David Fortin: Other places, Other Incentives a reflection

This post is a work in progress. I have been working with colleagues for the past 3 years on affordable housing ideas for Nairobi; thus, this paper is partly an attempt to come to terms with my role as an architectural educator thinking about how the design studio can be an effective strategy to teach students about current global issues. Thus, to openly question the value of our engagement with Kenya for our students in Montana, as well as the incentive for us to cultivate our relationships there, has become essential as we try to find a critical position for the work. This paper is a summary of where these questions have led me recently. While the paper feels highly underdeveloped at this point, I hope to benefit from your feedback with regards to the design studio, the African city, and non-African-based pedagogy about Africa, as I hope to continue to work within this framework in the years to come. I am aware that as of now, the paper narrowly focuses on the value of the design exercise for the non-African student. I plan to add more about the potential value of the research for our Kenyan colleagues and students in due time.

David T. Fortin, Montana State University

Other places, other incentives: The African spectacle in cross-cultural architectural education

It was…for me, an enforced encounter with something I really didn’t know anything about, Africa, which I was always intrigued by, but I never had felt the kind of closeness that I feel, for instance, for Asia or for America, and so I felt embarrassed that there was this world I didn’t understand…

…[Of] all of the big cities [Lagos] was the least well known, the least known. The fact that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, within globalization, there could be still a genuinely unknown situation, made it very, not only challenging, but also incredibly inspiring and, of course, very risky because there was no established interpretation of it. I guess…that was really the main incentive.

– Rem Koolhaas answering the question of why he was interested in studying Lagos,

Lagos Wide & Close (2005), Dir.  Bregtje van der Haak

The above statement by Rem Koolhaas is an insightful one when considering current trends in architectural programs expanding around the globe to engage in cross-cultural research through student learning and outreach opportunities. This essay examines this ongoing trend and the nature of such engagement in foreign contexts, and more specifically on the African continent, by considering the perceived value of “the other” in provoking both critical and subversive thought in contemporary architectural design and theory. Koolhaas’ study of Lagos has been criticized as “reckless anthropology and as an outsider’s indulgent aesthetic project.” (Ewing, 2011: 1) Yet essential to this study, Koolhaas did not set out to build, plan, or change anything in Lagos, but solely learn from it, a trend Suzanne Ewing (2011: 3) sees increasing in architectural research and aesthetic production. According to Koolhaas’ commentary, the “incentive” for his engagement with Lagos is the lack of an “established interpretation,” and yet he acknowledges during the film that the more he studied the city the less he knew about it. Koolhaas’ open-ended methodology urges us to reconsider the pedagogical value of studying “other” places, as an abstract and often observation-based activity characterized by a rigorous intellectual engagement, but also, as in the case with Koolhaas, by its very lack of intended tangible output. Koolhass’ work in Lagos is neither historical nor project-oriented; instead its primary purpose is to interpret. While such motives may summon deep skepticism in a postcolonial context, it is within these interpretive realms that cross-cultural research offers immense value by activating subversive reflections on architecture’s evolving role in an increasingly complex global condition.

Loaded Incentives

“The other” is, and always has been, a convoluted idea, today being inherently interpreted and informed from increasingly plural geographic and cultural perspectives. Edward Said (1985: 90) distinctively noted that “the other” is “less a fact of nature than it is a fact of human production,” and thus, it “must be studied as [an] integral [component] of the social, and not the divine or natural world.” The perceived lack of understanding and knowledge of “the other,” as evidenced in Koolhaas’ comments, apparently reverses the order set out in Said’s reflections on Orientalism. He writes,

…the very reason for understanding the Orient generally and the Arab world in particular was first, that it prevailed upon one, beseeched one’s attention urgently, whether for economic, political, cultural, or religious reasons, and second, that it defied neutral, disinterested, or stable definition. (Said, 1985: 92)

For Koolhaas, the main incentive, defined by the OED as “having the quality of inciting or arousing to feeling or action..,” is the pursuit of an understanding of Lagos, underemphasizing any political, cultural, economic, or religious intent. Yet one of the inherent problems Said (1978, 201-2) sees in such innocuous claims as Koolhaas’, is a certain degree of ignorance towards how these factors impact the “fields of learning” traversed by the observer. For Said, these contextual influences ultimately deny academic objectivity or the possibility of an Archimedean point outside of the observer’s background, resulting in an interpretation always distinctly removed from the “other” society or place. An apt example of this is Filip de Boeck’s (2002: 249) description of the historical accounts of Kinshasa entirely fabricated by the romantic, and misinformed, colonial imagination. Similarly, Sean Anderson (2007: 85) employs travel writings by authors such as Rosaliea Pianavia Vivaldi Bossiner, Renato Paoli and Enrico Tagliabue, to elucidate the literary and imaginative translations of the Italian colony of Eritrea. Posing the question of what this “other” place meant to these early writers beyond “a vast ill-defined space of sometimes irredeemable climatic and hygienic conditions,” he answers, “misplaced conceptions of the African continent.” Meanwhile, Antoni Folkers (2010: 155) writes that the African Arcadia was a research area for cultural anthropologists from the 1950s onward where a romanticized impression of the African “noble savage” and her harmonious society “overshadowed” an appreciation for the quality of its existing and emerging architecture. African countries have been ceaselessly subjected to such complex colonial histories, recorded and re-recorded through documented interpretations, including the kind of academic queries Said (1979: 12) positions as political intellectualism. Mary Louise Pratt (2008: 8 ) describes this fixation on the “other” as essential to the colonial impulse as “empires create in the imperial center of power an obsessive need to present and re-present its peripheries and it’s others continually to itself. It becomes dependent on its others to know itself.” While architects such as Koolhaas may perceive themselves as being comfortably detached from any political agenda related to such imperial identification, Zeynep Çelik (1992, 74) convincingly identifies Le Corbusier’s proposals for Algiers, for instance, as imbued with complex, romantic, and even erotic colonial overtones that ultimately establish “a symbol of the controlled existence of the colonized people and their ‘different’ culture, a constant reminder of the power of colonialism.” The architect as a visionary of the built environment is here characterized as the facilitator of colonial imperialism and tasked with the detailing of its spatio-political “upgrade.”

Yet, unlike Le Corbusier in Algiers, Koolhaas does not provide any urban plans or megastructures for Lagos, nor does he outwardly intend to. His “incentive” is to offer an established interpretation that might be closer aligned with the “tourist gaze” than the colonizing one.[1] By claiming that no “established” interpretation of the city exists, combined with his sustained interest in political aspects of architectural production, Koolhaas reinstates an Orientalist tone while reenacting the “authority” or “leadership” complex described by Frantz Fanon (1967: 99), which assumes “there exists something that makes the white man the awaited master.” Yet as Said (1985: 91) himself recognizes with comparable feminist and ethnic studies, Orientalism is often seen, for him problematically, though a wider lens that “entails nothing less than the creation of new objects for a new kind of knowledge.” Thus, even if Koolhaas is left vulnerable to accusations of anthropological naiveté and intellectual territorialism, his interest in “the other” could also be seen as a less invasive impulse that emphasizes the theoretical overtones of his work over any political, economical, or even material ones. According to Andrea Wilson Nightingale the ancient Greek theôroi, often officially appointed ambassadors, were sent to witness a distant festival or religious practice and were “required to return home and give a full account of what they had witnessed and learned.” (Nightingale, 2001: 30, 33) The word theoria means, most literally, witnessing a spectacle, and was proposed by the fourth century philosophers as being the “highest form of wisdom.” (Nightingale, 2001: 23) Nightingale writes that “the theôros is an eyewitness whose experience is radically different from those who stay home and receive a mere report of the news,” and while some saw this notion of spectacle as a “cowardly flight from the world of action,” others, and we might effortlessly include Said in this group, considered it “a pernicious power-grab posing as disinterested speculation.” (Nightingale, 2001: 24)  Lagos is unquestionably seen as a spectacle for the renowned architect and while one could question the incentives of the work, it could also be seen as a theôroi-like attempt to bring forth something of relevance to fellow architects, students, and the general public.

Pedagogical Incentives

In the case of Koolhaas, as a celebrated international figure, the intended audience is not only his Dutch homeland, with or without any political or power-based incentive, but an architectural community intrigued by current transformations in our global cities and what they mean for the future of architectural and urban design. As a learning strategy, the spectacle of Lagos can here be seen more constructively through the “principle of unfamiliarity,” an idea succinctly described by Adrian Snodgrass and Richard Coyne (2006: 145).

The familiar is seen to require no interpretation because it is already understood. The unfamiliar, by contrast, is so because there is something in it we can’t understand, so that interpretation is necessary. This bears on design projects in two ways: the more provocatively unfamiliar the historical material the student is asked to translate, the greater the chances of disclosing new and enhanced understandings, so that the tutor should seek out what is most unfamiliar to be translated; and second, that a design tutor is consciously to encourage students to seek out the unfamiliar in what seems the most familiar (Snodgrass et al, 2006: 145).

When considering design thinking in this way, the degree of ‘otherness’ in geographic, cultural, climatic, social, and technological realms, for instance, can be seen as an effective method for revealing “enhanced understandings” that in turn urges the student to reconsider both familiar and new contexts. Design is inherently an inquisitive and iterative process and when the degree of “otherness” is taken into consideration, the potential pedagogical value lies in the anticipation of the unexpected – for better or worse.

The implications of the “principle of unfamiliarity” are profound when related to architectural education, and particularly the design studio, as it dispels Said’s claim that the primary incentive for engaging with an “other” context involves a political and/or cultural exploitation of it. Our current architectural climate is one that requires agile designers with the ability to readily adapt to new situations and respond to unique challenges in various cultural and climatic contexts. Many current students of architecture will entertain working in different cities, countries, or even on other continents upon graduation where economies may be more robust and/or where they find their skills are most valued. Their instructors and classmates are also increasingly comprised of individuals from around the globe, offering various social, philosophical, and technological insights from “other” places throughout their education. Meanwhile, digital connectivity continues to amplify both awareness and curiosity about foreign climates and cultures. While a noncritical response to these ongoing trends could inevitably lead to the kind of “reckless anthropology” accused of in Koolhaas’ work, foreign cities and cultures undeniably offer insights and awareness about one’s own assumptions and design tendencies. For instance, as Koolhaas has aptly pointed out, the tensions between formal and informal urban systems evidenced in cities such as Lagos offer essential insights for urban thinking, the African city has been described by AbdouMaliq Simone (1998: 72) as “ahead of its time,” and Garth Myers (2011:1-20) positions the urban Africa as essential to understanding the relational complexities of our exploding cities.

In learning about the historical, social, political, and economic situations of the “other” place, students faced with a design problem for this foreign context are thus challenged to consider a myriad of issues they cannot possibly resolve given their physical and cultural alienation to that place. The value of the spectacle is thus not to impose or even suggest something narrowly labeled as “Western” into something often equally mislabeled as “non-Western.” Instead, the incentive is to extract insights from the cultural and technological differences between the familiar and the foreign contexts by identifying the strengths and weaknesses embedded in the existing biases and traditions of both. The alienation of the new design context thus challenges students to critically assess their own assumptions while learning about relevant architectural topics from a more systemic and global perspective. Hannah Le Roux (2007: 446) has noted the inherent problems that arise when cultural differentiation, along with vernacular traditions, are “negated by removing spatial practices from their contexts” through the prioritization of a “global pattern of productive work.” She further emphasizes that climatic discourse in architecture has always been a system of exchange, borrowing, and transferring, but in colonial countries this exchange has been problematically uneven. (Le Roux, 2007: 446) As a pedagogical strategy of adopting the “principle of unfamiliarity”, however, such an abstraction of spatial practices offers an immense opportunity to explore the boundaries of architectural possibility. It is within these unpredictable boundaries that we find design occupying the territory Pratt (2008: 8 ) describes as the “contact zone,” or “the space in which people geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict.” The “conflict” zone of design thinking and production in architecture schools, however, is neither violent nor necessarily material, but rather a conceptual space where differences are celebrated, communicated, evaluated and assessed.

Thus, the discussion returns to the value of the non-African student learning from the perceived spectacle of Africa through design. The “principle of unfamiliarity” suggests there is pedagogical value in creating something not necessarilyfrom or for a place, but of that place, resulting in opportunities for “new and enhanced understandings.” As in any cross-cultural exchange, if one were to interrogate such programs from a purely Orientalist perspective, there could be derived a number of questionable incentives, yet an altruistic motive to engage with the “developing world” is often considered to be the foremost reason for students to embark on their international exploration. In 2008 an edition of Harvard Design Magazine recognized this shift towards social and environmental prioritization as evidenced by the emergence of a number of activist student organizations at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. (Saunders, 2008: 3) John Gendall’s (2008: 67) essay describing the efforts of recent graduates “helping” a Nairobi community “with the poorest of Kibera” is consistent with this tone, and following advocates such as Cameron Sinclair, Anders Lipik (2010: 212) has further highlighted a similar shift in contemporary practice, towards a “redefining of the architect’s role in and responsibility to society.” Yet, in all of these cases there are important questions to pose. As Bruce Nussbaum (2010) writes, “Is the new humanitarian design coming out of the U.S. and Europe being perceived through post-colonial eyes as colonialism? Are the American and European designers presuming too much in their attempt to do good?” While such a critical awareness is essential to engage in any architectural design problem, in any context, if the discussion remains focused on how architecture can adjust its procedures to perform better in the social and economic realms in multiple situations, the “African” studio can be viewed in a more positive utopian light. As Jameson (2005: xiii) notes, “On the social level…at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment … therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively.” Design can be seen here as a process of extrapolative provocation, not an assertion of any established ideology.

It is consciously within this framework that the Montana State University School of Architecture has been working with Kenyan architect and social advocate Ronald Omyonga in studying Nairobi’s housing crisis since 2009. Omyonga’s original business plan, proposing a more holistic approach to improving Nairobi’s housing through an integrated system of interventions and strategies based on incremental housing and economic mobility, has guided a series of field trips, studios, and seminars that examine how low-middle-income sustainable housing can also offer training to individuals in various building industries, thereby generating equity while strengthening existing and future communities. Including contributions and advising from colleagues and students at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, studios have included an incremental suburban housing development, a housing component factory and community center, a design-build straw bale program in rural Kenya, and a high-rise housing studio for Nairobi’s Central Business District. The results from the MSU studios have exhibited the predictably unexpected: a series of collisions between student preconceptions, imaginations, and learned design methodologies, meeting a culturally and climatically foreign context that for most students is “known” only through virtual means.  For example, in the case of the high-rise studio for Nairobi, the resulting projects attempt to contextualize the alien building typology (the residential tower) and transcend the mere multiplication of floor plates for increased density. By eliminating the expectations of students to deal with issues such as budget and political obstacles, work focused instead on the notion of architectural agility, or the idea that rapidly growing cities such as Nairobi will need to be much more nimble in order to respond to the evolving demands of its future citizens. Individual projects focused on relevant issues such as rural-urban migration (Image 1), food production (Image 2), transportation congestion (Image 3), water purification (Image 4), and informal/formal spatial interfaces (Image 5). In all cases, the student work aimed to examine the potential for architecture to improve its socioeconomic performance, while envisioning a more sustainable urban future for Nairobi. The alienation of the students from the context could be here seen as a handicap and an advantage, the projects generating a chimerical collection of visions not unlike the submissions for early Architecture for Humanity competitions that provoke engaged discussion (Sinclair, 2006: 18-23).

Academic indulgence?

If Rem Koolhaas were a businessman traveling to Lagos to transparently increase trade and profit margins there would be little debate or discussion about his incentive. But because his intent is described as interpretive and in gaining knowledge, a spirited postcolonial suspicion arises over who this interpretation most benefits and if it is, like the accusations of the Greek theôroi, some kind of “pernicious power-grab posing as disinterested speculation.” Educational programs engaging in “other” contexts face similar questions with regards to their pedagogical intent and, as argued by Le Roux, what this teaches students about spatial practices and their relationship to their physical and cultural context. Yet, the idea of designing from another context as opposed to for it has the capacity to activate the “principle of unfamiliarity” and encourage cross-cultural exchange by challenging our learned design tendencies and reframing the way we approach design both “away from” and “at” home. Thus, the architectural engagement with the “other” is not necessarily confined to disaster relief and claimed altruistic efforts, but as Jameson states, can extend to gaining awareness about our own architectural “mental and ideological imprisonment” and how we can do better. The accusation of the “outsider’s indulgent aesthetic project” remains relevant, however, if the result is a more global discussion about architecture’s failures and potentials in the realms of social and economic systems, such a utopian initiative seems worth its pedagogical efforts.

Works Cited

Anderson, S (2007). “Proving ground.” Grey Room. 27: 82-103.

Çelik, Z (1992). “Le Corbusier, Orientalism, Colonialism.” Assemblage. 17: 58-77.

DeBoeck, F (2002). “Kinshasa: Tales of the ‘Invisible City’ and the Second World.” In Under Siege: Four African Cities. Documenta 11_Platform 4, eds. C.Basualdo O. Enwezor, U. M. Bauer, S.       Ghez,   S.Maharaj, M. Nash, & O. Zaya. Ostfildern-Ruiz, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers. 243-85.

Ewing, S (2011). “Introduction.” In Architecture and Field/Work. Eds. Ewing, S., J. McGowan, Speed, C. &             Bernie, VC. Routledge: New York.

Folkers, A (2010). Modern architecture in Africa. Sun: Amsterdam.

Gendell, J (2008). “Co-designing productive parks with the poorest of Kibera, Kenya: GSD graduates help a Nairobi community.” Harvard Design Magazine. 28: 67-69.

Jameson, F (2005). Archaeologies of the future: The desire called utopia and other science fictions. Verso: London, New York.

Lagos Wide & Close (2005), Dir.  Bregtje van der Haak

Le Roux, H (2007). “Building on the boundary – modern architecture in the tropics.” Social Identities,  10:4, 439-453.

Lipik, A (2010). Small scale, big change: New architectures of social engagement. Museum of Modern Art: New York.

Myers, G (2011). African cities: Alternative visions of urban theory and practice. Zed: New York.

Nightingale, AW (2001). “On wandering and wondering: Theoria in Greek philosophy and culture.” Arion, 9: 23-58.

Nussbaum, B (2010). “Is humanitarian design the new imperialism? Does our desire to help do more harm than good?”Co.Design. Available online: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1661859/is-humanitarian-design-the-new-imperialism#disqus_thread. Accessed December 10, 2011.

Pratt, ML (2008). Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. 2nd ed. Routledge: London, New       York.

Said, EW (1985). “Orientalism revisited.” Cultural Critique. 1: 89-107.

Said, EW (1978). Orientalism. Vintage: New York.

Saunders, WS (2008). “Design politics…and parametrics.” Harvard Design Magazine. 28: 3.

Simone, AM (1998). “Urban social fields in Africa.” Social Text. 56: 71-89.

Sinclair, C (2006). “Introduction: I hope it’s a long list…” Design like you give a damn: Architectural responses to humanitarian crises. Ed. Architecture for Humanity. Metropolis: New York.

Snodgrass, A & Coyne, R (2006). Interpretation in architecture: Design as a way of thinking. Routledge:    London.

Urry, J (1990). The tourist gaze. Sage: London.

[1] John Urry (1990:2) writes that “…rather than being a trivial subject, tourism is significant in its ability to reveal aspects of normal practices which might otherwise remain opaque. Opening up the workings of the social world often requires the use of counter-intuitive and surprising methodologies, such as in this case the investigation of the ‘departures’ involved in the tourist gaze.”


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