Architects are seen as heroic, but tragic figures who struggle with natural brilliance in isolation from the rest of the world. This image of the architect, first depicted by Ayn Rand in her novel The Fountainhead, has defined the profession since the book’s publication in 1943 and has influenced the Western perception of architects for generations thereafter. In Africa, architects suffer a similar fate, as artists belonging to a secluded world that is not grounded in reality.
To secure the future of design professions, particularly in Africa, it has become imperative to reconceive the role of designers in our society. The perception of designers as dreamers must be changed; we must explain how designers have central roles to play in defining our development agenda. It is through imagination and creativity, not in spite of it, that designers are able to meet the modern challenges of dwindling resources and changing human capital. Architects especially may be more able than others to create locally oriented, context specific approaches to optimize rather than maximize the built environment.
The Architect in Africa
Despite being a relatively mature profession in West Africa- the Institutes of Architecture in Nigeria and Ghana being more than 50 years old- architecture has not taken its rightful role as a resource for the creation of national development agendas. Architects are seen as professional figures who are not fully engaged or immersed in the nittygritty of development and planning issues facing African metropoles today. It is critical that architects become more involved in these activities and learn to lobby for strong roles within decision-making groups. We need to become ‘design socioeconomists’, activists of sorts, and prove that the African architect has the unique spatial and conceptual training to bring to the contemporary policy and planning ‘table’.
To help us to realize this vision, it is important to note how the education and training of Africa’s architects falls short of addressing the African context. It is true our schools of architecture and design have produced a competent cadre of professionals for half a century or more. However, we see a need now to implement transformative courses that respond to the pressing needs of our society whilst being engaged with global design trends and discourses. For example, today’s African students are generally able to work with the new media and technologies; while it is the pedagogues delivering architectural training who must catch up. We must also learn to embrace the allied fields of fine arts, literature, theater- and even business- to gain from their contributions in creating holistic responses that will in some part influence how design narrative is developed. Architectural training within the African context must encourage creativity and an innovative design principle.
The creative mentality must also resonate beyond education to practice. This requires a lateral approach to design that is more practice-focused and experiential than ‘taught’ in the traditional classroom studio environment. Our plea is that those involved in delivering this new pedagogy need to work more collaboratively with those in practice and in other design professions to produce a new generation of architects who are able to meet the needs of development on the continent.
Contemporary Architectural Practice in Africa
Today’s African architects have unwittingly found themselves separated from the very processes that formed the roots of our profession in planning and development. Unlike models from elsewhere, such as Architects Sans Frontiers (ASF), and Architects Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility.
(ADPSR), the architectural practice norm in much of Africa remains the sole practitioner with assistant(s), who remains focused on the design of housing for rich patrons, or the occasional institutional commission. Laudable as this may be for the architects who are able to make good and gain commissions this way, this model only reinforces the division between urban design and planning integration and architecture. Architecture should be viewed as a field concerned with humanity and social welfare in general, not only one that benefits private sector.
All architects have benefitted from a design-focused education, and also learnt to collaborate with design teams, even on the smallest of projects. This experience should be brought to planning and policy teams in our African cities. We have to be careful, however, that becoming collaborative does not mean becoming embroiled in politics. The toxic mix of politics in the planned environment is one that should be addressed, it is clear from the development of our contemporary cities that the politicization of planning and policy have had a detrimental effect on livelihoods, social infrastructure and the spatial landscape.
Integrated Planning and Policy Futures
For too long development policy in Africa has been the exclusive reserve of planning and economic development experts who have a limited understanding of the African city and the built landscapes that narrate the evolution of the contemporary African city. Through clever financing strategies and and a lack of political will, we remain beholden to ‘design’ and ‘aid’ consultants from elsewhere to suggest policies for, plan, and design our urban environments, whilst we have indigenous and local architectural practitioners with the intellect and resources to do this. We believe that African architects have a professional and moral mandate to lead planning and policy processes in Africa. If nothing else, we have a responsibility to our young architects to bring about transformation, social responsibility and urban planning that is locally focused and centered.
Design can and should be democratic, by involving architects in a design-led approach to the planning process, and by keeping this process ‘apolitical’. How else can we expect real community involvement and empowerment in the design process and the fair provision of infrastructure? We must have the courage to demand local imperatives. We must learn how to get involved in all aspects of the discourse of decentralization, local empowerment, new educational principles and the development of local industry- in short, all aspects of the national economic agenda. This is only possible by teaming up with one another and adding to a chorus of inclusiveness and collaboration in our planning processes.
The Architect as a Problem Solver
Design is clearly not only about architecture but cuts into many other sectors from building research and construction to the development of local building materials. Design professionals need to engage in this realm and recognize that we can support and even drive the development of local industry.
Who apart from the designer can lower the cost of construction and lower our reliance on imported building materials? The development of locally made building materials, made from local raw materials is required in order to truly meet the needs of our growing middle classes.
The example of pozzolana cement commercialization is indicative of this; pozzolana cement was developed by Ghana’s Building and Road Research Institute and commercialized by private investors who built a plant and created a product for the mass market. Because the raw materials for pozzolana are local sourced (clay and palm kernel shells), and because it can replace a portion of ordinary Portland cement, pozzolana cement can actually reduce the cost of construction by up to 30%.
There are many other areas that can be developed similarly bamboo, clays and wood are found abundantly- however, we need the collaboration of architects and allied design professionals to lead us through the entire design process from concept to actualization. Architects can be agents of change.
But only if we act in coalition with other design professionals and key players within the national and international framework to create change.