Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ghost Forest

Not sure what to make of this yet... When I walked into my room a couple weeks ago at TED Global, I looked out the window and saw across the street from Oxford's Keble College an assortment of huge tree stumps on giant pedestals.

Several people said, "Hey did you see the trees from Ghana?" So I finally skipped a session to check them out. Originally, they were on display in Trafalgar Square and originally originally they grew in Ghana's Suhum forest. See Ghost Forest Art Project: Installation of Rainforest Trees from the Tropics and read the statement by artist Angela Palmer.

What is strange to me is that while I share pro-forestation sentiments, I am also an architect and usually engage with woods like wawa, denya or dahoma in the Accra timber market (below) or trying to tame the mahogany tree in my too-small backyard with a crocodile machete. Strangely exotic to see these trees as exotic plants instead.

(my photographs; rendering via BBC)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Africa Day

Today being Africa Day, reminded me that I once scanned this October 1963 Daily Graphic (above): "Africa Looks to You for Salvation - Our Strength Lies in Unity" ...together with a set of 1960s Tema news articles at National Archives. Note how Pioneer Aluminum ad targets export to African continent; and Modern Furniture's chairs ranged from 'The Worker - special planned and made for the low-income' to 'The Republic' and 'The Ambassador.'

Thursday, April 22, 2010

From 'kiosk culture' to 'active architecture'

Thanks for all the feedback via various modes of digital communication (other than the comments section, for some reason--except for @PanUrban). Expanded the Africentricity piece to explain more specifically what I meant by a call for a discourse on the Africentric city. And as I told @quilian as far as I am concerned this is the Afrch manifesto for the immediate future.

Picking up from the previous conclusion:

For architects, this means rethinking typologies and waste/energy cycles and thinking beyond buildings to fields of technology and local fabrication—to drive ecological and economic sustainability by building active architecture—a project of open source architecture robots—that input Africa's environmental wealth and output not only shelter but also energy, food, water, Internet access and information about how to make and market designed products from raw material.
I added the following:

Typically architecture serves to provide shelter. This is equivalent to—if architecture were an equation or a chemical reaction—a function's output or chemical reaction's product being: shelter (a process that consumes energy, and has economic value). Architecture as a process is contingent on inputs (capital, technical expertise, preferences, etc.) and has associated effects (on psychology of users, on internal micro-climate and exterior conditions such as environment, real estate markets, etc.) However, it is possible to reframe the concept of architecture, from the perspective of its design, from a project of creating a building tocreating a building that does things—still a building but an active architecture.

This is the focus of my current research in Tema. Taking as point of departure a survey of the active edges of Tema's industrial urbanism—what I refer to as “kiosk culture”—the research folds into the discourse of architecture not only the networks of low-cost (and often low-quality) informal shops and manufactories throughout Tema, but also the spatial practices of commerce and production that they support (see for example, the log-log chart of construction cost versus “effective micro-territory,” i.e. the urban footprint of a given kiosk or workshop). A host of technologies already exist that can upgrade this active edge of physical infrastructure within the city. Technologies that would allow upgraded kiosk architectures to collect and purify rainwater, recycle graywater, grow food, passively cool micro-climates, use the sun to cook food, heat water, generate electricity and deliver wireless Internet are not new, and in many cases they are low-tech and low-cost. Despite on-going improvements across the continent, many buildings and many people are still held hostage by unreliable or expensive delivery networks (i.e. water, electricity, telecommunications, etc.) in Africa. Therefore, determining how an active edge of kiosk culture can contribute to wider adoption of (economically and environmentally) sustainable technology on the ground in Tema, as well as Africa more generally, is critical.

I argue that it can be beneficial to think of Tema as not just an industrial city in the conventional sense, but also as a distributed information factory. That is, if we want to “build better kiosks” at the same time that we advance the scope and quality of the local manufacturing that occurs within “kiosk culture,” then we have to focus on building networks for sharing information. In Tema, the tiny- and small-scale industry at the edges, as well as the more formal medium- and large-scale businesses sited within officially zoned industrial areas, are well positioned to manufacture more sophisticated components for the local building industry—products like solar water heaters, rainwater collection, solar PV electricity or DIY wind energy, and alternative building materials. If a greater number of entrepreneurs within the informal economy have access to information about how to make these products, they will. Consequently, citizens of Tema and the city itself can exploit existing networks of production and information-sharing to amplify local innovation.

Max Bond once made a powerful observation regarding the social content of design: that the techniques of construction specified by architects affect who builds buildings.(7) This observation speaks volumes. Materials and techniques of construction impact the local building and fabrication industry, economically. In Ghana, key materials and equipment—ranging from glass, tiles, door handles, air conditioners to cell phones and laptops—tend to be imported (as well as models of the ideal city). In Tema, a city founded around an Aluminum smelter that does not source Ghanaian bauxite, the frontier of the locally-made is the poorer edges, the peri-urban, buildings and developments still under construction, the periphery, the tiny and small businesses along roadsides, the kiosks, the spaces where improvisation is automatic. The prototypes I am now developing in Ghana are for bamboo kiosks (that can eliminate construction cost entirely), bamboo-reinforced concrete floors (that can reduce construction cost), integrating stairs (to increase density), solar electricity, water collection and purification into kiosk mini-typologies, and strategies for wirelessly networking the active edges of the informal. The complexity of survival within African cities contains nontrivial clues for urban development. Africentricity is a call for architects in Africa to strategize for retrofitting African cities based on the everyday reality of how Africans use the city, independent of foreign prescriptions.

Note: (7) "For example, if one were to design a building completely out of aluminum products, very few minority people in America could work on the building, because the aluminum industry is one in which not many minorities are involved, from plant to fabrication to erection. If one were to design a building in brick or block, there would be a much greater chance of employing more minority people. Designing a building in materials that are more labor intensive obviously has other benefits as well." Max Bond and Paul Broches, "Social Content in Teaching and Design," Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 35, No.1, With People in Mind: The Architect-Teacher at Work (Autumn 1981), pp. 51-56. Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, Inc.

This 1981 interview with the late Max Bond--a giant of the architecture profession and in my opinion the Godfather for black architects who work in the United States--is dope and super relevant today. I uploaded to Issuu here and embedded below:

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Workstation 4 2

Pics from fabrication of my desk. Welded steel frame on 5" rubber casters, 3/4" plywood surface inset and cable tray, sanded putty, candy white car finish... via a welder, carpenter and autobody mechanic.

Still getting used to moving the desk for/backward instead of my chair...

I used this axonometric drawing to explain the 4 ft x 4 ft frame to the welder (casters are welded to the steel frame) and the base Sketch-up model is available in Google 3D warehouse. Added two cross braces (2 in angle bar) at the bottom for stability, and so that each side of the desk has its own footrest.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


[My contribution to the forthcoming NOMA magazine 'Africa issue' ...(an afrch proto-manifesto) derived from the Tema/ network power research. While I am aware of the loaded history of the term Afrocentric, I prefer to reference that debate only indirectly—my goal is not to reframe global history, but rather to retool how we operate cities on the African continent... ***Addition: I should reiterate that I'm not 'against the system' or even anti-capitalist (in reference to a conversation over lunch today in Tema) its more about broadening the scope/demographics of control and privileging homegrown solutions. Thoughts/comments? ]

Under contemporary conditions of globalization, Africa has among the highest rates of urbanization in human history. Tema—the city closest to the planet's 0-0 geographic origin—offers a unique opportunity to measure the social and economic performance of modern architecture and planning in this context, because it is a new city built from scratch over the last fifty years. Designed by Doxiadis Associates of Greece for the newly independent Ghanaian postcolony, the purpose of Tema was to anchor nation-wide agro/industrial development. After several coups and a successful transition back to democracy two decades ago, Tema is now a city of half a million that was designed for a population half that size. Some administrators/planners, and some development pressure, still pursue a garden-factory city ideal that may not be entirely applicable. The idea of africentri-city refers to mobilizing instead to retrofit African cities according to the way they work not, by default, development models from aburokyiri.

In graduate school, I received an assignment for a final paper in 19th-Century Architecture; every suggested topic building was located in Europe or North America. The answer—in essence—to the question, "What about architecture in Africa [and elsewhere in the world]?" was "It only exists when someone utters the word 'Africa' [etc] in Paris."1 The late Edward Said expertly splices from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park a geographic inconsistency that parallels the relationship between the 'Architecture' that continues to define architecture's 'History' and the networks of commerce and geopolitics that circumscribe the globe:
Far from being nothing much 'out there', British colonial possessions in the Antilles and Leeward Islands were during Jane Austen's time a crucial setting for Anglo-French colonial competition. Revolutionary ideas from France were being exported there, and there was a steady decline in British profits: the French sugar plantations were producing more sugar at less cost. However, slave rebellions in and out of Haiti were incapacitating France and spurring British interests to intervene more directly and to gain greater local power. Still, compared with its earlier prominence for the home market, British Caribbean sugar production in the nineteenth century had to compete with alternative sugar-cane supplies in Brazil and Mauritius, the emergence of a European beet-sugar industry, and the gradual dominance of free-trade ideology and practice.2
Said notes that while the owners of sugar plantations populated Austen's novel, within the story they exist exclusively in England, while the landscapes of exploitation that finance their lifestyle are rendered invisible. Similarly, the "great buildings" of every era, like the 19th-century Paris Opera House, are born of the ashes of the Haitis of the world3: The alchemical wealth-creation that financed the construction of Modernity emerged through mercantilist and colonialist global networks of trade and resource-extraction. Today this web of capital flows—which not only pay for the buildings that architects build, but also transform territories elsewhere (plantations, mines, factories, etc.)—has transmogrified into the Empire of globalization, where multinational corporations, NGOs and transnational organizations challenge the sovereignty of nation-states and flatten the world into a homogenized marketplace. At the same time, Africa—like Asia, the Amazon and the Caribbean--has always been a part of the history of art and the human environment, long before Picasso et al looked to the Dark Continent for inspiration.

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? Mandela, 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).
So what is the African city, and what is its future history? It depends who you ask.

For Koolhaas, Lagos is important because it “might be the most radical urban condition on the planet.”4 This latest attempt to conquer the enduring mystery of Africa replaces the focus on traditional techniques and materials of construction (mud mosques and village housing) with Africa’s new urbanism, an alternate culture of congestion, emergent entrepreneurship and the interface of infrastructure 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 spaces: 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 glosses over the fact that for the millions of Africans who live and trade in the city, Lagos is not unknown.

Technocrats argue that the dysfunction of African cities is bad economics, derived from the continent's failure to adopt good governance. The World Bank in November 2009 issued its Urban and Local Government Strategy, a plan to leverage the 70 million new urban dwellers projected annually (2 billion over 20 years) primarily in the developing world, for economic growth and poverty reduction.5 The plan—billed as both pro-city and pro-poor—makes sense from the perspective of the World Bank, i.e. a business with a vested interest in integrating the global economy by promoting urban economic clusters. Thus the World Bank foregrounds private property rights—in both urban and rural land systems—to incentivize private development and economic activity. But the citizens of the African city who operate on the edges—of roadways, property lines, bankruptcy and legality—are a central part of its dynamism, and their collective approaches to using the city are not the same as those of aid donors and foreign direct investors.

Tema is among the African cities that can be described as thickly transactional spaces. That is, the urban network that connects houses to workplaces and markets via paratransit (tro-tros or converted passenger vans) and private cars is highly redundant: there are a great many individual instances (places) where one can find transportation, buy cement blocks, get a haircut, a dress, a metal gate (or something else made by hand), kenke, water or mobile phone credits. In areas of the city under the most construction, and in those areas least regulated, there are the greatest number of temporary or semi-legal structures, including distributed manufactories—small kiosks that house low-tech production of shoes, doors, braids, burglar-proofing, tro-tros, DIY electronics, etc. While many things (many of them the same) are accessible simultaneously at many places, the problem is uniquity: if someone has a unique product, question or ambition, how do they make that known? More globally, how does one acquire knowledge about how best to improve on an existing scenario or to innovate with as much information as possible? I would argue that the limiting constraint in many African cities is not physical capital but rather access to information: How to locate a particular product, procedure or protocol/ Where exactly to find something specific, How to connect to remote markets, How to optimize productivity,...

The Tema case suggests that the real challenge for many African cities may be less how to create a city of 'clean lines' with no poor people working in the streets, and more one of how to amplify existing ways of living and working in the city into an advanced regime of higher information density. The anti-hawker and anti-kiosk stance of the political elite and economically mobile hurts many people's livelihoods and lines many policemen and womens' pockets. Alternatively, this active edge of infrastructure and economies can be understood as a future-oriented system of organization for the city—one in which flexible urban ecologies absorb new human material through a network of small-scale and low-tech productive nodes. V.K. Desai, whose company Tiny Tech Plants develops technology for "tiny enterprises" argues that smaller-scale development precipitates freedom through self-reliance:

Governments of Africa follow the same pattern of development as Europe and U.S.A. followed. So every African country is trying to establish big industries, is trying to develop highways, cities, power stations, ports, airports and infrastructure required by giant industries. I VENTURE TO ASSERT THAT THIS IS NOT THE PATH OF HAPPINESS BUT THIS IS THE PATH OF EXPLOITATION AND PERMANENT SLAVERY OF AFRICAN PEOPLE. If you want homogeneous development and progress of entire society of millions of masses, you have to evolve your own economic strategy based on local self reliance at least for primary needs of people i.e. for food, cloth and shelter...this type of local self reliance can be achieved through cottage scale family size industries based on small and simple technology.6
For architects, this means rethinking typologies and waste/energy cycles and thinking beyond buildings to fields of technology and local fabrication—to drive ecological and economic sustainability by building active architecture—a project of open source architecture robots—that input Africa's environmental wealth and output not only shelter but also energy, food, water, Internet access and information about how to make and market designed products from raw material.


I wrote a paper about the bizarre union of abolitionists and slave-owners who pressed the United States to colonize Liberia, and who gave rise to the phenomenon of former slaves from the United States rebuilding the plantation houses that they built in Southern USAmerica in West Africa. For incredible photographs of trans-Atlantic building transfer, check out Holsoe, Herman and Belcher, A Land and Life Remembered: Americo-Liberian Folk Architecture (University of Georgia Press, 1988).

Said, Edward, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage/Random House, 1994), p.107-108.

For an angle on Haiti's history, see UC Berkley journalism professor Mark Danner's 11 January 2010 New York Times Op-Ed, "To Heal Haiti, Look to History not Nature." Today too in Africa, terrains of conflict diamonds, conflict minerals and oil, biopiracy, agro-business and other forms of exploitation brokered by multinational corporations mirror Haiti's geopolitical experience.

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). Koolhaas supervised this research and essentially 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 from outside Africa move beyond the Dark Continent narrative of environmental determinism (i.e. the mysterious nature of African landscapes).

5 Urban populations of Asia and Africa will double over the same period. Full report online here.

India has since independence prioritized self-reliance, based in part on the Gandhian political framework. Charles and Ray Eames, in their 1958 Eames' Report for the Government of India, called to expand this model of local production and innovation through professional (industrial) design training.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Posted on Places /Design Observer

Report on Afro-Colombian port city of Buenaventura, with Quilian Riano. (Slideshow) Some of the final edits may sound overhype, but its more an attempt to share our experience on Colombia's Pacific Coast...hopefully more will happen with BV.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Fighting fire with fire

Not only is it a new year, it's a new decade. While I must admit that I am ecstatic that this is the first in many years that I am not in school pursuing a degree, I felt a need to post this note as a final bookend to my eight years of fighting (for the right!) to formulate my own educational experience while at Harvard.

In October, Quilian Riano and I gave a lecture at Cornell called 'Dispatch from GSD: design as social activism,' sharing our experiences with the student group Social Change and Activism (SoCA) at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). And just before Christmas I agreed to be an advisor to the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) chapter at the University of Ghana, Legon; we had a fascinating conversation about how students can most effectively advance their own interests within an administration that can at times seem deaf to students' voices. In instances like these, students who *are* still in school have asked for more information about how we challenged the administration to prioritize *our agenda* alongside what *they* considered important: in my case that meant to balance starchitecture, techno-formalism and what I like to call 'fancy-pants design' (hyper-expensive art museums and grossly unrealistic 'visionary' urban design proposals) with a commitment to community design, diversity and the social dimensions of design. Here is my take on the problem and countermeasures that worked for me.

Problem =

Universities, typically, are conservative institutions. I do not mean in terms of politics. What I mean is that the conventions that most tertiary institutions adopt are designed to ensure that the school will protect (the sanctity of) the 'academy': the mechanics that govern how the school operates seek to guarantee that the school will last for generations. You may say, 'Well that means the school needs to change in order to survive.' Sure, that is true. But (most) schools are designed to change very slowly. Universities have a (near-)infinite time horizon, whereas students are only students for ~4 years.

What that translates to for the student or student group that wants their school to better align with their own interests, ways of working or perspective on the world is that the school as an institution is built to resist you.

Countermeasures =

1) Win respect -- In my experience, professors are arrogant. They are the enlightened ones that students pay to receive the light of truth. As a student, by default, the faculty are unlikely to respect you let alone consider input from you. (To be fair, they are also jaded; you would be too if you taught the same thing to different students, year after year). If you want faculty or the administration of your school to listen to you, the best step you can take is to earn their respect. Take your coursework seriously. Listen before you talk. Respect your teachers or they will never respect you. Challenge them openly when you disagree--after you take the time to put your thoughts in order--and offer alternatives.

2) Build counter-institutions -- As I said above, if a single student raises an objection, (maybe) a professor or administrator will listen to them. But unless there are potential legal implications, they are unlikely to act in response to that objection. If a group of students raise an objection, they are even more likely to have the administration listen. But they are not necessarily any more likely to generate a response from the administration. That is because in both cases, the institution-apparatus knows--even if only unconsciously--that in a few short years, those students will graduate (or leave) and so will the objections. But (most) institutions will pay more attention when they recognize that they are facing a counter-institution, an organization that may last longer than the tenure of a single student, a group that may be able to sustain resistance for a period that begins to approach the infinite time-horizon of the Institution itself. The longer the counter-institution is likely to last, the more the institution will pay attention. This is the reason why companies instinctively seek to subvert unions.

3) Write memos -- Once students organize into collective bodies and reach consensus about how to structure that organization over time, the true groundwork is laid to fight fire with fire. In my opinion, the single-most powerful action that students can take is to write memos. I understand that this may seem underwhelming or even flat-out wrong. Maybe this shows the world that my generation and the even newer generations now live in... While I was at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, a group of GSD students became increasingly alarmed by not only the limited diversity at the school (at first glance, the student body is overwhelmingly international--which it is--but there are essentially no black, Hispanic or Native American students from the United States) but also the lack of any legible commitment by the administration to address the problem.

I remember discussing this with older black alumni from the GSD who said we should organize protests, or a sit-in, something loud and noisy that would panic the school into taking action. Instead, we began a years-long process of working with and for the administration on the problem. After years of writing memos (plus attending meetings and organizing lectures and symposia) the school's attitude on diversity has improved remarkably. The admissions office now aggressively recruits nation-wide and works with alumni to cast a wide net for potential minority applicants. The school funds a student-led Saturday school and summer design program for under-represented minority high school students, GSD student attendance at annual conferences of the National Organization of Minority Architects, and the new(ish) Dean Mohsen Mostafavi has set-up a Dean's Advisory Committee on Diversity to which he seems genuinely dedicated. If students want a seat at the table, demanding it by yelling in a loud voice is not always the most productive strategy. Write memos instead--that is how institutions work: memos can be circulated and archived; memos are non-confrontational and cooperative; memos are constructive. I am in the camp that says, work *within* the system: that is how you fight fire with fire.

4) Recognize your power -- I always tell students, 'Don't be brainwashed.' The University will tell you that they have all the power, and the student body does not. That, however, is bogus. In private institutions, it is the cash money of collective tuition fees that make the school's budget function. In the case of public institutions, the express mandate of the entire system is to serve the students, preparing the next generation; the student body does not exist to serve the school. That does not mean you should abuse your power--that is how you become irrelevant. Rather, it means refuse to be discounted or dismissed.

In 2005, as a group of us began to explore what SoCA could mean as a student organization--how we could best advance issues of social responsibility and diversity at the GSD--Laura Crescimano and another student John Taylor said: have an open dialogue with students on the subject--and then write a memo. Laura gave me a copy of a memo she and Women in Design had written to the administration (see below) and I used that as a model. Since then, thanks to Laura C., I now always tell students--'Write memos!'--and students say--'What are you talking about?'--so I have uploaded a cross-section of memos that myself and other students wrote to the administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Design between 2005 and 2008. Not because I think they are exceptional, but because I have always found precedents helpful... If you are a student trying to challenge your school to be more open-minded, scan the PDFs linked below to see examples of how we tried to formalize our voices as students and fight fire with fire.

(above) Agenda for Open Dialogue on Social Responsibility, which evolved into SoCA's 4-year plan

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