This past week, trying to finish a document that was due weeks ago, I have found myself asking, "What is the point of thesis?" It seems that nearly everything I would say has already been said. In the age of Google, Google Books and Google Scholar, everything needs to be qualified. At the same time, since my thesis is actually a design thesis, not a written text, my overdue document ("thesis prep") serves solely to frame my design problem and my approach. So I wrote a note to myself, explaining why I am actually invested in this process:
This document is a record of my attempts to make sense of a city--Tema, Ghana--not as an end in itself, but in order to formulate a position about how design can be most relevant in that context. Why Tema? Why not. Africa is conspicuously absent from the discourse of architecture. Architects write about African cities far less than do journalists, novelists, lyricists, anthropologists, sociologists and development policy "experts." As a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the only time a faculty member mentioned Africa during the core curriculum was--in essence--to say that the continent only existed in the 19th century when someone said "Africa" in Paris. There is now a new trend in the design community to refocus attention on the Dark Continent (thanks, Rem). While I welcome the intent, I find some aspects disturbing. This latest generation of designers seeking to alleviate Africa's poverty and foster development through innovation fails to critically examine previous efforts over the past sixty years. The Architecture for Humanity / Open Architecture Network model proclaims that "Design can save the world!" I say, that is pure deception, self-indulgent propaganda that has already been disproven: If that is true, then why is the world in the midst of the worst economic (read: existential) crisis in a century?
Let us be more modest. Architecture has social effects--but the nature and extent of these effects is contingent on a host of other factors. I start with Tema because it is a piece of Africa that folds conveniently into the discourse--a new town, built from scratch over the past fifty years, according to dominant conventions of modern urban planning and development policy. My instinct is to distrust theories of "development," especially from institutions like the World Bank, that were designed not by the developing world but by the beneficiaries of centuries of global exploitation. Globalization is a process, ultimately, of power distribution; thus I take Tema as a given and ask how (if) design can increase local power.