Visionary Africa: “Glass Boxes are a disaster”

Dr. Allan Birabi made this remark about the impunity of increasing Glass Curtain Wall Buildings in Kampala, that disconnect the lay man from his city Kampala.

This subject of belonging to a neighborhood, city or urban center, was very much a part of the discourse in the European Union conference termed “How art and architecture can make city development inclusive and sustainable“, which took place at City Hall on 18th September 2012.

Written by Serubiri Moses

At the lunch break in the colonial mayor’s garden at the City Hall, a professor of architecture from Dar Es Salaam University, Camellias Lekule, told the story of the first time he went to a bar in his neighborhood. As he was having his beer with a neighbor, another dweller in the village came up to his neighbor and asked, “who is this man?” At this, the neighbor asked, “do you know the red double cabin?” He instantly recalled, narrating exactly about where and when and what time he sees it in the neighborhood. The professor quickly went home to his wife declaring never to return to the bar; realizing his car was more well-known than himself, the couple decided to go out walking more often outside their gated home, and soon, everybody knew who they were.

Professor Lekule was responding to my comment that in Malaysia, people do not go home after work, except to change their work clothes. After that, everyone goes out to eat and to socialize in the market. The life of the city revolves around this night market referred to as ‘Pasar Malam’. It is the nucleus of their city, and ultimately the glue that connects all different races together after a long day’s work.

“Uptown” by Jjuuko Hoods, acrylic on canvas 160x120cm.

In contrast, our city Kampala rarely has these open public spaces, except those open for business interactions. It beckoned to the British Orthodox Planning Model exactly as it was 50 years ago when Uganda gained Independence.

It beckoned to the fact that, Independence of Uganda did not provoke fully integrating of our communities by better planning, and as Kampala continues to grow in population it has pushed those boundaries which remain, pouring over into the slums, as well as vast areas designated for sewage collection.

As a result, most of the areas that are on the hills like Kololo and Mengo, remain still relatively sparsely populated, whereas the valleys such as Makerere Kivulu  and parts of Kamwokya and Kyebando are over populated areas for the low classes.

GoDown Arts Centre

Joy Mboya asked the question, “Does the African belong in the city?” In colonial days, an African needed an identity card showing where his destination was. Africans were not allowed to walk idly on the streets of Kampala and Nairobi, especially on the so-called ‘Seven Hills’ which were distributed according to race, and favored the white and asian communities over their african counterparts.

Mboya then asked the question, “How do we make this our city?” She presented a paper about the “GoDown Arts Centre” in Nairobi, a public art exhibition space which partly sustainable on its own as well as donor funded. She called it a cultural prescient combining political, business, and social aspects, and traced its neighborhood to political (Independence Grounds) and intellectual spaces (with figures such as Tom Mboya, an ancestor of Joy’s) that led up to Kenya’s independence.

Her paper also showed how it had chosen to integrate the collective efforts of polytechnic architecture students, professional urban planners as well as visual artists and intellectuals in rethinking the structure of the particular street on which the GoDown functions, such as walking distance to a refreshments boutique, as well as shade, all which worked along the theme: How can we make the city ours?

A playground from 23,072 bottles

Acclaimed artist, Bruno Ruganzu, answered this question by declaring how he had made an active intervention on his city Kampala, straight from the slums of Acholi Quarters. He had spoken to a primary school about setting up a children’s playground, as the children’s not having a public space both at school and at home caused serious problems.

Ruganzu Bruno creating the ECOART Amusement Park in Acholi Quarter.

Bruno read a paper, showing powerpoint presentations on how the playground was built using recycled plastic mineral water bottles, that he claimed were the cause of mass flooding in the city, having blocked the sewers. The students together with their parents collected 23,072 bottles. In the time in which the playground was set up, i.e the last three months, the school’s population increased by 300 students, proving that change indeed can be affected by small means.

An informal settlement such as the Acholi Quarters in Kireka slum, is a place where, especially because of this public art space, the people there have a deep sense of belonging.

The Identity of Urban Africa

The keynote speaker, Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, who designed the pavilion in which the Art at Work exhibition stands in on Railway Grounds, echoed this notion on a much larger scale, questioning the identity of urban Africa. Using slide shows of pictures of urban cities throughout Africa, he elaborated his theory on the identity of urban Africa, speaking less about the commonalities between these cities and dwelling on the diversity that is geographical, cultural and ethnic.

The Pavillion designed by David Adjaye at Visionary Africa – Art at Work, itinerant exhibition platform in African capitals 2012.

He mentioned that the common map of Africa divided as in the Berlin Conference of 1884, is distinctly problematic when trying to discover an urban identity of African cities instead, choosing to base his PhD thesis research on geographical relationships within African cities, and perhaps the broader common relationship between Africans and architecture in these different cities based on the Savannah, the North African Desert and the Nile Basin for example.

There were some disagreements in the audience, symbolized by the sitting of Mayor Erias Lukwago next to KCCA Chairperson Jennifer Musisi.

While several speakers decided to dwell on the modern and urban, some like Professor Nawangwe of Makerere were more interested in the idea of the ‘kibuga’, speaking distinctly about how Kampala existed a century before as the kibuga was built around Mengo its original heartbeat. To this day Mengo remains a strangely organized utopia within the city.

Professor Birabi echoed these sentiments by adding that the traditional model of planning that follows natural topographies is filled with ambiance and a sense of renaissance. I immediately thought of Vienna, Austria and Sicily in Italy that are cities designed according to natural topography.

Dr. Allan Birabi continued, talking with outrage at how buildings belonging to past eras are being demolished; and how a heritage based model for city management would cater for the ideals of our community more, such as poetry, storytelling in open public space.

There were some other gigantic contrasts, curiously standing out, such as the enormous 30 acre green park in Cairo built by the Aga Khan Development Network, and the water well in Douala built by the arts organization Doual’Art in Cameroon. The gigantic park had become a gigantic source of revenue and tourism to Egypt as a whole, whereas the water well designed like an amphitheater was serving a small community and creating a multi-functional space for theatre and water collecting, at the very heartbeat of the community, certainly showing the difference in a concern for traditional values.

Contemporary art is freedom

The brochure read, “Contemporary art is freedom.” And in the panel discussion after the lunch break, Nathan Kiwere, a Startjournal contributor and art historian, commented about how he had noted through the conference that all the speakers felt and agreed that fine art was an integral part of the city, but soon after, another speaker pointed out that art must be relevant to the community in order for it to serve the people, saying “Artists are so used to abstract ideas such as cubism!”

The Vice President and Minister of State were present and made speeches to open the Art at Work exhibition.

Erias Lukwago, Kampala City Mayor mentioned as he opened the exhibition that this conference and art exhibition was the first of its kind. Mahmood Ahmed, spoke on behalf of the Aga Khan Development Network, remarking the “relevance of cultural identity”.

Visionary Africa – Art at Work in Kampala, September-October 2012.

The Ambassador of European Union, Roberto Ridolphi, spoke about the need for there to be such a thing as the Kampala Boy or Kampala Girl, a close parallel to the New Yorker. Ridolphi, who holds a PhD in Architecture, praised the restoration of the City Hall building from the early 1940s, noting how comfortable the conference was inside it—inline with Dr. Birabi who had earlier decried the rise of glass boxes, which he called a disaster!

Serubiri Moses has been published in The New Vision reviewing live music. As a poet, he is featured on the pan African website, Badilisha Poetry Exchange.

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