NAi Debates on Tour: The African City Center and its Future

NAi Debates on Tour: The African City Center and its Future

A report from the African Perspectives conference in Pretoria, South Africa

Each year, the Netherlands Architecture Institute, organizes worldwide approximately eight Debates on Tour. Together with a local counterpart, Dutch architects fly to a specific city to discuss specific themes, problems and challenges with their local counterpart. On 28th of September the NAi teamed up with ArchiAfrica to host a debate in Pretoria, South Africa during the African Perspectives conference. Arjen Oosterman joined in to write the following report.

Opening by moderator Antoni Folkers.

A confrontation of experiences from different parts of the world, centered on roughly the same theme or problematics, is rewarding by default. The Debates on Tour-program of the NAi, is based on this format. These debates have more than one edge: it acts as an antenna to ‘receive’ new developments, ideas and positions; it connects Dutch and international networks; it presents the NAi in different contexts throughout the world; and it proposes new agendas for architecture in non-hierarchical order.

This first ever NAi Debate on Tour on African soil took place in Pretoria on the occasion of the African Perspectives conference, that took place from September 25-28, also a program of Dutch making. African Perspectives started at the beginning of this century to bridge the information and knowledge gap between Europe and Africa. Utrecht based initiator ArchiAfrika developed what started as ‘bringing Africa to Europe’ and the Flemish and Dutch universities of architecture in particular, into a full fledged educational and scientific program, including a scientific committee and paper sessions, but also student workshops and presentations.

The starting point of ArchiAfrika is that Europe knows nothing about its material involvement in Africa and that Africa has to deal consciously with the imported tradition of modernism. It is vital to know and understand the heritage/history and to relate this to local, cultural specific traditions, before deciding to accept or reject the modernist approach. The initial annoyance that the rest of the world is hardly interested in what has happened in Africa and what is going on (on the level of architecture, urbanism and planning) has gradually transformed into an ambition to see what is African about the African city and in what ways this can be used for development. That adds to the import/export project an element of self-reflection for the African architectural community (all those professionals active in fields related to architecture and city) and an interesting research perspective for scholars around the globe.

From left to right: Martin Kruger, Paul Meurs, Godfrey Anjumba and Hein de Haan.

City Center = Mixed Use

Explicitly announced as a pilot, this debate on tour gathered architect Heinrich Wolff, architect and urban designer Martin Kruger and urban planner Godfrey Anjumba on the African side, Paul Meurs (architect and advisor on urban heritage) and Hein de Haan (architect activist and tutor urban planning) on the European/Dutch side. As often this division was relative since Anjumba studied in The Netherlands too. ArchiAfrika-host Antoni Folkers acted as moderator.

With public space in the city center – and Pretoria’s center in particular, suffering from an institutional drain and diminishing vitality and importance – as topic, discussion started right away. The very notion ‘city center’ was probably too European, related to a particular urban history and typology, and better indicated as ‘activity center’ (the day before, during the conference ‘CBD’ as indication of the historic center of Pretoria had been discarded as too American and replaced by ‘City Center’).

As a start, it related directly to the first question: what is public space in Africa? Instead of the standard reflex ‘square’, the notion ‘market’ was proposed by Martin Kruger. Godfrey Anjumba added ‘place for ceremony, drama and feast’; qualities instead of boundaries. The Dutch focused immediately on a more architectural concern: the division between private and public and the exchange between the two. Their advice: ‘in planning or analyzing don’t stop at the boundaries of public domain, look ten meters beyond the facade, beyond the border of private ownership to make full use of the urban quality of public space’.

After qualities and legal aspects, Heinrich Wolff introduced the power issue: who owns and controls and has access to public space? And this was not only about privately owned and controlled public space, but also about socio-political convention (exclusion of women in particular). That was all to our liking, but what about a reality check? Hein de Haan explained about the problems of mono-functional districts in the Netherlands (hence his critique on the use of CBD for the historic center) and how to counter degradation by introducing mixed programs in housing areas, office parks and city centers and Paul Meurs narrated about the problems in Brazil to deploy that strategy effectively (mixed use in former office towers). One of the students proposed that mixed programs as redevelopment strategy for empty offices might be a good idea, but zoning laws prevent this. Make creative use of the rules, De Haan responded, introduce typologies that count as ‘work’, but also include commerce and living, like artist studios. Mr. Anjumba added that the challenge is to convince developers and municipalities of what is common knowledge among architects and planners by now: that mixed-use and layering of programs is essential for urban quality and vitality. Paul Meurs explained another Dutch practice: develop specialized (sub)centers in addition to the historic down town that is specializing in tourism, high culture and top market shopping these days.
Interesting ideas if you have national and local authorities in proper control of planning and urban development, but the audience felt this was not reality in South Africa.

Heinrich Wolff

City Center = Safety and Density

More local sentiments came into play. For instance a preference for the ‘American dream’ typology of single family homes on a private plot of land, fenced off to protect these little islands as a safe-haven, which doesn’t produce a sense of center at all. In addition there was mention of a practice to move from one protected ‘bubble’ to another, regarding public space as the short cut between the two. The theme of fear shaping the environment and public space in particular was at the table. Heinrich Wolff opposed this image as only true for a small minority. The majority walks and goes about just as normal as anywhere in the world. And to counter a further loss of public quality one could think of introducing events like street soccer, to enhance ‘publicness’ and a feel of openness and accessibility.

Although this was regarded as both sympathetic and idealistic, the issue of the role of government was raised again. First Mr. Anjumba introduced an interesting ‘reading’ of Sunnyside district, that was described as lively, and with an extensive modern legacy. He stated that this wasn’t threatened the way the historic center of Pretoria is, because Sunnyside has been developed almost optimally. Tearing down and rebuilding won’t add much profit for developers, like it does in older areas. So here you can take your time to adjust and refine.
But who is to blame then, the audience asked, for the deterioration of the center, a diseased heart in a healthy body; developers won’t do the right thing, politicians don’t care it seems, are architects and planners the only people that have to take responsibility? Mr. Kruger tried to neutralize this potential explosive issue in referring to ‘the people’ and the Greek agora. But Mr. Wolff made it personal: the question came from a young person, still able to hold the older generation responsible, but even that young person will grow older and find herself responsible in the end. So why not start right away? Just do it. The architect as entrepreneur entered the scene, adding a VOLUME touch to the debate. ‘Are we talking about the same thing when discussing ‘public space’? New technologies revolutionize the very notion and if public space is shared experience, YouTube, email and internet are universal public spaces just the same. Mr. Meurs responded that the digital environment cannot replace the ‘authentic experience’ and that ticket sales for live concerts for instance prove that point. He wasn’t worried by the advent of new technologies.

Another example was the resurgence of Amsterdam’s historic center. 30 years ago it was in serious decline, the canal houses were almost exclusively occupied by offices, residents were leaving, small shops closing, historic buildings in bad shape. The city was passé, long live the suburb. But look, nowadays inner city apartments are the most expensive in the country. Authenticity as quality survives and wins in the end. And for the redevelopment of the famous Rotterdam Lijnbaan shopping center cum housing in the center the same argument counts: the developer is advised to start from heritage value, not ignore it, since that is the money maker in the long run. With this explicit mention of heritage as an important factor in publicness and public space a more political reading of the African city center was introduced at last.

Contribution from the audience

City Center = Identification

Because whose monuments are we talking about? There is no shared heritage yet, argued Wolff. The classic monuments represent white power, it is only now that monuments of other groups in society are being acknowledged, but there is a long way to go. And that opened the gate for ghetto, separation, cultural minority and what else as expressed in little Chinatown, little India and little Zululand. No problem, according to Anjumba, since identification is more important than the risk of compound-like separation. These ‘pockets’ add flavor and have a quality of their own. Stimulated by public intervention, Mr Kruger opposed that every city has groups and minorities, but public space is about collective use. That should be open to everyone and not ‘owned’ by just one group. And there the argumentation came full circle, because if public space matters, what exactly is its quality and character in the African city center?

And though this Debate on Tour didn’t produce a clear cut conclusion, it did make clear that despite its modern looks and globalized character, the South African city has a serious identity issue to solve. South Africa may be a state since 1910 and independent since 1961, it is in fact a very young nation. Since its political transformation in 1990-94, it had to reinvent itself. Cultural notions like ‘center’ and ‘heritage’ have to re-find their meaning in a new reality. That talking about these subjects proved difficult enough is telling for the challenges to confront.

SolarDecathalon 2009