Established ways of understanding modern architecture and urban planning in Africa are inextricably linked with European imperialism. From the urban modernization of Algiers and Casablanca under French rule to the Italian architectural modernism of Asmara and the planning of new cities such as Nairobi by the British or Windhoek by the Germans, cities across Africa are indelibly marked by colonial violence and intervention. After independence, architecture and urbanism served in a novel project of nation-building, but even where new building projects were explicitly framed as reactions to colonial injustice, epistemological assumptions about the importance of architecture in the process of social and economic modernization were often left in place. Even pre-colonial heritage and indigenous architecture in post-independence Africa is difficult to comprehend outside this framework. In fact, the project of modernization itself has often been framed as a fundamentally colonial one.
Yet, if this nexus of modernization and colonialism seems to be the logical basis for studying architecture and urbanism in Africa, as both the archive and the physical city seem to confirm, this panel builds on recent scholarship to develop new kinds of questions. Inspired by Achille Mbembe’s thinking about decolonizing knowledge, one could argue that we need new definitions of architecture itself, since the idea of architecture as permanent, built structure was central to colonial knowledge. How can we decolonize analyses of the built forms and aesthetics of cities on the African continent? How can we explore the meanings and experiences of modernization beyond the purview of colonial and post-independence elites? How can we move from the macro-scale analyses in recent scholarship (focusing on expertise, transnational networks, and Cold War geopolitics, among other things) to new understandings of the lifeworlds that these structures created? What research methods can reveal the social life of modern architecture and urbanism beyond the political discourse of heritage?
Participants: Manuel Herz (University of Basel), Prita Meier (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Ola Uduku (University of Edinburgh), Birkbeck, António Tomás (University of Stellenbosch)