Kiwewa’yimba: Throwing architectural politics into the development debate
Whereas there are many organizations that are dedicated to measure the state of governance and democracy in Uganda, through various complicated assessment processes, I would like to add a very simple tool to this box – and that is architecture.
Written by Faisal Kiwewa
Because the architecture of a place is a mirror to the political power structures of such place. Through its architecture a political regime defines itself vis-à-vis its citizens; it communicates its ideology to them in public space. So, if we assess the architectural philosophy of our political regime, it provides an additional perspective to our knowledge about the state of democracy in Uganda.
Having studied—out of interest, not as a profession—major architectural projects across the world, I came to realize that the manner in which states and nations authorize or build their buildings and fill up their spaces is an expression of the “quality” of their political regime. One just has to go through a slide show of major architectural heritage objects in Europe to come to the conclusion that all these buildings and urban landscapes were realized during a period of political regimes that were, to different degrees, totalitarian.
There is a simple explanation!
Authoritarian regimes rule from the centre and therefore tend to favour major architectural and urban interventions. After all, such large projects can only be realized if one turns the wheels and controls budgets.
My humble research—flipping through tons of pictures—also seems to suggest that the higher and larger the buildings or urban landscapes are, the more totalitarian a regime is likely to be.
One just needs to look at fascist and socialist architecture, such as Mother Russia, glorifying the perished Russians during WWII, or Speers megalomaniac master plan for the north-south axis of Berlin, which was never realized by the Hitlerian Third Reich in Germany. Or look at the various castles and palaces that were built by absolute monarchs and ruling dynasties in Europe, such as The Tower of London, Versailles in Paris, Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna and the Alhambra in the South of Spain.
All these architectural projects are expressions of the power of the political rulers and elite, glorifying a dynasty, a state, a nation, but not the people. In that sense, our late Kasubi Tombs were a rather humble expression of political power.
Recent trends in Kampala
And what can we observe in Kampala nowadays? We have been confronted, especially since the CHOGM Summit, with quick building activity, sanctioned by the government. Large architectural projects have emerged in areas that used to be green areas or wetlands, or hosted our educational and cultural institutions.
For the past year, we have been struck by the plans to demolish the only Uganda Museum for a large commercial building. Our cultural heritage is wiped out to make space for mere concrete!
This makes one wonder what kind of message our government is conveying?
Is it showing off its political power and firm control over its subjects or is it thinking in the interest of its citizens and residents, of their well-being, in the capital city? Should we start counting our blessings with a 60-storey building for the East African Trade Centre being planned by our government, in lieu of prominent cultural and educational institutions?
Surely, our political regime is trying hard to show off its political and economic success with another status symbol. But its proposed height does not give a very promising picture of our state of democracy.
Neither does it give prospects for proper economic development, the stated goal of this large infrastructural project. Because, for a city to develop economically, it needs to be a comfortable place to live and culturally exciting spot to attract visitors, a workforce and investors.
This is all at the heart of what has become known as city branding: Strategies to attract people, businesses and investors, and to turn cities from a location into a destination.
Kampala—your favourite one-night stop
But let’s be very frank! Whereas Uganda is blessed with great nature and a lovely climate, and has become a growing tourist destination, as recently confirmed by the Lonely Planet, the average visitor to Uganda just stays on for one night in Kampala to hop on a 4WD or minibus to tour one of our beautiful parks, to return again for one day to hop on a plane back home. Often they do not even get to Kampala and prefer Entebbe.
Because there is barely any attraction or cultural excitement for the visitor—unless you want to qualify Kabalagala as such an attraction. When trying to think of any city branding slogan that could apply to Kampala, I only get stuck at “Kampala – your favourite one-night stop”.
And I am convinced that the “Penis of Kampala”, the nickname of the prestigious project on the land of the Uganda Museum, rising above the capital’s skies, won’t bring about change in this.
The branding of Kampala
What does this mean? It is time to flip the debate! To think about how we want to promote ourselves as Ugandans, as citizens of Kampala to the outside world.
Do we want to be identified with the politicized architecture of our political regime—which is eventually never lasting as contemporary history shows—or do we want to be identified with the more lasting and durable elements of our society: Our arts and culture, our creativity and innovation, our strength and power to use the monetary resources and human capital of this beautiful pearl of Africa for the benefit of all?
A dialogue, with participation of the citizens concerned, about the branding of the capital of Uganda, hence its urban design, its buildings and landscapes, needs to be kicked off. We need to go back to the drawing table. Or better: We need to get to the drawing table!
There has not been any proper urban planning for Kampala city for decades. Our city might have grown rapidly, in numbers and surface, but it has done so in an unplanned manner, with little attention to the well-being of its inhabitants. It clarifies why we get stuck in traffic jams every morning and it also explains why very few citizens nowadays find residency within the city.
What image should Kampala then convey to the outside world? If I were to be asked, my dream of Kampala—the city I was born in slightly less than three decades ago—would be a city that treasures its heritage, a city bursting of creativity, full of places and spaces for creative minds and free spirits, a city were arts and architecture are employed for the benefit of all and not a mere exposure of the political elite.
After all: No arts! No social transformation! No innovative economy! And remember, we are landlocked, so we need lots of imagination and innovation.
To live the dreams
I am aware this is a dream, but I was once told that we dream our dreams to realize them, or we should at least work towards them.
So, I am glad that this very debate—first as a discussion, but hopefully soon also as a public dialogue—will kick off soon when a conference in the framework of the EU/AU Visionary Africa exhibition will be held in Kampala to discuss the challenges and choices Kampala and East African capitals face in urban development and the role of art and architecture therein.
I hope we can sow the seeds for big things to follow, not big buildings but big accomplishments as a city together with its citizens.
Faisal Kiwewa is the Founder and Director of Bayimba Cultural Foundation and current Chairperson of the organizing committee of the Uganda Annual Conference on Arts and Culture.