Finding Middle Ground: Designers and Policymakers Discuss Urban Development in Africa

David Adjaye, Alassane Ba, and Raul Pantaleo. Image Credit: Caroline James

One of the virtues of the Harvard African Development Conference is its ability to draw upon practitioners from very different backgrounds and methods. The fifth-annual HADC invited dignitaries, former prime ministers, ambassadors, representatives from the African Development Bank, and even the CEO of Madécasse Chocolate, an innovative company whose slogan states, “Grown in Africa. Made in Africa. 4X the impact of fair trade.” Samples of the chocolate were par for the course. The conference also was occasion for architect David Adjaye’s visit to Harvard. He delivered a powerful lecture at the GSD just the evening before.

What is your vision for Africa 50 years from now? This question launched the discussion for the panel, “African Future Cities: Discourse on Models of Urban Development in Africa.” Curated by Melanie Wavamunno (MAUD ’14) and Olayinka Dosekun (MArch I ’15), co-chairs of the student group Africa GSD. The panelists each first delivered short introductions.

As principal at Adjaye Associates, Adjaye is an architect born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, then raised in London from his teenage years on. An architect of international prominence, his largest commission to date is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, completing L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, DC. His research projects and built work increasingly bring him to Africa—a project in Uganda is in the works.

Raul Pantaleo describes passive solar techniques to harness buildings with lower operating costs. Image Credit: Caroline James

Raul Pantaleo, principal at Studio TAMassociati in Venice, has developed an architecture process for building in war-torn or other challenging areas. He speaks with refreshing candor about his work. He draws no distinction between whether he’s building in Sicily, Afghanistan, or Darfur, pointing out that he found parts of Southern Italy far more dangerous and corrupt than places he’s worked in Africa. His “Emergency NGO Pediatric Clinic” in Port Sudan, built in partnership with an Italian NGO, won the Aga Khan Gold Medal, and the firm won the 2013 Curry Stone Design Award, curated by LF ’11 Chee Pearlman.

Alassane Bâ, originally from Mauritania, is managing director of Shelter Afrique, a pan-Africa finance institute dedicated to affordable housing and commercial real estate. Bâ comes from a world of finance, operations and delivery of affordable housing.

Moderater Hanif Kara, GSD professor of practice, structural engineer and director of AKTII, called on the panelists to envision the future city. Bâ addressed the key point of housing. Some 60% of urban Africans live in slums, which Bâ calls a “big market failure.” The satellite city, rarely part of a cohesive urban plan, is often fueled by private development. In unplanned settlements, the developer has the burden to supply infrastructure such as sewage and water. Otherwise, the residents must cope with incomplete or non-existent utilities. African governments need to step up their commitment to affordable housing, as part of assembling the right public policies for urban planning.

HADC attracts hundreds of professionals, scholars and students to Harvard’s campus every Spring. Image Credit: Caroline James

Pantaleo pointed out that the panel question should not be “where is Africa in 50 years,” but instead, where is the world? The major issue is poverty, and how to approach distribution of capital. “To build a skyscraper such as in Dubai in Africa makes little sense for environmental issues.” In Port Sudan, he built a hospital in the suburbs, near a refugee camp, but designed the building to deliver more than healthcare. It became also a social landmark–a place of care. Architecture is an extraordinary tool, “the difference in making a horrible building and good place is not the money, but the skills and creativity,” Pantaleo explains. Each of his projects must work within a limited budget, merging ethics, aesthetics and economy.

Adjaye asserted his belief in the power of architecture to have agency. He reminded us that Africa was the birthplace of “tropical modernism,” demanding building technologies for complex climates. At worst, the approach can make a city in the desert. At best, it can enable complex urban environments to flourish. Adjaye emphasized the need to create more specific energy models related to environmental models and specific ecologies that have shaped people and the built environment. “The perfect test bed is in urban context,” Adjaye elaborated. Africa is a continent that is extremely resourceful at making use out of nothing, often due to extreme poverty. Why are we looking to Masdar City? We should look to Kigali.”

Some differences in perspectives led to deeper discussions. Bâ cited the urban plan for Kigali as an example of great urban planning. Pantaleo took to the blackboard to explain why the Kigali plan gets it all wrong, proposing to pack the hilly terrain with skyscrapers. While a utopian vision, it is not a feasible plan for the contemporary African city. Pantaleo argued that a middle scale is far more appropriate for Kigali’s growth.

While no definite conclusions were reached, the panelists agreed upon the urgency of Africa moving to clean energy. “Every house can be a power plant,” Bâ stated. Further, all three speakers emphasized the importance of looking at the local conditions and microcosms in Africa. Middle-scale might be the solution for increasing density in tune with the climactic challenges that face the African cities of the future.


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