is there should be a way to honor our past while designing for a better future, and the way to do that is to research our past.

The greatest lesson we learn from Pompeii is that what we leave behind tells future generations what we valued the most and how we lived. Will our story be a love of automobiles over a sense of community? A love of material needs over the preservation of our environment? The value of the latest technological developments over time tested sustainable building methods? What will our story be? How is the way we’re currently building affecting the way we live? Some food for thought as we discuss how to make a positive impact on the Architecture and Urbanism on the continent of Africa.