New African Cities

Last summer I visited Morroco to see and briefly research mud architecture-world famous kasbah. Years of technical evolution found the most optimal and adequate solution for the climate, a true masterpiece. A great lesson for all the architects. But it was Casablanca that surprised me the most. The city famous from the movie with Humprey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman has nothing to do with our preconceptions. It’s a monstrous African city, bustling, vibrant, dirty and chaotic, where misery limits with a filthy richness, streets are packed with cars and cranes of new investments are scratching blue skies. I could only imagine how other cities in Africa look like.

As everyone knows we are experiencing a moment of The Great Acceleration. Generation is changing faster, technology has skyrocketed, global temperature has raised. The world population is going to hit 8 billion in 5 years. It means that the only in the next five years there is a need for new houses for 300 million people. The previous grand population growth was observed in Asia from the ‘50 until today. This time it is Africa coming.

Street Landscape in Casablanca

On the contrary to China, India or Japan that has an impressive history of the state, society, culture and science, emerging African countries are young, decolonization started in the late ‘50. Exploitation by France, the United Kingdom, Germany,  Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain left the continent exhausted. After hundreds of years of external governments and authorities send from overseas, the continent has to find its path. While there was hardly any aboriginal people capable of ruling the countries, the economic relation and ownership of business remained. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest literacy level reaching only 65%, the first independent African students left universities in mid-sixties. Until today higher education is reserved only to a few. Needless to say, there are not many universities teaching architecture and just a few professionals. International Union of Architects on its website claims there are 386 registered architects in Kenya or 900 in Angola. Evidently, a question arises: Who is going to design new African cities?

A brief study of global demographics, basic economic indicators reveals that until 2035 we should expect that the urban population in the poorest cities would grow by more than 250 million out of which 150 million in Africa. Some cities Dar es Salaam or Luanda are expected more than 7 million new citizens. Once mapping the new population and cities we receive a clear picture of a Gulf of Guinea urban belt, a transnational, limitless megalopolis Yangtze River Delta Megalopolis.

Despite the fact of a great territorial extent, the Gulf of Guinea cities shares the same climate, described by Koeppen-Geiger as tropical savannah (Aw). Mean temperature above 18°C and a pronounced dry season characterizes this region. Also, the dry season could bring severe droughts. The zone lies close to the equator which also indicates that there hardly any changes in the daylight pattern throughout the year. Evolution of the Human Language Project indicated that this region is, in the majority, inhabited by Niger-Kordofanian group. Language could be understood as one of the main features of cultural heritage. This confirms the assumption of great similarities of modus vivendi of the people inhabiting the Gulf of Guinea.  

As mentioned before the regions share a similar climate, cultural patterns, history and lack of qualified professionals to design infrastructure and new cities. Once the eastern coast of Africa is being highly invested and developed by China. A great example could be a new 10b$ port in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. So far the west coast seems to be not that attractive. Lagos (12M), Accra (5.5M), Lome (6M) are already huge megalopolis where slams house up to 70% of the population.

Map of the cities in Sub-Saharan Africa that would grow by at least 0.5M people by 2035.

After the II World War Europe was in lack of houses. Shortly after the demographic rate was soaring. Easter Germany, Poland, USSR had to construct millions of new flats. Borders got shifted, many cities got destroyed and there was significant migration from the countryside. The ruined cities had to where in a true humanitarian crisis. They had recover rapidly, rebuild infrastructure and houses. Architects of the era proposed prefabrication as an efficient method to reconstruct devastated cities.

From the ‘50 a grey mass of concrete boxes filled the Eastern European cities, constructing an egalitarian communist society. Prefabricates made in factories allowed to ensure relatively modern and hygienic living conditions. Also, Chile and Cuba tried to build their cities with panels fabricated in USSR, though they weren’t adjusted to local weather conditions. At least in Cuba, there was an attempt to adapt the panels to the local climate.

Prefabrication could be one of the ways to improve living condition in the future cities of the Gulf of Guinea. Several arguments are in favour of such a solution: there is an alarming deficit of safe and hygienic houses, local universities are not educating enough engineers and architects to design and construct thousands of new houses, the local manpower is unskilled and often illiterate. The new prefabricated solution shouldn’t copy the mistakes of international style architecture. Vernacular mimetic, computer energy simulation, prefabrication, digital fabrication, circular economy, mass customization should be the basis of the new building technology. Architecture doesn’t have to be a prototype each and every time. Some solutions are universal and could be applied to more than one lot. Others could be modify be the users as once suggested John Habraken.

There are definitely more questions than solutions coming to my mind but I will try to look for an answer. A well-designed and executed project could improve the lives of millions. Since its scale is so massive, it could also lead to some improvement in the architectural process, define new ways of financing and executing.


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