African Perspectives Casablanca Conference
African Architectural Education Roundtable Session
moderated by Ola Uduku and Ana Tostoes
Saturday, 5 November 2011
David Rifkind, Florida International University
Africa plays a major role in my teaching. Yet it is not primarily as a source of material to augment the canon of architectural history. Rather, my experiences with Africa, as traveller and as academic, have challenged me to re-examine the presumptions underlying my teaching and have simultaneously charged my work with greater urgency. Africa, in other words, has both compelled me to spend more time reflecting and move much faster.
I write this from my position teaching architectural history and theory in an American university. My concern is global, and my focus is on modernity as understood through the built environment. The problem for me is not so much the limited body of buildings and landscapes we study – the canon – but rather the tool kit of analytical tools we help students develop in order to understand the world around them in profound ways, and to impact that world positively through thoughtful architectural practice. This education hinges on a student’s ability to understand the transformation of our world throughout the modern era, and architecture’s role in effecting those changes. My concerns are both historiographic and prospective, as I try to instill a better understanding of historical phenomena on their own terms and a sense of the ethical imperatives facing our field and the necessity of realizing them through practice.
The experience of architecture and urbanism in Africa challenges a number of historiographic assumptions associated with modernism in the West. The universality of Enlightenment values, the essentialist conception of cultural identity and the utopian notion of progress are difficult to sustain when confronted by the complexity and diversity of environments across the continent. Contemporary development, particularly in African cities, lays bare many of the internal contradictions within the neo-liberal system that many Western architects have embraced with uncritical euphoria, while material culture in African metropolises demonstrates the complexity of cultural identity in a world marked by migration, travel and media (both broadcast and social). The experience of Africa requires rethinking the way we frame discussions of the built environment.
Why is history so important here? One remarkable feature of modern architecture in the first half of the twentieth century was the importance of discourse in shaping practice. Discourse – the web of publications, exhibitions, lectures and competitions through which the discipline redefined its roles – provided the polemical energy that propelled European modernism. Historians figured prominently in these debates. Nikolaus Pevsner, Emil Kaufmann, Sigfried Giedion and Alberto Sartoris all used partisan historical chronicles to make the case for specific tendencies within modernism, thus affecting changes to the discipline by setting the very terms with which architects approached the built environment. Manfredo Tafuri used the term “operative criticism” to describe this tendency to guide design practices through polemical or partial historical accounts, and it sets into sharp relief the ethical responsibility of the historian in relation to the present and the future. While I don’t see my research or teaching in such instrumental terms, I am nonetheless cognizant that our work as historians and teachers of history will also have purchase on the future. We cannot shape the past without shaping the future.
The concept of multiple modernities, as defined by Charles Taylor and others, has been particularly useful in challenging the mythic homogeneity of the term “modernity.” Taylor criticizes the idea that the values and aspirations that emerged during the Enlightenment are universally applicable, and that societies undergo the same processes of modernization. The case for multiple modernities can be made in the experience of African metropolises, where urbanization does not always proceed apace with industrialization, secularization and democratization. The diversity of urban life across the continent poses a distinct challenge to another Western misconception, the essentialist idea of cultural identity representing a native genius tied to place and demonstrating an unchanging, ahistorical essence. Arjun Appadurai’s work is particularly important in this regard, as he has diagnosed the global imaginary emerging from societies marked by large-scale movement and global communication. Finally, an analysis of the design disciplines’ participation in the processes of colonial administration throughout Africa challenges the utopian notion of progress that provided the ethical foundation for much of modernism, especially urban design. In each case, the study of Africa’s many modernities helps design students understand the pluralism inherent within modernism.
For those of us who write and teach history – whether or not the subject is Africa – the experience of African cities instils a suspicion of overarching and totalizing narratives. The status the Renaissance once enjoyed in the historiography of western architecture, for example, no longer seems tenable. This is a good thing. Instead, we need to develop methodological concerns specific to locations, cultures and programs. We need to extend our studies beyond the art historical convention of patronage in order to better understand the complex question of agency in the transformation of the built environment. And we have to allow the analytical tools with which we examine the built environment to emerge from the subject of study, rather than forcing pre-existing theoretical concerns onto African subjects.
This last point is as valid, and vital, for designers as it is for historians. As AbdouMaliq Simone has argued, Africa is full of answers, not just problems. We need to impress on our students the importance of observing and listening, in order to help identify the myriad solutions to problems already in practice across the continent. We need to teach our students that while solutions are often context-specifc, methods and attitudes are often broadly applicable. This requires tempering our missionary zeal and recognizing that, as often as not, innovation can be an African export. The best medium for this kind of learning may be a new kind of study abroad or educational exchange program, in which visiting students work with local architects already engaged in social and cultural projects. Such service opportunities might in turn pose fertile critiques of the structure of architectural practice in the West.
While the critique of modernism’s utopian vector leaves us sceptical of the Enlightenment notion of progress, the reality of urban Africa should nonetheless reinforce the sense of social purpose essential to architectural practice. The built environment alone may not be enough to ensure positive social change. However, we need to charge our teaching with the recognition that the rapid transformation of social structures through migration and urbanization, along with the built environment’s continuing role in sustaining human health and happiness, compels the design disciplines to both propose and realize better futures, whether or not our sites are in Africa.
It’s not quite accurate to say, as I implied at the outset, that African architecture doesn’t contribute to my efforts to expand the canon. On the contrary, recurring encounters with African architecture allow me to challenge basic concepts in my architectural survey courses. For example, successive classes on the churches of Lalibela, the Great Mosque of Djenné and the tents of the Touareg help students gain a more complex understanding of permanence, site-specificity and ritual. Later classes that examine twentieth-century colonial urbanism and architecture ask students to consider questions of power and agency alongside the concerns of climate and culture. In each case, African examples complicate the simple narratives that encourage uncritical adoption of practices and attitudes.
African cities bear witness to the importance of colonialism in the development of modern architecture and urban theory. Colonialism was a key component of Western modernity, and the design of colonial cities (as well as the colonial economy’s impact on material culture in the metropole) played a large role in the design disciplines. Yet this relationship’s omission (until recently) from the historiography of modernism remains striking, and provides evidence of how the ongoing encounter with African urbanism and architecture provides important challenges to the received tradition of modernism. Studying the transformation of cities from Casablanca to Cape Town challenges the comforting myths of modern architecture in ways that encourage increasingly better methods for framing the relationship between the design disciplines and the built environment.
One danger we face while incorporating African material into survey courses of world architecture is inadvertently reinforcing cultural stereotypes. For example, the extraordinary school buildings by Diébédo Francis Kéré in Gando and Dano (Burkina Faso) deserve to be celebrated for their many excellent qualities, but they need to be presented in context. Otherwise, the buildings – and the engaging story of their financing and design – can reinforce the image of a largely rural and technologically unsophisticated populace reliant on first-world technical knowledge and charity. Similarly, it is to our discipline’s credit that so many architects have directly addressed the problems of the world’s growing informal settlements, such as the vast Kibera district in Nairobi. Yet the image of large urban slums – and of a discipline whose services need to be dispensed through charities, rather than engaged through conventional models of patronage – reinforce common misperceptions of African cities and urban populations. As historians, critics and teachers, we need to frame architecture and cultural production in Africa with appropriate breadth, depth and diversity.
This breadth, depth and diversity will come from expanded historical research in Africa. The African Perspectives conferences provide a model for promoting such research, and the organizers are to applauded for their efforts. The group’s interest in publishing is of vital importance. Future conferences should more directly support new research by coordinating publications to accompany the events. This would create an invaluable venue for making historical research in Africa accessible to a global audience.
We should also acknowledge the importance of international awards programs in promoting contemporary architecture in Africa. The Aga Khan program (which admirably does not distinguish between Africa and other regions) is particularly important in this regard, as are the Holcim Awards for sustainable construction and the World Architecture Awards. Outside of Africa, we should develop regional networks to bring African practitioners to lecture in universities, much like my colleague Donna Cohen and I have done informally at our respective universities in Florida.
We can develop other initiatives to sponsor and promote the research necessary to expand the canon. At Florida International University, I began a series of symposia for emerging scholars to develop and present new research on modern architecture and urbanism outside Western Europe and North America. We are preparing a number of essays from the first five symposia for publication in an edited volume. The success of this symposium series has spurred my colleagues to propose forming a new doctoral program, one of whose research concentrations will emphasize modernism in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. We hope to develop a generation of scholars whose work will expand the canon in terms of both subject matter and historiographic methodology. We especially hope to attract students from across Africa and support work that will form the foundations of future canons.
These educational initiatives offer an important tool for infusing African material into the design curriculum at schools outside Africa. We have added new content to survey lecture courses and seminars, and are discussing ways of engaging African material through design studios and travel/study programs. One course that I am itching to teach is a seminar on African cities that would be cross-listed between FIU and the University of Florida, using video conferencing to link our classrooms and to connect us to guest lecturers around the world. This ambitious enterprise was proposed for the spring semester, but will have to wait until next year while we work out further logistics. Our hope is that video conferencing technology will allow us to generate new opportunities for classroom interaction between our students and scholars and practitioners in Africa, and around the world.
As important as this new content is – both within the classroom and in the expanded canon – the experience of Africa is even more valuable in the way it inspires a transformation in the way we teach architecture world-wide. Africa’s pluralism explodes the comforting myths of a monolithic modernism and static cultural identities. Africa’s problems charge our discipline with greater urgency and challenge the formalist narcissism of “post-criticality” and radical autonomy. Africa’s resilience demands careful reconsideration of agency and technological determinism. And Africa’s many modernisms require that we revise histories that are partial in both senses of the word.
V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).
Martin W. Lewis and Karen E. Wigen, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of the modern movement from William Morris to Walter Gropius (London, 1936).
Emil Kaufmann, “Three Revolutionary Architects, Boullée, Ledoux, and Lequeu,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, V. 42, N. 3. (1952), 431-564.
Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture (Cambridge, 1941).
Alberto Sartoris, Gli elementi dell’architettura funzionale (Milan: Hoepli, 1932).
Manfredo Tafuri, Theories and History of Architecture  (London, 1980).
reframing the canon
Ikem Stanley Okoye, “Architecture, History, and the Debate on Identity in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 61, No. 3. (September 2002): 381-396.
Ali Djerbi and Abdelwahab Safi, “Teaching the History of Architecture in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco: Colonialism, Independence, and Globalization,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 62, No. 1. (March 2003): 102-109.
multiple modernities and globalization
Charles Taylor, “Two Theories of Modernity,” Public Culture vol.11, no.1 (1999).
Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, Comparative civilizations and multiple modernities, Volume 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2003).
Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Theory Culture Society 7 (1990): 295-310.
AbdouMaliq Simone, For the City Yet to Come (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
Robert Neuwirth, Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World (Routledge, 2004).
Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006).
 On the impossibility of speaking of the continent as a singular, cohesive entity, see V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); and Martin W. Lewis and Karen E. Wigen, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
 On teaching architectural history in Africa, see Ikem Stanley Okoye, “Architecture, History, and the Debate on Identity in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 61, No. 3. (September 2002): 381-396. See also Ali Djerbi and Abdelwahab Safi, “Teaching the History of Architecture in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco: Colonialism, Independence, and Globalization,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 62, No. 1. (March 2003): 102-109.
 Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of the modern movement from William Morris to Walter Gropius (London, 1936). Emil Kaufmann, “Three Revolutionary Architects, Boullée, Ledoux, and Lequeu,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, V. 42, N. 3. (1952), 431-564. Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture (Cambridge, 1941). Alberto Sartoris, Gli elementi dell’architettura funzionale (Milan: Hoepli, 1932).
 Manfredo Tafuri, Theories and History of Architecture  (London, 1980).
 Charles Taylor, “Two Theories of Modernity,” Public Culture vol.11, no.1 (1999). See also Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, Comparative civilizations and multiple modernities, Volume 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2003).
 See for example, Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Theory Culture Society 7 (1990): 295-310.
 AbdouMaliq Simone, For the City Yet to Come (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
 On Kibera, see Robert Neuwirth, Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World (Routledge, 2004). See also Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006).