issue 202 - December 1989
Four ears, six hands
John van Nostrand and Michael Wellwood arrived in Africa
as disillusioned architects. By the time they returned to Canada their
approach to their craft had been utterly transformed.
There is a sixteenth-century caricature of 'The Architect' which depicts an extraordinary personage with four eyes and six hands. More than 400 years later, this image rings true in two senses. First, for such critics of contemporary architecture as Prince Charles and his followers, who see the modern architect as some kind of monster wreaking havoc on the historic city and countryside. But it rings true for architects as well as their critics in the sense that the essence of their work lies somewhere between 'seeing' and 'making'. And if you added a couple of extra ears it might sum up even better the qualities Western architects need most if they are to practise their trade in the Third World.
Over the past decade our firm, based in Toronto. has been actively engaged in a wide variety of projects in Africa. We have upgraded squatter sites in Botswana and Lesotho; we have designed schools, clinics and markets in these two countries and Uganda; and we have been involved with a series of emergency shelter, sanitation and water supply projects in Ghana, Sudan and Tanzania. And what we have learned has called into question our whole approach to the practice of architecture.In the mid-1970s we were a disillusioned firm of young architects poised on the brink of self-destruction. We had spent four years planning a new town for 250.000 people to be built outside Toronto only for the Government to opt instead for the firm that designed the British new town of Milton Keynes. Their plan simply reinforced the colonial grid pattern Canada had inherited from the British 150 years earlier. Our frustration at boiling point, we grabbed the opportunity to leave and work in Africa.
We travelled to Botswana to work on the upgrading' of Old Naledi, an illegal settlement of 12,000 people on the outskirts of the capital Gaborone. It made up a quarter of the city's population but only a tenth of its area. We were looking forward to a simple project - unfettered by local bureaucracy and far from the problems of inherited colonial legacy.
The idea, we were informed, was to transform Old Naledi into a 'bona-fide' extension of the newly established capital. We were handed a proposed plan for the project which consisted of a grid pattern of roads and services, similar to that of not only the rest of Gaborone but also many of our new Canadian towns. We were warned that Old Naledi would be unlike any of the 'slums' we had experienced at home. We would encounter dire poverty, complete unemployment, high rates of crime and a chaotic urban infrastructure. Finally, we were put in touch with the Government's co-ordinating planner, newly arrived in Botswana from his previous posting with (wait for it) the Milton Keynes Development Agency.
By now we were somewhat suspicious. We felt the need to have a good look at Old Naledi to ensure that the proposed plan made some sense. We managed to convince our funding agency to allow for this before we actually began work.
The next six months of using our eyes and ears ended up as a learning process that spread over the entire three-year period of the project - and it completely reversed the original plan. We discovered that far from being a chaotic slum Old Naledi had a well-established order with residents already hard at work at improving and upgrading their community. How people felt about their community was reflected in the names people gave to the different wards that made up Old Naledi: Self-Trial, At Peace with Each Other, Place of the Morula Tree, Land of Milk and Honey, Mutual Sympathy, Do It Yourself, The Tribes, Those Who Have Suffered, and Tranquility. The care and affection people felt for their communities taught us a lesson that has been repeated in almost every other project we have been asked to undertake in Africa.
Things were never as simple as they seemed at first. Take unemployment. Far from being unemployed, the majority of the residents of Old Naledi were engaged in a myriad of economic activities. These were difficult for the government to identify, let alone quantify, because they were part of the informal sector. People worked at making beer, trading, fixing cars and appliances, selling fruit and vegetables, as well as preparing food. While there was certainly poverty - either older people living alone or newly arrived single-parent families - it was clear that most families had developed active personal economies which were rapidly improving,
What appeared at first to be a chaos of jumbled streets and arbitrary building styles was only chaotic when compared with the orderly layout of the rest of Gaborone. In fact, the Tswana people who live in Old Naledi have a long tradition of urban experience. They are used to establishing large tribal towns ranging in size from 30,000 to 50,000 persons. The residents of Old Naledi brought with them a sophisticated and ordered idea of what living together was all about, and this simply did not take the form of a neat grid. Planning for the new capital had not allowed for the host of laborers, clerks, vendors, hawkers and maintenance staff required to support it.
Six months of watching and listening convinced us that Old Naledi was already a thriving, highly sophisticated urban community - and one which in many ways responded better to contemporary economic and social conditions in Botswana than did the rest of Gaborone, Its residents were certainly not looking for architects to restructure it. On the contrary, they were looking for assistance which had very little to do with the formal practice of architecture - help in making what was already there work better.
They wanted a programme which would legitimize their land holdings and allow them to invest in permanent housing; they needed a decent system of water supply, better sanitation, access to building loans and mortgages; and they were keen on the construction of new schools, a clinic and a market.
One Old Naledian, 45-year-old Ruth Chiwawa, felt this upgrading was a success because it 'made things legal.. gave more fresh air... and gave people the opportunity to build what they want'. For Ruth, who built her own house with her husband, Old Naledi was a good place to live for 'resourceful people'.
This discovery of the importance of what already exists has guided most of our work in Africa since Old Naledi. In the illegal suburbs of Dar-es-Salaam, we were told that there was no sanitation and were asked to develop a low-cost system. We learned that in fact, the great majority of families had already built pit latrines and what made most sense was a programme for the upgrading of the latrine system. In Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, we were asked to prepare a new plan for the upgrading of a large, uncontrolled district of the city. But like Old Naledi, the residents were already hard at work upgrading their own community. Our best strategy was to lend a hand.
The lessons we learned in Africa have had considerable influence on our approach to architecture and planning in Canada. When we returned from Botswana in the early 1980s, we were struck by the extent of Toronto's homelessness crisis - over 10,000 officially without shelter. Many were sleeping outdoors or 'squatting' in a variety of temporary accommodations.
We spent over a year talking to the staff and the almost 200 men at the Fred Victor Mission in the city's downtown core. The men were sleeping in bunkbeds crammed into four or five dormitories the Mission had available on a night-by-night basis. These men were caught in the same vicious circle as the residents of Old Naledi - without an address you couldn't find a job and without a job you couldn't afford a place. So we worked with the staff and a small group of residents in developing designs for a new building which provides each resident with a permanent and private bedroom as well as access to a shared living-room and kitchen. The building also houses a clinic, a recreation club and a restaurant to serve the larger homeless population in the city.
Our experience has challenged us to rethink the very meaning of architecture and human settlement. Now we are comfortable as a creature with four eyes and an extra set of ears. We realize that these are critical appendages for the practising architect because the success of any project is directly proportional to your understanding of what people need. We have given up Grand Design. For this is the turn of the twentieth century, and unlike the sixteenth century, architects do not work exclusively for kings or queens, or even princes.
One can't help but suffer a bit of culture shock as a foreign architect in Africa. Take our current job helping to rehabilitate the market system in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. The first time you go to Owino Market you cannot help but be overwhelmed. You are buffeted about by shoppers taking home the day's food, by porters carrying huge piles of matoke (bananas) in wooden wheelbarrows or the frame for a couch strapped to a bicycle. Merchandise is stacked higher than it is possible to stack; little towers of potatoes, charcoal and bananas. And the strongest impression of all is the deafening cacophony produced by hundreds of men beating discarded sheets of corrugated metal into suitcases, pots, and charcoal braziers that would not be out of place in an industrial design exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Then it begins to rain. Hard and heavy, as it usually rains in Kampala. The market begins to flood. The drainage ditches overflow and the downpour turns the red clay into mud in which you slip around as if you were on a floor of grease. Both buyers and sellers crowd under what shelter they can find. When the deluge subsides vendors try to repair the damage to their good and sheds, and people resume the slippery ballet of buying and selling in the mud.
It isn't hard to figure out what works here and how it might be improved. The market goes on at a healthy pace in spite of everything: the rain, the lack of clean water and sanitary facilities, even the lack of money in the Ugandan economy. One is tempted to be romantic and think that here - where there are so few resources and yet so much resourcefulness - would be the best place to be if a nuclear holocaust were to come.
And the lesson for an architect is the same as for a Ugandan government struggling to reconstruct a country battered by some 20 years under the despotism of Idi Amin and Milton Obote - if you are to get anywhere you have to tap the talent and optimism of ordinary people. If the people who work there are involved in the day-to day running of the market, this will diminish both costs and bureaucracy. And if the market works well everyone from the farmer to the children eating their dinners back home benefit.
The best way to design buildings is to find out what people build for themselves and then copy them, while aiming at an overall form of organization that works better. A lot of the work can be done by local people with a few construction skills. The first problem here was to get rid of the rain. When we were first commissioned to redesign Kampala's markets we thought that a hard surface over the entire site would work best. But we soon realized that although this might keep the ground from turning to mud it did little to keep the water off the people and their merchandise. So we added roofs.
Beneath the roofs we designed the walls dividing shops to double as security barriers, cutting costs. And both these and the fittings and finishes could be built either by the vendors themselves or by small contractors they hire. This is basic carpentry and masonry, and gives the vendors the maximum freedom to do what they want. In addition it creates an economic spin-off for local contractors - and reduces the reliance on foreign technology.
Returning to the West at the end of the project is another culture shock. One sees afresh the profligacy of our own cities and the wastefulness of our systems. Our wealth - and the safety net our bureaucracies provide - allows us to be lazy and unimaginative in dealing with our problems.
John van Nostrand and Michael Wellwood
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7