UIA2014 Durban hosts African architects and ideas

Workshop at UIA2014. From left to right: Lesley Kokko, Issa Diabate, Naeem Biviji, Bisrat Kifle
Workshop at UIA2014. From left to right: Lesley Kokko, Issa Diabate, Naeem Biviji, Bisrat Kifle | © Goethe-Institut South Africa. Photo: Lien Heidenreich-Seleme

UIA2014, says Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities, offered a forum to “clarify what the global and intercontinental conversation should be, but also what the priorities for us as South African and Africans are as we go through the transition of next two or three decades”.

African architectural ingenuity enjoyed centre stage at the recent Durban congress of the International Union of Architects (UIA2014). Key themes affecting architectural practitioners across the African continent were also widely discussed at this global congress, which drew 4000 professionals from 96 countries. Each UIA congress is presented under a distinctive theme. Durban, the first sub-Saharan African city to host a UIA congress since its inception in Lausanne in 1948, developed the rubric “architecture otherwhere”, using this category-debunking theme to create a diverse scientific and cultural programme that focused attention on marginal, informal and overlooked sites of architectural thinking.

As it unfolded, the four-day long conference crystallised a number of key ideas central to African architecture, notably architectural modesty. In a public conversation that included Diébédo Francis Kéré, a Berlin-based architect born in Burkina Faso, and Kjetil Thorsen, from Norway, smallness unexpectedly received its due. It happened when Kéré asked Thorsen how he maintained the “high quality” of his projects. Thorsen responded by first praising Kéré. “Young architects, did you hear that?” interjected Kéré, prompting wild applause. “Please go back to your roots,” continued Kéré. “Try to do something at home, in a small space. You will see that suddenly great architects will see your projects. Don’t wait!”

Kéré, who first met Thorsen in 2004 when a primary school he designed in his native Burkina Faso won an Aga Khan Award for Architecture, was not the only architect to emphasise the virtues of architectural modesty at the triennial congress. Many speakers at UIA2014 showcased small-scale design interventions from across the continent and beyond. Noteworthy contributors included Thorsten Deckler and Anne Graupner of Johannesburg architectural practice 26'10 South Architects. Deckler, who was born in Namibia, was a lively participant at UIA2014. He wholly embraced the congress theme of “architecture otherwhere” in a public presentation that focussed on two Gauteng informal settlements, Ruimsig and Marlboro South.

Partnering with the Goethe-Institut, University of Johannesburg and NGO Ikhayalami, Deckler’s firm facilitated an intervention in Ruimsig, an informal settlement on the western periphery of Johannesburg. Students worked in collaboration with eight “community architects” on strategies for the immediate and long-term improvement of the settlement. Deckler challenged the idea that architecture is singularly about “agitation and chaos”, a practice that necessarily defies policy and bureaucracy. “Have you read the policy documents?” he asked. Deckler’s talk was very much aimed at showing that it is possible to think and work past traditional antagonisms – between client and architect, citizen and state, architect and public officials – and establish opportunities for collaboration and engagement at the community-level.

Franck Houndégla, a multi-disciplinary French designer of African ancestry, works in a similar manner to Deckler. At UIA2014, Houndégla showcased three small-scale projects he has worked on, including one set in a marketplace in Benin’s second-largest city, Porto-Novo. Working with Liberian-born architect Francis Sessou and a team of local Porto-Novo craftsmen and artisans, Houndégla supervised the construction of an unpretentious trading structure that mimicked the modest volumes and lines of the old informal market it upgraded.
Houndégla explained how in many African cities, public spaces – “outdoor spaces for common use,” as he qualified the term’s meaning in Africa – have fallen into neglect, this despite often being the most used spaces. Overhauling them is typically a massive undertaking. Houndégla, working with the French design and development agency Liaisons urbaines, has refined a site-specific practice that is both inexpensive and quick. Collaboration is key, he explained, his projects inviting the input of local bricklayers and masons as much as architects and furniture designers.

Modesty, while important as a concept, was not the only theme to emerge from the congress. Human dignity and the need to clarify the African debate around architecture and the built environment also emerged as two key themes. Speaking at the opening of UIA2014, Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, highlighted the importance of African architects defining the continent’s transition agenda. UIA2014, he said, offered a forum to “clarify what the global and intercontinental conversation should be, but also what the priorities for us as South African and Africans are as we go through the transition of next two or three decades”.

Recognising an opportunity to contribute to this unfolding debate, the Goethe-Institut hosted a two-day closed meeting of architects from the continent shortly before the UIA congress opened. The participants included Naeem Biviji (Kenya), Issa Diabaté (Ivory Coast), Koku Konu (Nigeria), Jean-Jacques Kotto (Cameroon), Lesley Lokko (Ghana/SA), Bisrat Kifle (Ethiopia) and Doung Anwar Jahangeer (Mauritius/SA). The focus of the meeting centred on an African-themed architectural exhibition for display at the Architekturmuseum der TU München in 2016, whose director Andres Lepik did also join the workshop and discussion. The role of the process was to identify protagonists and themes for this African-authored exhibition.

Biviji was a vocal and engaged participant during the process. Born and raised in Nairobi, Biviji trained as an architect in Edinburgh. After a further hiatus in India, where he did a stint of “conventional office work” in an architectural firm in Ahmadabad, he pursued beekeeping in rural England (Northumberland), later returning to Kenya with the idea of introducing it as a professional activity there. His idea didn’t work out, so he established Studio Propolis, a full service design workshop.
The studio, which takes its name from the resinous binding agent produced by bees to fix and varnish honeycombs, makes interior furnishings and devises bespoke architectural solutions. One of its current projects involves the design and fabrication of doors and pews for a Catholic cathedral in the highlands town of Kericho. Studio Propolis is small, even by African standards: its two employees are Biviji and his wife, Bethan Rayner.

“Working so closely in a studio environment I have increasingly realised that a lot of the games that architects play are so formalistic,” said Biviji during a break between talks at the UIA2014 congress. He further explained how slowness is an essential part of the studio’s method. “You have to live with the objects you make and really understand how they affect people in a space. It is about understanding from a very intimate scale, up. It is deeply humbling.”

Biviji’s enthusiasm at being at UIA2014 was palpable, and was matched by Jean-Jacques Kotto. Part of the Goethe-Institut delegation, Kotto speaks with a thick French accent. He is executive director of the Higher Special School of Architecture of Cameroon, this central African state’s first university of architecture. Based in Yaoundé, the privately owned university opened in 2010 with one classroom and predictions of its certain demise. It now boasts five classrooms and a visiting faculty of mostly French architectural professors. Establishing a solid curriculum remains one of the school’s biggest challenges, he said.

Kotto has been attending UIA’s nomadic congresses for two decades. He dismissed allegations that the event, which drew 900 students and included a busy scientific programme of parallel talks, was pitched mainly at academic architects. It addressed professional practice, he insisted. He added that the congress is an opportunity to facilitate understanding amongst architects. “It is a forum to speak about the situation of architects everywhere,” he stated. Kotto was also heartened by UIA’s decision to hold a congress in a sub-Saharan city for the first time. “Sometimes people don’t understand the reality of our continent, the reality of where we practice,” he remarked, saying that he and other African architects had supported Durban’s bid to host the congress. Which points to another key congress theme: collaboration.