Graham Wood popped in to Architecture ZA 2018 to listen in on architects’ conversations about the African city of the future
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about last month’s big architecture conference in Pretoria, Architecture ZA 2018 (AZA18), was that hardly anyone spoke about buildings. At least not in the ordinary, traditional sense of a building as a "thing". The talk was all about the spaces between them, and what happens there. As architect and urban designer Gerrit Jordaan put it in one talk on the day I attended: "The outside of the building is the inside of the city." And everyone, it seems, is preoccupied with the inside of the city.
The conference’s emphasis on cities is, of course, a response to the rapid urbanisation taking place around the world, and particularly in Africa. It’s undoubtedly an urgent urban moment, placing some very real pressures on cities.
But at the same time, there’s a sense of excitement among architects and urban planners that the global city of the future is an African city, in the same way, perhaps, that the American city was definitive of the 20th century, and Asian cities are now. As we witness the rapid transformation of one-time colonial cities into a new kind of African city, there is also a sense that something new might happen — or needs to happen — in the world between buildings.
One of the most interesting things that came up was that it seems a number of the modernist ideals that shaped the great modern cities of the 20th century have lost their currency. Le Corbusier — probably the most influential architect and urbanist of the past century — had a vision of the city as "towers in a park" (which was more often realised, as Jordaan sardonically dubbed it, as "the tower and the parking lot").
While Le Corbusier’s ideas shaped great cities like New York, they are also held responsible for some of the disasters of urban development in the past century.
In a somewhat surprising turn of events, the city of the future, it seems, would be better off relying on something as old-fashioned and humble as the city street to create the vitality, social cohesion, economic activity and safety necessary to thrive.
The architect’s responsibility, in these instances, is not to create buildings: it is both less and more.
It seemed an important portent when Mumbai-based Indian architect Sameep Padora began discussing his idea of the open city, which involves "enrich[ing] the local through global knowledge networks".
He is not particularly interested in the idea of preserving traditional production purely for its own sake, but rather in appropriating traditional techniques to advance particular skills.
"Adhering to tradition can be a form of colonialism itself," he said.
He sees transformation and modernisation as the only way to keep culture vital.