Lab Project

East Legon Past Forward

Ibai Rigby

The African continent has not always been regarded with inferiority by Europeans. Historically, racial concerns were about discriminating aristocrats from the plebeians; recent scholarship contends that the Roman Empire had no bias against different ethnicities. Slavery was the result of war captivity and not related to inherited physical characteristics. When 14th-century Catalan cartographers produced their now celebrated maps, Kings and Sultans of both sides of the Mediterranean Sea were equally represented on their thrones as respected rulers of their respective countries, including Mansa Musa of the wealthy West African Islamic Mali Empire. Things nevertheless began to change around the 16th century, when the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution propelled by the invention of the printing press, together with the serendipitous “discovery” and conquest of the Americasi, filled European nations with hubris. The soil of the “new” continent was perfect for cash crop plantations that nevertheless were only profitable as long as labour remained unpaid. Since diseases from the old world decimated the native American populations, African slaves were imported to do the hard work. In order to justify the dehumanisation through slavery of millions of African, and the colonisation processes that followed during the 18th and 19th centuries, a process of cultural “othering” was put in place. In Edward Said’s words, “European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient [everything not European] as a sort of surrogate and even underground self”.ii African societies were considered static, as if lacking the agency that produces history. Western leadership was legitimised in the name of the mission civilisatrice.

Slavery was abolished in the 19th century and formally prohibited by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948; former colonies such as Ghana gained their independence from Imperial power in the mid 20th century, and racial segregation has been officially put to an end in most countries. However, uttering the word Africa today still sparks in many Westerners the image of tenebrosity that Joseph Conrad put forth in his novel Heart of Darkness. War, terrorism, AIDS, Ebola and slums are still part of the mainstream narrative about the continent, to which we still too often refer as a homogeneous entity regardless that its composed by 54 countries with an estimate of 2000 spoken languages and four major climate regions. The fact that economic growth in many African countries doubles or triples that of any European country does not seem to strike a chord to many. As Filip de Boek writes, “The strength of the imagined place renders invisible the reality of the African site”.iii As a consequence, hoards of volunteers from the West keep travelling to the continent to participate in cooperation projects, occasionally with the idea of experiencing the authenticity of a human society whose traditions have not yet been corrupted by Modernity. The fact that rural populations are deserting the countryside for the city is often met with horror. Architects, who ever since the Great Recession have been inclined to exchange the comfort of the boudoir for the nostalgie de la boue, have joined the corps of humanitarian aid, more often than not to prevent the use of modern materials such as steel, glass and concrete. The noble African, they say, must be saved from the Promethean promise turned into a Faustian bargain. Africa must remain undeveloped to redeem the excesses of the West. That is the assignment of the new civilising mission.

Undoubtedly, Africa’s rapid urbanisation can seem the result of a deal with the devil. Most rural-urban migrations through history followed critical ameliorations in agricultural production that required fewer hands to work the land; better transportation systems that would allow cities to feed themselves with food originating from greater distances and most importantly, industrialisation. Urbanisation has been considered a key factor for economic growth; as Edward Glaeser preaches in his book The Triumph of Cities,iv people learn by being close to each other, and it is this induced creativity that generates the progress fuelling economic growth. On the other hand, living close to each other also helps the spread of disease. In order to keep industrial populations productive, the ruling classes had fewer other options than providing better housing for the proletariat. However, the process of urbanisation in many other sub-Saharan nations in general, and in Ghana in particular, has followed different paths. The elimination of tariffs to state-sponsored American and European agricultural produce, under World Bank and IMF enforced Structural Adjustment policies, has created the perfect scenario for an urbanisation without industrialisation. Neo-liberal policies have privatised the extraction of natural resources, which has indeed improved the income of a small portion of the population. Without the need of a labour-based economy, there is little payoff in improving the quality of life of the urban poor. Modern vaccinations have also made the urgency for hygienic cities redundant. Low capacity governments are not able to guarantee the safety of their citizens or the quality of public infrastructure. As a consequence, those who can afford it, i.e. elites involved in the management of the country’s natural resources, together with non-resident nationals or families with important ties in the diaspora, move into low-density segregated communities outside the city, similar to those we see in East Legon, gobbling up pre-existing rural enclaves and habitat protection areas. It is such the importance of international factors in the making of these suburbs that some scholars give them the name of Globurbs.v

The adverse effects of urban sprawl, whether it is called suburbia or globurbia, have already been analysed in detail in different contexts and are well known. The intensive consumption of land that could otherwise be used to industrially grow food; the difficulty to provide utilities such as clean water, proper water sewage, garbage collection, electricity and telecommunications; the reliance on private mobility for transportation and its impact on traffic and pollution; the rampant alienation of individuals as a consequence of fewer casual interactions and spontaneous meetings; epidemic obesity induced by lack of physical activity and sedentary lifestyles; these and many others make for a growing list of attributes that disqualify sprawl as honouring the interest of serious architectural debate. Nonetheless, suburban areas keep multiplying themselves whether serious architects and urban planners like it or not. When the United Nations announced that the world had become urban at some point in 2010, it was the image of densely populated megacities with complex skylines that came to the mind of many. A closer look at the data would reveal a very different truth: the world did not become urban, but The challenges of the sub-urban age are too complex and urgent to keep ignoring them.

Moreover, looking at urban sprawl with deferred judgement might help to find a wide range of opportunities that do not necessarily exist in the so-called compact city most urbanists defend. From an economic point of view, the initial capital needed to build single-family units is lesser than that required to build apartment blocs. Savings might be invested in construction materials that at a later time can be employed to incrementally build a house, keeping loan-sharks at bay. The construction process might be completed by the owners themselves or by contractors, depending on individual access to finance, tools, time and knowledge. As individuals escalate the social ladder, they can adapt their suburban house to their growing aspirations by expanding, adapting or rebuilding it, without needing to leave their neighbourhood. This is not possible in apartments and has been seen as one of the causes of degradation of social-housing districts in Europe, where the middle-classes left behind their less fortunate neighbours as soon as they had the means to do so. In terms of mobility, it is possible to affirm that telecommuting will soon become the norm as businesses want to reduce operating costs such as running office space, in a similar way that hospitals reduce expenditures by sending patients home as soon as possible. The separation of workplace from residence, initiated by the French bourgeoisie in the 18th century might be reverted; 3D printing and drone transportation will make production and consumption ubiquitous. Shared vans or tro-tro operations could already improve dramatically by simply adapting existing ride-sharing apps; the future promises autonomous vehicles that serve as moving co-working spaces or kitchens for delivery food. The larger proportion of roofs per capita found in suburban areas must be used to generate energy through solar panels; gardens could be adapted to grow food employing homemade compost. In the end, as John Turner put it, it is not about how the house looks like, but what it does.vii

African cities can take enormous advantages of the ideas put forth here. Lacking infrastructure means that it can adopt the latest innovations available, leap-frogging obsolete technologies such as land-line communication or physical coins. Considering among other things that text might kill speech in the future, it does not make sense to imagine the future of African cities as following the model of Medieval Spanish towns or Brooklyn, with a clear centre surrounded by subordinate neighbourhoods inherited from monarchical regimes or colonial rule. We should not forget that the ubiquitous single storey bungalow or veranda house found today across the whole United States actually originated in the tropics, as a vernacular solution to warm and humid climate; in a way, this typology is finding its way back to where it comes from.

While the African continent remains today rural, there is no doubt that the bulk of future urbanisation processes will happen on African soil. Besides, the African realities of today might resemble those of the West in the future. It is for this reason that for any architect interested in the future of cities in general, Accra is an excellent place to start. As the Comaroff’s explain in their breaking ground Theory from the South, “it is the south that often is the first to feel the effects of world-historical forces, the south in which radically new assemblages of capital and labour are taking shape, thus to prefigure the future of the global north”.viii Alternatively, as Rem Koolhaas reported from Lagos, “To write about the African city is to write about the terminal condition of London, Chicago or Los Angeles”.ix So it is here where programmes such as the [aplied] Foreign Affairs play an important role. Leaving behind a nostalgic attitude for an Africa that is no more, it arrives with the endeavour of better representing the realities and complexities of contemporary African cities, generating a space in which an exchange of ideas between equals produces a new architecture. An architecture that is neither African, European, Austrian or Ghanaian, but Cosmopolitan, in the sense adopted by Ghanaian author Kwame Anthony Appiah.x An architecture that is literally a stone-soup shared among those willing to build a better future.

i It is more and more accepted that unintentionally importing deseases from Europe played an important role in the conquest of Pre-Columbian civilisations. See Mann, C.C., 2005. 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Alfred a Knopf Incorporated.
ii Said, E.W., 1979. Orientalism. Vintage.
iii De Boeck, F. and Plissart, M.F., 2014. Kinshasa: tales of the invisible city. Leuven University Press.
iv Glaeser, E., 2011. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer. Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.
v Noteworthy the work of Anthony D. King. See King, A., 1999. Suburb/Ethnoburb/Globurg: Framing Transnational Urban Space in Asia. In WALD International Conference, Istanbul.
vi Keil, R. ed., 2013. Suburban constellations: Governance, land and infrastructure in the 21st century. Jovis verlag.
vii Turner, J., 1976. Housing by People (London. Marion Boyars.
viii Comaroff, J. and Comaroff, J.L., 2015. Theory from the South: Or, how Euro-America is evolving toward Africa. Routledge.
ix Koolhaas, R., Boeri, S., Kwinter, S., Tazi, N. and Obrist, H.U., 2000. Mutations. Actar.
x Appiah, K.A., 2017. Cosmopolitanisms. NYU Press.