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Monday, May 28, 2007

Urban Design Principles - A reconciliation of two eras

Assuming that we are to respect the notion of using African ancestoral historic precedents in the case of urban planning, just as we hope to do in the case of architecture proper, how do we go about reconciling these two eras - the ancient and relatively simple one from our ancestors' time, and the current one we live in, with all its complexities from the technological, social, environmental, and other transformations? In other words, are the urban planning principles from the era of our African ancestors transferable?

The above is a very legitimate question posed by Seo in response to my initial post. I believe the answer lies with a lot of very good places which have stood the test of time - managing to evolve with the rest of the world without losing sight of their historic past.

I will begin to sound like a broken record, but I will always be grateful for the years I spent abroad in Italy, Greece and Spain. Don't get me wrong, these places don't hold all the answers, but we must admit that the longevity of these countries as places of great physical historical content is a testament to which we can all learn from.

With that said, what we can learn from these places is the willingness to move forward without great disregard for the past in most cases. By that, I mean when one walks through the streets of any of these countries, you realize that not all streets are meant for cars. The historic streets (like Seo alludes to) were designed for other means of transportation, mainly foot traffic, and at the widest, horse drawn carriages. Roads were rarely ever strait because these animals did not really travel in strait lines. Streets are very narrow, buildings are dense, and this allows for the ability for a person to live a full daily life within a very tight travelling radius, sometimes as little as a 1/2 mile radius is all one needs to live a complete day in any of these countries.

As technology improves and automobiles become a necessity that needs to be dealt with, roads are built around the historical centers and new block patterns begin to develop which may be a little bit more spacious. The key to the new growth, however, is that they never stray too far from the original building patterns of their ancestors. The streets may be wider, and the buildings nicer with more ammenities, but the barber shop is still next to a butcher shop next to the hair dresser next to the grocer, and we all live above the shops. Thus, the 1/2 mile radius is all but intact.

I encourage people to look at plans of Rome, Siena, Pienza, Athens, Valenzia... and the list can go on and on.... to see how many strait and wide streets there are in these cities. We can not design as slaves to the car. The citizens should always come first, and cars should be thought of as what they were intended to be, a luxury to have, a pleasure to use, but not a dependant lifeline without which we can not function.

How does this relate to African cities? We need to declare and restore historical centers which indicate some of which our ancestors lived by. We need to recall the growth structures of how cities grew in Africa, with the automobile as a secondary, or tertiary thought, and most certainly not a primary dictator of how we should design our blocks. Most importantly, we need to use new technologies that we have afforded us now. However, we need to employ technology as a part of the design process, not as the overriding factor of design.

I sincerely believe that there's a reason why we look in travel brochures and decide to take vacations to places that look nothing like where we live, and because it looks interesting and has some historical value, and if we use the history of our African cities to our design advantage (and if there's one thing we have a lot of, it is history), we can begin to create cities of great interest which will begin to inform us all about not just our history, but also about a positive path towards a better future.

Hopefully some of what I've said makes sense and responds to the question posed by Seo. As always, I end with the statement that the opinions I offer are quite humble and I'm very open to other points of view, and I look forward to hearing what everyone else has to say.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

What makes a place?

Question - "Imagine the entire population of the earth just disappears, and there're absolutely no people left on earth. If an alien spaceship lands somewhere on earth, how will they know where on earth they are? How will they know they're in Venice, Barcelona, Rome, Egypt, Washington DC, or Kenya? In other words, how do our buildings inform others about our place on this planet?"

This is the question that drives me to define what is African Architecture and Urbanism, and my attempt to anwer this question is what has driven me to initiate this blog. The answer to my question may appear quite simple, but I merely ask that we take the time to examine the places we live and/ or have visited, and what can we take away from these places.

In my humble opinion, the answer is not as simple as determining the difference between St. Peter's Cathedral and the US Capitol Building. It's much more than that. I believe the answer lies in two basic architectural principles - proportion and detail.

Looking closely at buildings in different parts of the world, what seems to set them apart are the proportions of the massing, the proportions of the openings, and the choice in details. For architects who know what a "figure-ground" diagram is, look at figure ground diagrams of prominent buildings in different parts of the world. What begins to show through are distinct proportions of the openings. Greek openings seem slender and taller, Roman proportions are slightly wider, Spanish openings are wider still, American openings are wider and taller. These seem vague until graphic presentations are done to show what I mean, and this is something I intend to pursue.

Details of buildings are perhaps what defines the place. There are a number of details which come to mind when thinking of specific places. Athens and the low sloped roofs with accreterion on pediments. Venice with slender columns and moorish arches. Rome with the refinements of the classical orders and rounded arches. The US and colonial architecture to prairie style.

I believe all of these may seem like common knowledge, but the problem is that when it comes to African Architecture, we arrive at a total loss. The reason is quite simple, a lack of proper documentation and globalization. Allow me to explain: In thinking of African Architecture, one immediately thinks of Egypt and the Pyramids, and that is about where it ends. Being from Ghana, the first buildings we have documented are the castles built by the Portuguese in the late 15th century when they arrived on our shores. So now, when I need a precedent in order to design a new building in Ghana, what am I to look at?

The resolution to defining what is African Architecture and Urbanism begins with research. We need to find out what our ancestors were building, and how they lived in communion, before we can begin to design better places to live in our African Cities. Our architects in Africa, with no precedent to look at, simply look to poor western examples of architecture, and the result is, everything is beginning to look like everything. Why go to Rome if you can see the same thing much closer to home and for much cheaper. The reasons we go to Rome, Athens, Barcelona, Syndey, Washington DC, is because these places are different from where we live. Thus, there's no reason for African cities to copy these places. We need to decide what is African and build on that precedent.

These are my current thoughts, and I'm anxious to hear what others have to say. As we progress with the discussion, my intention will be to pose new questions which address this same issue of definining Africa, and the goal will be to finally begin discussions of how to resolve the mess we seem to have created for ouselves in our African cities.