"As African Architects, we should steer away from the idea of just the building. Our canvas should be broader, because the continent demands of us that we think beyond the European Architect. Relevance has to be bestowed on you. The people have to tell you, what you are doing, makes a difference. You are not important until the people tell you that you are important."
Joe Addo on ArchiDATUM Dates Series
This week ArchiDATUM dates the enigmatic Joe Osae-Addo, a renowned architect from Ghana and founder of the ArchiAfrika platform with a strong character which lives in his belief system as is seen in his highly acclaimed residence, Inno-native house. His words rally for zest in young upcoming African architects, with whom he has a special connection to as mentor and friend. After day long lectures at the Technical University of Kenya, he took time out to engage in a rather warm informal discussion at the Sarit Centre foodcourt. He talks on his experience as a judge in numerous competitions and in a bold voice, he addresses issues of design in urban centres.
1. With so much talent spread across the continent, how do our designers compare to foreigners internationally?
There are no black African students entering competitions. Recently, we judged the international union of architects student competition in Durban last year, and there were 300 entries originally. By the time it got to us it was 150 students to review… and we selected 15 at the end for the final reviews during the congress. Out of the 15, believe it or not, 12 were Chinese students. And guess what, their work was excellent. It was not this China stereotype, it was serious investigations.
2. Is there hope for our cities to be improved by the local architects?
It’s scary. The game, the level is so high internationally amongst young people and we have to raise our game in Africa. We are so thin skinned. Students ought to know that the competition is not in Africa, its global, that’s why you have foreign friends building all over Africa. But we can compete, it’s a fact.
3. In your opinion, what are the steps that young architects have to take to be successful?
You have to investigate deep and spend a lot of time developing these ideas and then you have to test them in competitions, over and over again. Because again, competitions is an art in itself, people who do it often know the trick. You kind (of) figure out who the jury is, you do that research. It’s like dealing with a client… No, two clients are the same. You have to study them. The first time you meet a client you say, I know how I am going to win this person over, I’ll do some quick studies and then you tailor your ideas around winning them over. You try to let them believe that they are getting what they want, but meanwhile you are giving them what you want on top of what they want. But it’s an art. It just doesn’t happen, you have to practice it. And it requires research (and that) you know the context very very well. You have to find a way of expressing these ideas in a form that can relate to the wow.
4. So do you mean that foreign ‘starchitects’ will nudge locals off the local scene?
For us young architects in the continent, there is a lot to be done. You also need to understand that you are working in a very tough environment. Africa is tough… But Bjarke Ingels cannot survive in Africa, because here you have to maneuver.
5. Who represents the youth as game changers in the continent?
Maxwell Mutanda. You should see his work, it just captures to me a new way of expressing design. And this boy is expected all over the world now. He was discovered at the Venice Biennale in the African students section and this month he is in Chicago… Because he has a unique way of expressing himself. And you guys have to develop your own unique voices. It is very captivating how he has differentiated himself from the group.
6. Authenticity is a rare commodity in today’s urban environment and with more projects mirroring each other, how can the next generation build on their expression?
You have to work hard at it. It is not just talking about what you have to do, you have to engage in small things, get involved with a small piece of sculpture in front of your father’s house or your mother’s house and this is my expression of what my family stands for. You have to make things. It is not only about buildings, its basic interventions. Small, bigger, bigger, until it gets to a building.
7. True and you can see more and more African architects engaging in radical design interventions for low income neighborhoods such as Kibera slum upgrading, but are they viable or do you see them as fantasy?
That is one thing and it is interesting, but you see that has been done all over the world. I mean, that is spatial planning strategy, environmental strategy, but I’m talking about the social condition and the economy. How can you with initiatives, come up with the idea to make the urban vendor on the street make much more money than they are doing. That is the space that African architects have to enter. This kind of I-can-make-a-green-garden has been done a million times. Those are fantasy projects, which are great. But how can we take real life problems and come up with a way of framing it in a very unique way but it can be realized.
8. Then what approach should it take?
It should be underpinned by economy. You have to become economic engines of change. Money has to be made by the people of that community every day afterwards. Because you cannot be pumping money into the upgrade. At some point the upgrade should generate enough revenues to fix themselves. Rather than all this you have to say, how are we training masons and carpenters so that they can leave Kibera as the most skilled artisans in the whole city, so that these foreign contractors want to hire them.
9. Are you implying that the role of the architect should expand into socio-economic set up?
You have to get that discourse going. Lemme give you an example, Aksumite market. Basically a group of us decided to engage with an existing night market. It has been around for 150 years. It is a market that you can go at 2 am and buy local foods. But (until) recently because of malls, people have not been going there as much. So we said, okay what can we do once a month to bring the middle class and the elite to this place and spend money. And that is what we did. We helped the market women, we worked with them, to make sure that their environment is cleaner, the gutters are covered for this event. And all that we provided were tables and chairs, shut down the street that was a block long, brought a famous musician, put table clothes and cutlery to layer on the table like a restaurant, in the heart of the ghetto.
In this market, the women were ready with their aprons because people are nervous of cholera and things. You have to make people feel comfortable. And then you start the event. Over 500 people would come, and these women would make so much money in the night. So as designers it is a simple way of saying we can make the local economy become better. These women now, employ themselves, they fix their stalls themselves. You don’t have to do it for them, they can do it themselves. But we have to create the enabling environment for change. Could you imagine if Kibera becomes known as the place where you have the best electricians, the best masons, the best carpenters, the best steel benders… now that’s an economic activity.
10. What is your parting shot to the enthusiastic designers and visionaries?
Identify a potential activity in the city, which is happening anyway and doesn’t need us really. But think with our creative minor interventions, how can we make it WOOW. People come there, people spend money.
As African architects, we should steer away from the idea of just the building. Our canvas should be broader, because the continent demands of us that we think beyond the European Architect. Relevance has to be bestowed on you. The people have to tell you, what you are doing, makes a difference. You are not important until the people tell you that you are important.
Our client purchased the site, after we had completed an initial Design Concept for the previous property owner. Our client loved the design, and the visual direction the home was going, and accordingly shaped his brief around the design he saw.
This week, we interview Greg Truen, a Director at SAOTA who has worked extensively through West African and increasingly into East Africa. With a proclivity for ‘ingenious innovations’ and modern day silky contemporary high end designs that resonate well with the architectural landscape, he ta...