Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tema Network Power

Draft for UPenn's Unspoken Borders 09 conference... With my thesis I am working to push the idea of designing standards, not just "architecture" and especially not just the one-off architectural masterpiece...

[ Network Power in a West African New Town | Dk Osseo-Asare ] 


        “Was it not yesterday that the first truck rumbled into the bush village?” [E. Maxwell Fry, 1964] 

        “On the 8th of March 2000, having acquired the visas, tickets, and general property of the expedition, we left Cambridge for the west coast of Africa to begin our explorations. It is not without some nostalgia that we set forth to discover Graham Greene’s ‘blank’ and ‘unexplored’ spaces. Driven by ‘a curiosity to discover if one can from what we have come, to recall at what point we went astray.’ To find what we are becoming, and what our future will be.” [Foreward, Lagos Handbook]  

        “African cities operate as a platform for people to engage in processes and territories elsewhere.” [AbdulMaliq Simone, 2001. “On the Worldling of African Cities.”] 

The goal of this text is two-fold. First, I question dominant approaches to framing architecture in Africa. Second, I test the concept of “network power” as a tool for relating the agency of architecture and planning to local and global power differentials in the African city, starting with the industrial new town of Tema, Ghana. 


While architects write about African cities far less than do journalists, novelists, lyricists, anthropologists, sociologists and development policy “experts,” Africa is back in the discourse thanks in part to Rem's Lagos. What was it before? Mali, Maasai, mud and magic... African architecture is typically considered through several lenses. (1) Tradition: The African artisan as indigenous genius. This approach echoes previous preoccupation with organic architecture and the vernacular, embracing traditional techniques of construction and the spiritual dimensions of the culture of building (Labelle Prussin’s work on gender and space, Suzanne Blier’s study of the Batammaliba, Ron Eglash’s ethnomathematics of African fractals). (2) Conflict: African as refugee. Africa’s defining conditions are poverty and war, but design can help (Architecture for Humanity, Shigeru Ban’s earlier emergency architecture for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees). (3) Crisis: African as innovator. Citizens of African cities are remarkable because they collectively (mysteriously) develop tactics for survival in cities that are so deeply in crisis that they approach total breakdown of social and physical infrastructure (Boeck and Plissart’s Kinshasa, Koolhaas’ Lagos). 

For Koolhaas, Lagos is important because it “might be the most radical urban condition on the planet.”1 This latest attempt to conquer the enduring mystery of the Dark Continent replaces the focus on traditional techniques and materials of construction (mud mosques and village housing) with Africa’s new urban phenomena, an alternate global culture of congestion, emergent entrepreneurship and the informal. Rem’s Lagos research deliberately plays with the historical idea of “the expedition,” but takes as its territory of discovery Lagos’ “dangerous” and “unexplored” urban space: an ultimate urbanism produced by people who survive despite the collapse of the city, the future of the West. His search for the future primitive finds only the uneven question of the informal...Like Urban Think Tank’s savvy branding of Caracas’ “informal city,” Lagos’ density proves not that it is wholly different, but that it is an enormous and emergent part of the global project of urbanism.  

Despite the humanitarian motivation behind trends to expand the field of design by considering “informal” urbanization processes globally, we need to be careful. The current generation of designers seeking to alleviate Africa’s poverty and foster development through innovation is in danger of failing to critically examine previous efforts over the past sixty years. The Architecture for Humanity, Open Architecture Network, and Design for the Other 90% mentality that proclaims—“Design can save the world!”—risks becoming self-indulgent propaganda. Given today's global economic and existential crisis, design has in recent history been either underutilized, outmatched or ineffective. 

Let us be more modest. Architecture, urban design and planning all have social effects—but the nature and extent of these effects is contingent on a host of other factors. We should not become so preoccupied with the provocative that we ignore the conventional. The reality of radical urban or environmental conditions in Africa today are linked to an equally real history of modern architecture and planning intervention. Yes, under contemporary conditions of globalization, Africa has some of the most phenomenal rates of urbanization in all human history, but architecture is not only now arriving on the scene. African technocrats trained in the US, the UK, Eastern Europe and later, the new African postcolonies have together with a displaced design, planning and engineering community of Western expatriates in Africa already built—on top of the colonial network—additional networks of infrastructure that dictate much of the new urban growth. The first wave of modern architecture and planning intervention in Africa was framed as an “experiment”2—Could design deliver development? A half-century later, before proposing new solutions, it is imperative that we map this history of design and development against the experimental results on the ground. 


In contrast to Lagos—which is important because it is different—what makes Tema relevant is not that it is unique, but that it exists. Tema, one of many African geographies with material circuits, folds conveniently into the discourse: it is a new town, built from scratch over the past fifty years, according to dominant conventions of modern urban planning and development policy. Planning and construction of new towns implicitly involves power—a more general concept than economics—given the relationship between decision-making hierarchies and agency. As urban artifacts, and because they were planned into being by fiat, new towns correlate completely to infrastructure. New towns are the opposite of spontaneous: like all large-scale infrastructure (a power grid, an interstate highway) Tema emerged within and because of a specific political ecology.3  

Other modernist ‘New Town’ projects in developing countries, such as Chandigarh in India, Brasilia in Brazil, and Abuja in Nigeria, were designed as new administrative capitals for government. Tema was instead designed to be a modern city of industry4 at the core of the mid-20th-century Volta River Project (VRP). The VRP was an ambitious project to link hydroelectricity from the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River to large-scale industry and an artificial harbor at Tema (conceived by British business interests during the colonial period but executed primarily after independence in 1957). Doxiadis Associates re-designed the Tema Development Corporation’s original master plan of Tema for a larger projected population of 250,000 people.5 With a population now twice that size, Tema has successfully jumpstarted industrialization nation-wide and is a major industrial and transportation hub for West Africa. 

Jane Jacobs wrote in 1984 that the Volta River Project was “one of the world’s great hydroelectric projects” but a “pointless investment,” producing power for which “almost nothing has materialized to make use.”6 According to Jacobs, the failure of Tema to produce enough factories to exploit the full electrical output of the Akosombo Dam renders the entire VRP development project “pointless.” Twenty years later, Ghana’s demand for electricity has grown larger than the hydroelectric capacity of the Volta River Authority (VRA), the government agency responsible for producing all of Ghana’s electricity. Today the VRA produces only half of Ghana’s electricity from the Akosombo and Kpong hydroelectric plants.7 In other words, Ghana now consumes far more power than the Akosombo dam produces.  

Clearly something did materialize to make use of the VRP’s power; not only factories (and mines and farms) use energy—so do people, houses, shops and cities. In the case of Tema’s experiment in industrial urbanism, because the master plan and investment came first, it is impossible to argue that the city emerged spontaneously. Construction of Tema and the VRP built not only new physical geographies (the man-made Lake Volta, the artificial harbour at Tema, the city of Tema)—or infrastructure—but also new organizations to manage the project, and new economic and social organisms to occupy it—an associated political ecology.  

While the narrative of Tema is that of modernity built on an empty plain, the construction of Tema city and port in reality displaced both a traditional fishing community and its cultural frame. Resettlement of the original Tema fishing village commenced in 1952 and involved the relocation of 12,000 people and 200 gods (to a new village, Tema New Town, two miles away). According to traditional knowledge, the Ga people who lived at Tema were protected spiritually first by the Sakumono and Chemu lagoons that flanked their village, and second by communal gods or otutu that lived in earth mounds within each family compound. Broad community opposition to the chief's sale of ancestral lands to the government—the land which became the Tema Acquisition Area—translated to years of protracted negotiation between community leaders and the Office of Social Welfare and the Ministry of Justice and Local Government. Systematic bulldozing of the original Tema village, known as “Operation Hardcore,” finally completed the resettlement process in 1960.8 Although the entire procedure was legal and justifiable in terms of advancing the public good of the nation, Tema's restructured land ownership—and the resettlement's suspension of tradition—is a radical shift that typifies the new power structure: in the new Tema, the mandate of modernization outranks both tradition and the gods themselves. 


Once the process of city-building is initiated, who and what controls that process over time? In his essay “The Persistence of Planning,” Hashim Sarkis notes that Doxiadis introduced in Lebanon his ekistics philosophy as a descriptive framework that championed technocratic government-sponsored development, prioritized data-collection and physical planning, and sought to scientifically “accelerate” modernization of the nation-state.9 This reading moves beyond Doxiadis the geopolitical power broker10 to address the underlying tension of planning in a post-Doxiadis environment: who controls the planning machinery? Tema was also designed as part of a national development agenda andekistics study. Even more than in the case of Lebanon, foreign actors were involved from inception through implementation: business owners and investors, political advisors and technical experts. Consequently, it is inaccurate to present Tema as a purely national project, especially given the relative weakness of the Ghanaian nation-state compared to partners like Kaiser Aluminum and the U.S. State Department.  

Although neocolonialism remains a valid critique of Tema’s construction and initial phases of operation, the term is conceptually tied to re-introduction of the European colonialist project through new forms of capitalist imperialism. Such models of global power dynamics are increasingly inadequate in accounting for contemporary globalization, in which new transnational actors and systems of coordination exert indirect control over the nation-state, sub-national and transnational bodies. At the same time—largely due to the port and because of Tema’s proximity to the capital Accra—local and cultural forces also exert powerful pressure on the city’s urban and industrial processes. In the decades since Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanist administration framed the balance of power between industrialists and workers at Tema, the city’s social geography has become more complex and the field of competing power brokers more crowded. This corresponds to the success of the city, which has transformed from near-empty “bush” to now feature an array of commercial, industrial and informal entrepreneurial enterprises, satellite townships and 25 planned residential communities of a variety of income levels that in many cases are now generations-old.  

Recent trends on the continent have decentralized the political authority of government. In Ghana, this process started even before (the latest version of) democracy: the Provisional National Defense Council Law 208 introduced decentralization reforms in 1988. The 1992 Constitution further transferred power from the state to the private sector, anticipating accelerated development and civic engagement, and in 2000 Ghana signed onto the Victoria Falls Declaration of an “African Vision on Decentralization” for the same reasons. Twenty years into the process of decentralization, the number of Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs)—legally the highest political and administrative authority for planning and development—has increased from 65 to 170, but as a development model MMDAs have performed with only limited success.11 While the intended outcome was loosely coordinated distribution of economic development, emphasis on the local fails to address how regional and transurban linkages in the African context can and do contribute to existing alternative models of economic sustainability.  


Distinctions between “formal” and “informal” sectors are often made in reference to African cities. One attitude is that the informal sector represents an “invisible” sphere of economic activity and social transactions, networks of culture and knowledge. Integrating this economic capacity into the formal sector will facilitate development and lead to greater net human benefit by expanding access to capital, legality and efficacy. An opposing perspective is that the informal exists as much as does the Other. All transactional space is provisional: it is impossible to exactly identify the informal. People do not live completely inside “informal worlds” or operate solely according to “informal” rules. To the degree that there may be informal and formal modes of operation, most transactions occur along a spectrum of in/formality. Binary division of formal versus informal is less important, less possible, and less helpful than understanding transactional specifics. 

At the same time that the operation of African cities is no longer an internal process—because economic networks are increasingly global—if the world today is an ever-contracting system of exchange, this phenomenon is new only in scale. The alchemical wealth-creation that financed the construction of modernity emerged through mercantilist and colonialist global networks of trade and resource-extraction. In the case of Tema, the central role of the city and the port in the VRP development program—which considered industry and industrialization to be the key driver of national economic development—both planning process and policy have historically been weighted toward industrial and business interests. Tema is a city that in theory exists first for industry—specifically heavy industry—as a landing point for global capital. This follows the principle that ideal economic conditions of social and physical infrastructure (cheap labor, energy, roads) will attract global capital investment for manufacturing. Irrespective of success, this strategy prioritizes relations with capital from elsewhere.  

This approach to development locates Tema within the economic and political space of globalization—a process, ultimately, of power distribution. But how do we untangle the web of actors and agendas at work in sites that, like Tema, are designed from the outset for globalized integration? How do we determine if and when architecture and planning are complicit in transferring local power offshore? How can design move beyond false dichotomies like “formal” versus “informal” in order to amplify all networks that can enable African actors to compete within current modes of globalization, dominated by multinational corporations and Western powers? 

Network Power 

Researchers have used the term “network” in various ways over recent decades to describe the organizational logic of globalized/-ing urban space and to relate local conditions to global processes. Concepts of the world city, global city, networked city, and the network architecture of computing all already exist... Meanwhile, mesmerized by the graphic language of the network, “Architecture,” as Mark Wigley writes, “dreams of becoming a circuit board.”12 Architects, in general, approach networks visually, treating networks as a mode of spatial organization. This model, referring to mathematics in order to define a network as a system of nodes and links, lends itself to the production of pretty pictures. A second approach to conceptualizing networks is as a mode of standards-based association, rather than spatial configuration. Spatial networks are defined by where nodes are located in space and the degree to which links interconnect the full array of nodes. Standards networks are essentially de-spatialized, defining the boundaries of a given network not by nodal distribution, but by membership into a standardized protocol. Members may still constitute nodes but conceptual emphasis is on the standards that operate that network. 

Harvard political scientist David Grewal advances a concept of network power to describe formations of human freedom under contemporary conditions of globalization.13 He observes that globalization is a critical issue today on which two camps fail to agree. Proponents of globalization claim that “transnational flows” increase freedom; critics argue that “global standards” constrain individual and national freedom. In response to the question “Is globalization a form of empire?” Grewal argues that globalization does represent a structure of domination, but is an informal system of empire because it does not exert control by force or direct control. Instead, globalization operates according to standards networks; network power is the degree of attractiveness of a given network's system of cooperation, whereby a network gains power in  proportion to the number of people who adopt the standards of that network (e.g. the dominance of the network of English-speakers, for which the standard is the ability to speak English). Hence a network can exert pressure toward adoption of particular standards without physical force; one network’s network power can contribute to its supremacy over another network; networks exert power indirectly by reducing the viability of competing networks. 

Networks are simultaneously determined by their spatial configuration and by the system of standards, conventions and protocols that define them. Tema, like all African cities and all urban spaces, is part of many (economic, political, techno-social, etc.) networks. It is not enough to merely isolate or identify the standards behind the networks of globalization. Instead of the endless project of classifying what is formal or what is informal, what is dominant or what is insurgent, technocratic or participatory, the agency of design lies in the design of network/ed standards themselves.

1 This is the subtitle of the Harvard Project on the City “Lagos Handbook.” P. Belanger, M. Cosmas, A.D. Hamilton, L. Ip, J. Kim and N.L. Slayton. Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2000 (unpublished). Rem Koolhaas supervised this research and partly composited his “Lecture on Lagos” from the student work contained in the Lagos Handbook. My take may seem critical; however, in my view the Handbook is an impressive text and I argue for more of this type of research, not less. The key is that architects move beyond the Dark Continent narrative.

2 E. Maxwell Fry, “African Experiment: Building for an Educational Programme in the Gold Coast.” Architectural Review 113: No. 677 (May 1953). For more on the Tropical Modernism project in West Africa, especially Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew before Chandigarh, see Hannah Le Roux “Modern Architecture in Post-Colonial Ghana and Nigeria.” Architectural History, Vol. 47 (2004), pp. 361-392. And Daniel Immerwahr. “The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986.” Journal of African Cultural Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2 (December 2007), pp. 165-186.

3 The term political ecology typically denotes the interdependent effects of politics, social factors and economics on the natural environment. Authors such as David Harvey (1997), while not discussing “political ecology” directly, have argued against false dichotomization of natural and built environments. I use the term political ecology throughout this text to highlight that in the case of Tema, the political power structure operates simultaneously on the natural and built environments, and is itself a system of social organisms interacting to achieve dynamic equilibrium over time.

4 Lisa Peattie made a similar observation about the industrial city of Guayana in her seminal text, Planning: Rethinking Ciudad Guayana. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987.

5 Construction of Tema began in 1954, under direction of the then Tema Development Organization (now, Corporation) in association with the Public Works Department. The TDC plan covered 5000 acres and a population of 80,000 people in seven residential communities of 10,000-12,000 each.

In March 1960 the Government of Ghana enlisted Doxiadis Associates to conduct an ekistics study for the entire country, as well as the Accra-Tema metropolitan area, the Accra-Tema-Akosombo triangle, the Accra Plains, the Southeast Coastal Plains, and the full region of the Volta River Project. In July 1961 the Government hired Doxiadis Associates to produce a master plan for the 63 sq. mi. Tema Acquisition Area and a comprehensive development program for the town and industrial area over a 25 year period and projected population of 235,000-250,000. Documentation of Doxiadis Associates’ Tema design appear in Ekistics 13: 17, 159-171. For ekistics study of Ghana see “Accra-Tema-Akosombo” in Ekistics 11: 65, 235-276.

By the time Doxiadis Associates came on board, two residential communities had already been completed with an estimated population of 22,000 and work begun on industrial sites, Tema harbor and infrastructure (roads, sewers, etc). The Doxiadis Associates’ plan with modifications has governed the city’s urban and industrial growth to date.

6 Jacobs, Jane. Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life. New York: Random House, 1984. Pp. 105.

7 While the VRA ( is still responsible for national production of Ghana’s electricity, the government is encouraging independent power producers in the private sector. So far only one private company is producing at scale, in partnership with the VRA at the Takoradi thermal plant. Significantly, Ghana’s electrical demand has continued to increase even while the Volta Aluminum Company (VALCO) aluminum smelter, which the World Bank calls the intended “primary consumer” of VRP power, has not run at full capacity since 2002, and current implementation of long-planned regional networking of West African energy infrastructure is only now making large-scale export of Ghana’s electricity viable (see website of the West African Power Pool, Economic Community of West African States:

8 G.W. Amarteifio, D.A.P. Butcher and David Whitham. Tema Manhean: A Study of Resettlement. Accra: Ghana Universities Press for the University of Science and Technology-Kumasi, 1966.

9 Sarkis, Hashim. Circa 1958: Lebanon in the pictures and plans of Constantinos Doxiadis. Beyrouth: Dar An-Nahar: Fares Foundation, 2003. Pp. 207. “If we continue to make plans (and we should), if we continue to interrogate the process and benefits of development including planning (and here again we should), we should do so by generating more information from different perspectives about the issues taken on by the plans.” Constantinos Doxiadis used the term ekistics to describe a science of human settlements.

10 For discussion of Doxiadis’ political prowess see Michelle Provoost, “New Towns on the Cold War Frontier: How modern urban planning was exported as an instrument in the battle for the developing world.” URL: Also, Markus Daechsel, “Misplaced Ekistics: Constantinos A. Doxiadis and urban plannning in Pakistan.” Paper from Doxiadis Foundation international workshop (Dec. 2006).

11 See The New Legon Observer. Ghana Society for Development Dialogue Publication. Vol. 2 No.9, 22 May 2008. “Decentralization, Cities and Development: Some Retrospective Issues and Challenges.”

12 Mark Wigley. “The Architectural Brain.” In Network Practices: New Strategies in Architecture and Design. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007. Pp. 38.

13 Grewal, David. Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. And Grewal, “Network Power and Globalization.” Ethics & International Affairs, Vol. 17, Issue 2, pp. 89-98).

Monday, February 9, 2009

Is this Lagos

Can anyone confirm that the city in the background is Lagos?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Invisible Governance

It came today: The Art of African Micropolitics by David Hecht & Abdoumaliq Simone.

Thanks Nat.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

What is the point of thesis?

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.
Template developed by Confluent Forms LLC; more resources at BlogXpertise