“...BETWEEN ADOBE AND STAINLESS STEEL”

The role of the architect and planner in the Third World.

Architects and planners in the Third World, and in sub-Saharan Africa, work under conditions that are substantially different from the working conditions of the architects and planners in the Industrialized or Developed World.
The dimensions and nature of those differences are normally measured by economic and social indicators. Very seldom can we find references and analysis of the cultural changes and conflicts that will necessarily determine new aproaches and solutions to city form and architectural expression in our region.

A new aproach is needed to resolve the inevitable rupture with the indigenous technical and formal traditions and with the colonial legacy as both cultural systems are no longer capable to answer the new material and cultural ambitions and realities of the people.

The systematic adoption of values and forms imported from other cultures and societies, climates and technical environments have created, and is still creating, aberrations and imposing or trying to impose, a spacial discipline and architecture that, in many cases, agravates the already dramatic conditions of life of our urban populations.
Our role as architects and planners in the Third World is, primarily, to deepen the understanding of the economic, social and cultural characteristics of our society, and their dynamics of change in order to find adequate and necessarily new solutions to our spatial and building problems.

Political, social, economic and environmental conditions in Sub-saharan Africa are well known. Fine adjustments and up-to-date statistics are not needed in order to have a reasonably acurate picture of the situation.
However great care must be taken to avoid easy generalisations as there are sharp material and cultural differences among the countries and societies in the region.

Cultural conditions are less well known considered and understood.
The dinamic character of the recent cultural transformations in the region, and their consequences, are unique both in the scope and in the speed with which large masses of population are brought from a pre-industrial and tribal culture into the world and the material values and tecnology of the age of comunication.
Cultural conditions, however, are certainly the single most important factor of change.

The environmental characteristics and the dangerously menaced and fragile ecosystems of the region are, here more than in any other region, conditions that the planners and the architect must know in depth and consider as a major concern when he defines the use of the space and determines technical options.
Under present circunstances not only those choices are extremely limited but they can affect directly the precarious ecological balance of our ecosystems.
Wrong choices of materials and technologies, careless spacial planning and design not adapted to site or climate have imediate and negative impacts difficult to counterbalance or correct within our already over stressed economies and our technical difficulties.

The conditions described have been known for the last twenty or thirty years, but the speed of the global transformations in the region makes it more urgent , every day, to develop a new approach and to search for creative solutions without models in any other moment of the history of human civilisation.
This need for a new spatial discipline and for a new architectural expression is a direct consequence of all those exceptional conditions and circunstances and not a consequence of a formalistic aproach or of pure intelectual speculation.
It is in fact a consequence of a basic intelectual coherence. It is an ethical choice and attitude.

The revolutionary transformations in the region - political, demographic and cultural are staggering, for their magnitude.
Population rates of growth, specially urban population, associated with the under development of the infra structure and the social and productive facilities, determine a colossal demand for the construction activity,
We have to build, and build fast, new roads, bridges, railways, dams, power lines, ports, hospitals, schools, factories, offices, libraries, monuments, houses.
We have far from enough engineers, builders, draughtsmen, surweyors; we have far from enought architects and planners; there is no time to mature our designs and planning concepts, to research and to satisfy ourselves with the quality of our own work.

Our clients form widely diverse groups in terms of economic, social and cultural levels.
A large mass of peasants, more than three quarter of the population, in need of village planning and designs for agricultural production buildings and social facilities; a very fast growing urban population, mostly unemployed or sub employed urban peasants demanding housing, neighbourhood planning, social facilities and a piece of land to build their own houses, with good access to work (when it exists...) and to central city facilities; finally a thin layer of fully westernised citizens, coming from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds, with a common and powerfull desire for a style and conditions of living equal to their homologes in any developed country.
There are no precise economic, social or even cultural boundaries between these three groups and they all have a very strong bond in the common desire to acquire, as fast as possible, the suposed benefits of development : longer life, reduced physical effort to earn a living, acess to education, health assistance, mobility and information; the possibility of participation in the political process; above all the possibility of acquiring the consumer goods that, to them also, have become indispensable.

Finally there is now a fourth group, that one also, unfortunately, growing. A group to whom the only ambitions, when they still exist, are to live another day, to have another meal, to find their lost children or parents, ultimately to sleep under a roof. Those are the displaced by the wars that they didn´t provoke and of which they are the main victims.

We find them everywhere now. In refugee camps, in the periphery of the main cities, in hidden villages in the bush.

They can be counted by the milions and every day their numbers grow.

They are also our clients.

They need thousands of lost homes, burned schools and shops, maternities and granaries.

Many of them will never go back to their land, to their villages; they will remain in towns accidental urbanites; they will transform refugee camps in permanent settlements.

These are our clients.

Another set back in any atempt for a balanced and rational planning.

 
 

The spatial solutions to satisfy those needs, at any of the planning and design scales are, again our responsability.
We must conceive and assist the construction process of any of those structures for any of those social needs, within the most strict economic and technical discipline and, at the same time, assure the dignity of the image that those structurres and institutions have in any other context. Includind the colonial context.

Ours can not be an architecture ashamed of itself, an architecture for the poor, an architecture without concern for the expression of spiritual and aesthetic values, without profound poethical intentions.

The main constraints for architectural expression in our region are, naturally, the imediate material ones.
With very few exceptions they are common and general to the whole region, give or take a few cities where there can be an illusion that some of those constraints are not as important. The principal difficulties can be sumarised as follows:

- lack of skills for the architectural, engineering and other technical aspects of the project, including draughting, surveying, quantity surveying, etc.;

- lack of skills for the building operations;
- lack of building materials, tools, equipment, transport and energy;
- lack of organised briefs and programmes;
- lack of relevant legislation or capacity to control the aplication of existing codes;
- lack of financial capacity and capacity for economic manegement.
This list could be longer and more extensively detailed, but it is enough to give a broad picture of our very difficult design environment;

- the lack of technical skills is probably the condition that more directly affects and over stresses the work of the architect and planner.
We have to conceive and draw most of our design work, to solve many structural and building systems problems, compute prices and write specifications, measure and estimate costs and negotiate contracts; we must train our assistants, supervise the construction in the building site and more often than not, teach the builder what he should know; we must, in many cases, survey the site and design the landscape.
And all of this must be done fast..

- The problem of building materials is also generalised and difficult.
The region is a complex of fragile eco-systems undergoing, in general, destructive forms of exploitation.
Desertification and deforestation, overgrazing and erosion are the most common problems but war and urban growth have brought new forms of acelerated environmental degradation.
Our buildings must be though in function of the locally available and produced building materials, but it‘s use must not contribute or increase environmental problems.

Stone to quarry or to use directly without shaping and limestone to produce lime for bonding and finishing, is generally scarce or inexistent.

Timber, besides being already over exploited, is a precious export product and the object of intense competitive use, mainly for fuel; soft woods are difficultly available and very vulnerable to termite atack; bambu is not wide spread, specially the best species for construction work; earth is perhaps the most widely used material, in conjunction with round poles and thin reeds, but it has strong limitations in the mostly hot-humid and rainy climate of the region; with the exception of two countries there is no iron or steel production in the subcontinent; there is no production of finished products or non ferrous metals for the construction industry.
Cement and red clay ceramic products are inevitably the main modern materials but, given their low production, high energy demands and transport difficulties, their use is to be made with great discrimination and economy.
Flat glass, paints and glues, surface materials, hardware and mechanical and electrical equipment are, generally, imported or locally produced and assembled from imported components and finished parts.

This dramatic situation, which is not improving at the rate of the increasing needs and expectations of the people, makes the whole region highly dependent on the industrialised nations and has tremendous negative impacts on building costs.
The idea that labour intensive solutions bring down costs can also be deceiving as lack of site discipline, very low productivity and poor workmanship can, in reality, result in agravated cost and extremely poor time performance.
Under these conditions it is easy to understand the validity and necessity for a simplification of processes and strict economy of materials as a major goal and basic rule for a “possible” architecture in our region.

“Alternative” technologies, also known as “soft” “intermediate” “basic” etc, are an important field of research and may, under certain circunstances, help to solve some of the problems. However, even if they have great potential, those technologies demand a continuous presence of the designer in the building site and in the production unit, as a trainer and supervisor, wich tends to limit very much their introduction and use.
Alternative technologies are new ways and processes that, like more conventional ones, have to be explained and accepted by a society that, specially within the construction activity, does not learn easily but by direct teaching and pratical experience; they are difficult to cost and to estimate in terms of time and, in many instances, they also depend on imported equipment complementary materials and unavailable known how.
The right perspective is to see them as a new philosophy and to introduce them into the educational system, particularly in the professional schools, creating in the students a deeper understanding of the real conditions of their countries and preparing them for the challenge of operating within the real limits of their natural and technical environment.
This, unfortunately, is far from being the reality now and, as a rule, professional and technical education for builders, engineers, architects and planners is geared to train them to operate exclusively within the spectrun of techonologies currently in use in the industrialised world.

Another fundamental aspect affecting technical choice, selection of materials and design is the maintenance problem.
In our societies, where materials resources are so limited and technical culture so incipient, the resistance of the buildings to misuse and the durability and facility to repair and maintain them must be primordial parameters in the performance and quality of the structures.
Degradation of a building, or any other technical artifact, is a much faster process in situations like ours where most of the users do not understand the scientific principles of their operation and the technical processes of their manufacture.

Our clients, institutional or private, do not know or do not know how to express their needs like in any other situation they confuse political goals with social goals they confuse form and content.
In many instances foreign specialists are called in to elaborate briefs and programs to define budgets and to advise on technologies.
This is not always a good formula as many times their understanding of local conditions and realities was acquired exclusively through superficial contacts, statistical data and academic papers.
The responsability to prepare briefs and elaborate realistic and complete building programs is probably one of the best oportunities to express new atitudes leading to creative solutions and reflecting our reality, social goals and limitations.

The lack of realistic, flexible and relevant buildind codes, that consider and integrate the capacities and needs of the majority, is an obstacle to the development of building types and technologies coherent with our phase of development.
The financial limitations for investment in buildings are well known and understood. In countries witouth convertible currencies investments in ventures like building, with a hight imported component have no great incentive as returns are mostly to be made in local currency.
Rents collectable in convertible currencies are necessarily a small market easily saturated.
Major building investments are either made by the state or by parastatal enterprises and compete within, the national budget, with allocations for the army, for the education and health sectors, for a growing contingent of civil servants, not to speak of the demands of sacrifice imposed by the need to pay the external debt.
Social programs are inevitably pushed into the responsabilities of donnor or international agencies, whose interests do not necessarily coincide with the country’s real needs.
...a global building strategy can not be dependent on international aid and it is, again, our responsability to transform the oportunities that those agencies offer into seminal buildings and model atitudes and to maximize their rentability in terms of spatial quality and quality.


The infra structural needs and the need for urban space and for new structures of the third world populations is a problem without paralel in human history.
In sub-saharan Africa this problem is agravated by the fact that great part of the urban population increase is due to the migration of peasant families to towns where their traditional skills and cultural backgrounds are tottaly irrelevant.
The spatial needs of these new urban dwellers include, or should include, agricultural productive areas but this is in conflict with the established concepts of urban environment, which is what atracted great part of those migrants in the first place.
The impossibility of developing new industry, transport and services at rates of expansion remotely simillar to the population growth rates, and the impossibility of offer salaried work in the agrarian sector has had as an imediate consequence the creation of a vast class of unemployed, and virtually unemployable people, and creates a deteriorating social and spatial situation in every major city in Africa.
Solutions to these problems depend primarily or major development strategies, international division of labour policies and political atitudes.

The spatial planner and the architect can and must participate in the search for those solutions proposing new spatial concepts and a discipline liberated from the images and models generated by the colonial system, and valid only within that system, and liberated also from other environments, economies and cultures.

 
 

Our urban culture does not seem to have, as yet, generated a clear picture of it‘s own physical domain. It seems that it dispenses with a number of the commonly assumed ingredientes of the industrial or administrative town centers. The regular, linear and monumental pattern of grand avenues and boulevards and monumental squares do not in fact serve any identifiable use or have a clear meaning for the majority of our population. But they are still being designed and built. On the contrary a productive use of land (urban land) balanced with a regular distribution of market and service centres minimizing transport needs and providing employement could given a chance, create a new and possible urban environment.
Starting from this level of spatial considerations the planner and the architect must have the inteligence and the intelectual courage to face extraordinary conditions and find extraordinary solutions.

Much has been said about the function of the informal economy sector of the Third World cities. It´s importance has been recognised and accepted as a main contribution to the subsistance of large numbers of people.
It must be pointed out, however, that in our region the limits to the activity of that sector are much more strict than in other part of the world as the insdustrial, managerial and services sectors are not growing.
As there is much less “scale down” economy and, as even basic materials become scarce, there is no basis for small industries, crafts and services.
In comparison with the great towns of Asia or latin America our town centres have much less interest for the majority of the population.
There is, on the contrary, a developing simbiotic relationship with the peripheric agricultural hinterland and a growing dependence on miniminal subsistence agriculture and marketable produce.
This seems a positive trend and the only hope for hundreds of thousands of families.
Our new towns should probably begin to be structured according to this trend and to look more and more like an agregate of agrarian comunities.
With a well defined hierarchy of services and maximum of employement self-suficiency, this would release the strain on transportation to the centre and leave great reserves of time and capacity for productive and cultural improvement activities.
With our negative, stagnant or barely positive rates of economic growth against the explosive demographic growth it is vital to find alternatives to classic development strategies. The people of our cities are finding those alternatives by themselves and it is our responsability as planners and architects to understand their ways and to help them resolve bettter the spacial problems that they face.
Housing, seen in this context, is much more than a number of roofed and enclosed units and their imediate extensions. Housing is a concept that must include the productive activities and spaces.
It is fundamental to the process of creating a new and functioning city in our region to accept and to make this concept understood and accepted by the politicians and decision makers, to learn how to organise it in the space, to understand the speculative mechanisms it generates to preview the dynamics of the social and cultural phenomena it will stimulate.
But if these are forces and possible ways to shape the large city of the masses there is still the other city to care for: the central city, the city of the central administration, the port, the industrial areas, the railways and airport. It is no less our responsability to plan that city to answer the needs of the fully “westernised” sector, the industrial and the white collar worker, the professional the specialist the civil servant, the political cadre, the university student and professor.

These are the social material and technical limitations and conditions of our spacial and architectural expression; these are the spatial needs in need for a new spatial discipline; these are the difficulties we have to face, operating in a cultural environment where old living traditions and their corresponding spatial patterns, forms, images and symbols are now being questioned and rejected and are impossible to transpose to represent new atitudes and expectations.
It is under these conditions that we have to assume the responsability to be the form givers to the built enviroment for a new social order.
We have to design and build the new symbols propose the new image and create the visual references for a newly acquired sense of national identity.
Each new building is an oportunity and an inevitable contribution to define that new image. In our situation, where not much exists and not much is being built, every new structure has a disproportionate impact, a greater cultural consequence and meaning.
Excluding the Sudan horizontal, certain of the Indian Ocean coastal areas, some south african vernacular and episodes like the Great Zimbabwe, our sub-saharan region, enormous in it´s estension, does not offer architectural models or a grammar of architectural forms that can be easily assimilated into an architectural language for our productive, social and cultural buildings and facilities.
There is, for sure, a very rich spatial and formal tradition, with great variety of types, forms, rithms and great technical ingenuity and skill. But the new environmental and structural demands that our buildings must answer are not compatible with those traditional ways.
We can not build an operating theater with mud walls and a floor made of burnished clay and cow‘s dung; we can not roof a library with grass or palm leaves; we must not build a classroom without lots of light, a laboratory without services or an office without computers.
The family, now, needs light after dark; needs more water and safe sanitation; the society needs to identify the places of power and public administrration with permanent structures.

Like the cities of Europe and of the rest of the world, need their cathedrals and their castles, their wall and great squares; like the typical american city needs it´s courthouse square and church, we need our tangible signs of an order superior to the tribal and different from the colonial.

Traditional societies in our region did not have to answer this scale of problems and did not have to compete with internationally established standards, images and concepts of dignity and respectability.
We have to create now an architecture that expresses our new social order, and there is not much we can take from our architectural traditions.
In other words: - our politico - social revolution which resulted from and determined a cultural revolution, can only fulfill it´s most profound goals through a technical revolution wich demands and determines a new aesthetical expression.
The tendency has been up to now to find this new expression exclusively through the rationalisation of the technico-environmental parameters.
“Tropical architecture” served as an atempt to create the theorical basis for a methodology of the design process in our region.
Indeed, under that general concept very relevant research led to the establishement of a body of scientific knowledge and a set of parameters for the quantifiable dimensions of architecture and planning in our and other tropical regions.
The problem became more complex when those parameters were taken as a complete and integral set and informed an exclusive method of design and a technocratic aproach evolved legitimizing the disregard for any non quantifiable dimensions of the design process. It was as if it would be legitimate to develop a theory for a “temperate architecture” or for a “cold architecture” to aply as a design method throughout Europe, North America, Asia and the southern latitudes!...

 
 

 

Against this restrictive aproach is begining to develop a body of doctrine, already codified in some published work, defending an architecture and a set of planning principles exclusively based on the recuperation of traditional spatial organisation and architectural expression.
The antropological study of the cosmogonic discipline of the social and the family spaces led too directly to proposals that inevitably conflict with the new order of social and family organisation.
This trend is not without dangers in a region so eager to find it‘s own formal identity. Superficial formal transpositions and flocklorisms may take the place of serious morphologic and topologic analysis of the spatial organisation and the plastic expression of the tradicional societies.
The formal world of a culture and of a society and the meaning of those forms are certainly fundamental and we must understand it´s principles. The validity of formal transpositions is only possible to establish if the old forms and rithms are compatible with the new forms of social organisation, the new living patterns and new transcendental relationships.

So we find ourselves operating between technocracy and folklore, between abode and stainless steel, between urban peasants and ambitious young executives, between low cost housing and monuments, between the vernacular, the colonial and the technocratic.

The aesthetic expression of the ethos of a society is not a ground for free fun and games . The architect and the planner must blend the cultural limitations of their own background with those of their “clients”.
Canonical expressions of tipological models, normally associated with “civilisational” or political images are well established in the minds of the people and the powerfull and can not be easily refuted, rejected or substituted. The newspaper, the magazine, the film and the t.v. bring in and spread those images rooting them in progressively more extensive and undiferentiated cultural acquisitions.
To suffer with a tie under the tropical sun or to freeze in super cooled environments has become almost mandatory in our region as a sign of acquired “civilised” habits and as status simbols, as much as to drive a Mercedes or to drink exclusively Chivas.
The idea is that form is easier to get than content or, may be, that through form we will arrive at the content...
An architecture more in tune with our conditions is still very difficult to have accepted.
Our buildings must have air conditioning even if energy cuts and maintenance difficulties will make them much more expensive and ultimately much more unconfortable - so we are forced to design for the climate and then add the air conditioning - taking off from the quantity and quality of the space it’s costs; land is not yet our major problem but we are asked to design multi storey and tall buildings even if the elevators brake down and can not be easily repaired,...because we also must have our modern skyline, our own skyscrapers.

Naturally the need for a borrowed image is not only a consequence of a cultural provincialism.
The speculative mechanisms that created those realities and defined those images in other contexts are very much the same and present in our cities and quite often not far also from the benefit of the powerfull and the decision makers.
The planner and the architect must walk this tight rope between speculation and social benefit, between dream and reality. He must find the forms that assure a dignified image without falsifying the content.
The irrelevancy and superficiality or even the intelectual cowardice of blindely adopting models from other socio economic and cultural contexts, the fallacy that materials, technologies and environmental conditions are exclusive determinants of architecturral expression, the unique set of circunstances described, all lead to a situation and a moment in which the planners and the architects are forced to invent new solutions and new expression whose formal rules are not yet codified (but in universal principles...)

How much can be taken from the existing stock of spaces and forms?
How much can be taken from the vernacular and how much from the “polite” colonial?

We know the conditions, technical and cultural, of the production of the vernacular forms and we know that those conditions have changed.
We turn to the evolution of the colonial architecture not to validate it´s historical meaning but because we recognise in it’s technical aproach, and even in the conditions of it’s production, many of our present conditions and limitations.
We also recognise it’s presence and it’s importance as an irrefutable step in the complex formation of our present aesthetical environment and culture.
This reevaluation is possible now, more than two decades after the first victory against colonial rule, now that historical perspective is possible without all the passion and fear of misinterpretation about it’s motives.
This new interest is not also without it’s dangers as it comes about in a moment when, as a reaction to the rationalistic simplification, new fashions and formalist classicims are being easily adopted and legitimized, as if a language of our time, place and condition could not and should not be found.

A s architects and planners, as intelectuals and artists we are thorn between two worlds, two societies coexisting in widely diverse conditions. We must be able to bridge the gap between them and design buildings that serve both equally well.

This “exercise” can not finish with a formula or even with a tested method, even if a personal one. It seems to me evident that the search for a new architecture for own region, or regions, demands an intransigent and inexaustible capacity to question our options in terms of their social, economic and technical validity, a continuous search for universally valid formal principles, an ever increasing capacity to understand and be sensitive to the poethic dimensions of our world, our society and life itself.
There are, as everywhere, a multiplicity of roles that the architect and planner must play in the third world. As any other member of the community he has a political role; as a professional he must be aware of the political dimensions and consequences of his work, but as an artist he has responsabilities that only he can perform.
Development strategies establish the architect’s scope of work, define the limits of his intervention and usefulness for the different sectors of the society. The allocation of resources for the benefit of one or another of the social strata is a political decision to which the planner and architect can only indirectly contribute.
There has been as enormous waste of energy and capacity and a dangerous illusion in the notion that through architecture and spatial planning the development process can be defined or decisively influenced

As architects and planners we have many times alienated our technical and artistic responsabilities trying to resolve political problems and we have failed valid political and social objectives because of our technical and artistic incompetence.
The limits of our responsability are different to establish under our present conditions: on one hand we must work at grass roots level, we must solve imediate and urgent spatial problems: to plan the “bairro”, to organise the communal space left over from squatting and speculation, to design the market, the school, the latrine, the housing; on the other we must design the office building, the central hospital, the university, the main square, the National Assembly, the monument: In the process we must teach and train our help and our future architects and planners.
What is the best choice, the one that best realises our meagre potential?

Do we have a choice?

Maybe there is some variation from country to country within our region. In my country we are less than half a dozen architects and planners for a population of fourteen million persons.
So probably we do not have a choice.

In other countries it maybe slightly different but, even in Europe, where there seems to be an enormous surplus of urban architects
they do not seem enough to resolve the problem of the urban peripheries, the italian “borgatte” the small town and village degradation, the generalised destruction of the mediterranean coast, to mention but a few instances where the absence or incompetence of the architects and planners have had some direct consequences.

Probably there is no great difference in the role of the architects and planners from the First to the Second to the Third World. That is for you to decide but probably like for you, in the Developed World, the role of the architect and planner in the Third World is not very difficult to define-it is just very difficult to fulfill.

JOSÉ FORJAZ

© JOSÉ FORJAZ ARQUITECTOS 2004