Invasive Aesthetics | A call for a regenerative Architecture in Africa

Guest Contribution by Zaheer Allam & Dr. Zarrin Allam

Architects and urban designers have a unique sense of ownership and responsibility towards the birth and evolution of our infrastructural landscape and identity. By changing the community skyline, we impact on the community’s sense of belonging. Hence, when we bring about change in an environment, we should be considering the community’s needs in the equation. But do we really?

All Photos © Mohammad Salman Toorawa. The Marginal, 2013. (Jules Koenig Street | Port Louis, Mauritius)

This is an individualistic precept highlighting globalisation as the creative hand behind an undesirable uniformity in cities around the world. It is being heralded as the ‘modernisation’ era, sweeping away the dark shadows of archaism. Should Africa, a continent that boasts an emerging economy adhere to such an ideology? We, Africans, proudly claim the banner of leadership and yet are marred by globalisation as we embrace the deconstruction of the unique identity of places that marvel and enrapture through their distinctiveness. By promoting the adoption of foreign cultures, we all too hastily deny our own roots.

Mauritius is one such example. It is a colorful island rich in history and culture that is quickly adopting the monochromatic global stamp of modernism. Mauritius hosts 3022 inhabitants per kmsq, making it denser than metropolitan cities such as Dublin, Milan and KL. Architects and Engineers are attempting to cater for the demographic expansion by erecting buildings based on a prescriptive design ideology of the concrete cities. We thus forget that glass, titanium and other such bearings of the said ‘avant-garde’ movement are not the embodiment of architectural promise and achievement. They are ultimately expressions of a visual ideology encapsulated in architectural mantras of modernity

Mauritius is the cradle of a rich colonisation history under Dutch, French and English influences and yet its cities sadly do not reflect it. Its infrastructure can be perceived as neither an adaptation nor an evolution of its past. The visitor will take note of the historical buildings that have either been left to the ides of time or housing only hawkers or vagrants. The prestige once linked to such places is slowly fading away as we are witnesses to the demolition of other similar buildings in favor of erecting new ones. History is being erased… memories soiled.

The dying and the living, 2013 (Eugene Laurent Street | Port Louis, Mauritius)

The identity of any architectural piece is closely linked to its emergent locality and its symbolic spirit. However, we tend to belie these very principles by giving life to structures without identity. Our global skyline reflects such uniformity. Instead of highlighting our cultural and historical attributes through construction, our urban designers and architects are instead amalgamating a multitude of trends that reflect westernised culture without projecting the spirit and essence of a place. This leads to discordant merging architectural trends and deconstructs the context and story of the involved community.

This gives birth to several issues. In a social context, one can question the equitable access to services and resources by the locals as well as the impact on their health and well-being since social welfare is strongly entwined with physical well-being. Ecological repercussions are also to be factored into account. Urbanisation is a controversial concept in energy efficiency since it relies on massive resource consumption. Moreover, development alters the biodiversity of habitats. We also need to consider the governance issues relating to the judicial and ethical impact of settlement patterns in urban development.

It is crucial to establish a proper balance between those aspects in order to celebrate our diversity while promoting a good living standard and preserving our cultural and architectural identity. Proper planning should be strongly emphasised since the continuation of our present, haphazard construction puts our future generations at risk of inheriting a place that is not only lacking in design but also an embodied cultural identity. Our infrastructure would slowly decay; our history forgotten to all, hanging on to sheer survival in wizened history books.

Interior side, 2013 (Bourbon Street/ Remy Ollier Street | Port Louis, Mauritius)

Presently, the only architectural pieces that embrace the colloquialisms of Mauritian colonial style and Africa’s raw essence are hotels. Our economy thrives on tourism, hence giving rise to a spatter of tourist accommodation. While it is questionable as to how much such infrastructure really reflect our country’s identity, we must nevertheless acknowledge the attempts at projecting a semi-historical image to our guests. However, the tourist experience is not confined to hotel walls. Our visitors tend to immerse themselves in local culture and interact with the populace. The overall impact of their visit would hence be their experience in our different cities and villages. A very real dichotomy in our infrastructure hence comes to light: The luxurious, well designed hotels versus our crumbling auxiliaries. We should reflect more on how this brutal transition is perceived by tourists.

Architectural emphasis is undoubtedly placed on the tourism sector at the expense of the public sector. We tend to forget that our cultural identity belongs as much to our present as to our past. Hence, our cultural heritage should not be confined to the hotel walls but extended to encompass our streets so that a common cultural ethos and experience can be shared by our tourists and our people. This, by no means, promotes a radical shift towards archaic infrastructure but instead advocates for an evolution born from our architectural roots while enriching our landscape diaspora through intelligent design and construction. There is a need for a new urbanism not based on irrationality or uncertainty. Its primary concern should not be the notion of permanence but the elaboration on territories of potential and value. It should not aim for the erection of stable configurations alone but instead focus on creating a co-habitation between history and structure, between our past and present. We need to redefine how we want to visualize our future and as such, make provision for it.

The old and the ugly, 2013 (Sir William Newton Street | Port Louis, Mauritius)

Urban theorist Nikos Salingaros shares the belief that star architects who readily stamp their ‘unique architectural signature’ on each of their construction designs, irrespective of geographical location, are ultimately short-sighted. We need to provide a cohesive architecture that caters to human needs and sensibilities. This can be achieved by constant re-adaptation to existing buildings, nature and culture. We need to connect to our buildings just as we connect to the world since our structures are ultimately the visual narrators of our history. We need to create post-traditional relationships that are both new and meaningful.

Over the years, we have been favoring our economic stability to the detriment of our heritage and identity. We should now reflect on our current position. Our city reflects our identity, and the image we are projecting through the so called modern trend should be questioned. The global economy is unfortunately an instrument of undoing towards the magnificent expressions of ancient cultures as westernised interventions negate our prior identity and values. Human architecture is shaped by its material presence, not by image, and yet our technological focus seems intent on replacing civilisation through a restructuring of its image.

Intersection, 2013 (Pope Hennessy Street | Port Louis, Mauritius)

Architectural philosophy states that “form follows function” but we now live in an era where the function defies the form. We need to actively restore our image. We need to bring back glory to our heritage sites by retrofitting existing old structures instead of demolishing them in favor of new ones. We also need to attempt to discover the relationship between site specific design, the symbolic creations of the architect and the unique connection that the involved community has with their city, town or village.

Underground, 2013 (Sir William Newton Street | Port Louis, Mauritius)

It is the era of change and excitement; for us to advocate personally, academically, and professionally a different kind of architecture. One that is clear in precedence, of form and material appropriate to the particular task at hand, focused in purpose on the reconstruction of the city and the regeneration of culture, and dedicated equally to the service of status and wealth as it is to social equity. It is high time for us to promote our culture, not only on foreign ground but to our own people and within our own community so that we can create a place not only rich in history but also in culture.

 

Zaheer Allam is an independent scholar with a background in Green Architecture & Project Management. He currently resides in Australia and his field of interest lies in ecological & utilitarian urbanism. Zarrin Allam is a medical practitioner living in Perth. Her passion expands to literary works and exploring avenues for environmental & cultural conservation and regeneration.

Acknowledgement | We are greatly thankful to Prof. Nikos Salingaros for allowing us to peruse the notes from his book: “Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity”.

 

Mauritius | Doing our part to combat immappancy

 

All images courtesy of the Mohammad Salman Toorawa. All rights reserved.

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