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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.

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