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:

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