A symposium on African building construction A playground for concrete. The fastest growing cities in the world

Afritecture Konferenz in München, 2013
Afritecture Konferenz in München, 2013 | Photo: Simone Bader

It all begins with a word. At a visit to the Red Location, an apartheid museum located in one of the oldest townships outside Port Elizabeth in South Africa, irregularities in lettering caught the eye of the architect and author Lesley Lokko.

All signposts - museum exit, museum gift shop and museum coffee shop - were explained in several languages. However, unlike English and Afrikaans, the local language isiXhosa uses a different euphemism for museum on each sign. She asked why. "Because isiXhosa doesn't have a word for it", the staff responded. "Museums are only for white people and tourists".

Does this mean that museums should not be built in Africa? Most certainly not. However, on a two-day symposium held on building construction in Sub-Saharan Africa in the framework of the exhibition "Afritecture (- Exchanging Knowledge)" at the Museum of Architecture in Munich this November, this small anecdote illustrates how difficult and conflict-ridden it still is to realise projects on the continent that will do it justice and also provide what each respective location requires. Or as Lien Heidenreich-Seleme, the Goethe Institute's Head of Cultural Programmes in South Africa, says: "We need to ask ourselves why we are acutally doing this. Is it for a common purpose or for ourselves?" Guilt because of a colonial past, money that NGOs make available without imposing requirements or for the opportunity to provide "our architectural students with a playground for their ideas - regardless if the buildings are used after completion or not”.

The critique is correct. The interest shown from Western universities in so-called Design/Build projects have increased in the last couple of years. In addition to their academic framework, prospective architects create a building from design to completion. This is of course easier in countries such as Kenya, Congo or Ghana compared to Germany or Switzerland, where costs and construction laws pose almost impossible obstacles. But, how does one guarentee that these buildings not only serve to give architectural students a practical insight to the building process but also that they have a positive affect on its environment? After all, the mentoring professors will knowingly choose a poor region for theses Design/Build projects that otherwise have no schools, training centres or medical access. This environmentally sustainable building is of little use when its use is not guaranteed or when lack of technology and know-how prevent repairs.

The question of what architecture Africa actually needs is not just asked by foreigners but also by the continent itself. A continent that is experiencing an urbanisation of unpredictable proportions, exceeding Asia in the process. The urban population doubles within a generation. However, there are no new ideas of how the million new houses will look that will be built in Angola over the next four years nor for the cities that will emerge through this building boom. The benefits have gone abroad and never stayed on the continent with fatal consequences: 80 per cent of Ethiopa's trade deficit goes towards import of concrete, steel, glass and building machinery. These materials are only required when you are copying the West.

Angela Christina Mingas, a historical urban quarter researcher in Angola's capital Luanda, says "we must redefine the architectural prototypes so that we can adapt them to African dimensions". How do you create a street in Africa that allows for the pervasive street vendors to do their job without obstructing the general traffic? South African architect Luyanda Mpahlwa has come up with an answer for a metro station. This metro station allows for small vendor stands and can be evacuated in a case of emergency. The search for new designs has just begun.