by Andy Kozlov
Once upon a time, a ride in a CBD-bound kombi in Harare introduced me to an earworm Shona song. I had no idea about the exact meaning of its lyrics. But the phrase “Joina City” made sense to me. “Interesting,” I made a mental note. “A funky song about one of Zimbabwe’s most recent architectural feats!” (See Zimbabwe on exploration of its kombi aesthetics)
If you study architecture in Sub-Saharan Africa chances are you don’t hear much about your peers on the continent. If you study architecture elsewhere – I bet you don’t look at African architecture at all.
Okay. This is an overstatement made by somebody who is neither an architect nor an African (But who decides about the latter?) The point remains the same: African creative industries are being overlooked, as a rule of thumb. And architecture is no exception.
For those of African creativity buffs who know how to use Google and have mastered the basics of academic research, the name of Denise Scott Brown, a Philadelphia-based co-author of Architecture as Signs and Systems: For a Mannerist Time, will ring a mbira.
The Africa-born architect is like the MI 2 star Thandie Newton – of African descent but no-one really talks about it to showcase the good that comes out of Africa. Those who do, by the way, do it among themselves or don’t know how to get the message through in a fruitful way. Although, in the case of Newton, Luso Mnthali questioned the choice of a “bi-racial woman who looks nothing like the people she is supposed to be playing” in Half of A Yellow Sun, a film about the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967-1970. (See Multi-Kulti Ukraine)
From questions of mixed race and Igbo potrayal in film, let me be one of those few talking about the marvellous cutting-edge work of two African architects of Zimbabwe. It’s up to you to decide whether I am being effective in showcasing the good that comes out of Africa or not.
I could also talk about Rex Distin Martienssen, who being greatly influenced by Le Corbusier spearheaded a modernist architectural movement in South Africa, or Denise Scott Brown’s late husband Robert. And, I guess, if I didn’t want to get over and done with this post that has been sitting in my WordPress drafts for four months, I would google up some more names of bright Africans, white and black, currently redefining African city and landscapes.
But we all have our deadlines. So did the Zimbabwean participants of the 2012 Architectural Biennale in Venice held from August 29 to November 25, to which they were invited for the first time in history following the successful art exhibition at the Venice Biennale. (See Zimbabwe sets up the first-ever national pavilion at the Venice Biennale)
Whether Zimbabwean architects missed some deadlines or something else came up in their way to Italy, but Zimbabwe, last time I checked on July 28, was not listed among the participants. Egypt is on that list, as well as Angola (for the first time).
The Angolan Pavilion tackles the problem of common ground in the peri-urban areas of Luanda which is the paradigm of the transformation of the entire Sub-Sahara Africa region. The informal growth of African cities becomes a sustainable urban model when the interstitial space between the buildings performs simultaneously as public space and infrastructure for filtering the dirty waters and producing electricity with biomass. This complex space enhances the vocation of the African morphing city. The pavilion is a real-scale prototype of the proposal: visitors walk through a garden-infrastructure and experience the intensity of a primordial space which is not configured, mastered or categorized yet. (See ArchiAfrika 2011 conference: discussing the future of African cities, Navigating African cities through our own unique and diverse mental maps, Top Ranking Cities for Health, Safety and Security List. Scrap it!, Steppes book review. Africa Rising: how 900 million African consumers offer more than you think, and On 2 African innovation challenges – in news and architecture)
African architect from Zimbabwe I
Raphael Chikukwa, curator of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe largely responsible for Zimbabwe’s first art exhibition at the Venice Biennale, was reflecting in early 2012 when the invitation from Venice came, “A name that quickly comes to mind is that of the renowned architect Vernon Benele Mwamuka who died in 2001.”
Mwamuka was the first black architect in Zimbabwe and he still stands out as one of the most prominent architects Zimbabwe ever produced. In his architectural portfolio, he has to his name the imposing Intermarket Life Centre, Construction House, Kopje Plaza, Old Mutual Centre, the Four Ways Mall in Johannesburg and the Joina Centre building that was completed after his death.
Other significant projects that brought Mwamuka praise and respect include Africa University (Mutare), the National University of Science and Technology NUST (Bulawayo), Harare Domestic Airport, Bulawayo International Airport, the School of Hotel and Catering (Bulawayo) and a chain of post offices strewn across
the country. “We need those who are prepared to stay here and get to grips with Zimbabwean conditions,” he once said. Mwamuka was also vocal and called for Zimbabwean architecture firms to start taking positive steps to employ black architects. Today Zimbabwe has a school of architecture at NUST
thanks to his advocacy.
About the tallest building in Africa
According to Wikipedia list of tallest buildings in Zimbabwe, there are 12 buildings in the country that stand taller than 70 metres (230 ft). The tallest building in the country is the 33-storey, 141 m ABC Building in Zvishavane (Midlands Province). The tallest building in Harare and 2nd tallest in the country is the new Reserve Bank tower at 120 m, followed by Joina Centre.
This is little of an achievement, if you compare Zimbabwe to her neighbor down south. South Africa’s Carlton Centre in downtown Johannesburg at 223 metres is the tallest building in Africa and about half the height of the Willis Tower (the former Sears Tower) in Chicago. In fact, it was the tallest building in the southern hemisphere when originally completed in 1973.
Carlton Centre is followed by Ponte City, a skyscraper in the Hillbrow neighborhood of Johannesburg, which is the tallest residential skyscraper in Africa. The sign on top of this building is the highest and largest sign in the southern hemisphere. It currently advertises the South African mobile phone company Vodacom. (See Advertising trends in Southern Africa and beyond, Steppes In Figures #4: Southern Africa trivia from last year, Photo exhibit by a renowned international architect features 52 African cities and Popular narratives of Gaborone in Africa’s Switzerland and beyond)
African architect from Zimbabwe II
Member of the Architects for Peace, Michael Pearce now works and lives in Melbourne, where he projected Council House 2, the first purpose-built office building in Australia to achieve a maximum Six Green Star rating. Zimbabwe-stemming Pearce is the guy behind the biomimicry-informed Eastgate Shopping Mall sitting across the driveway from Mwamuka’s Intermarket Life Centre.
Designed to be ventilated and cooled by entirely natural means, it was probably the first building in the world to use natural cooling to this level of sophistication. It opened in 1996. From personal experience, the guards at the shopping mall these days have a nasty habit of stopping you from sitting down on obviously designated for this purpose public sitting place on the ground floor of Eastgate.
Eastgate is using design methods inspired by indigenous Zimbabwean masonry and the self-cooling mounds of African termites. Using less than 10% of the energy of a conventional building its size, Harare’s Eastgate is emulated by London’s Portcullis House (2001), opposite the Palace of Westminster.
Committed to appropriate and responsive architecture, Michael Pearce has specialised in the development of buildings which have low maintenance, low capital and running costs and renewable energy systems of environmental control. He has been closely involved in the development of rammed earth construction for low cost housing in remote locations in Zimbabwe where transport and energy are the largest costs in producing buildings. His projects try to make best use of locally available resources, and include Harare International School Arts Centre, Harare Hindu Temple and Chinhoyi Provincial Hospital as well as a number of constructions in Zambia. In 2003 Pearce was awarded the Prince Claus Award for culture and development, for his work on Eastgate.
The following passage was taken from the Award citation:
Mick Pearce is among the most ingenious critical tropicalist architects practising today. He has had to be. Like Tay Kheng Soon of Malaysia, he is one of the rare architects who are pursuing a solution to these problems in the tropics. Like them, he has designed a large-scale urban project that successfully adapts sophisticated technologies to minimise economic and ecological cost, adapting the global to the identity of the particular region.
Mick Pearce has probably moved further away, than any other architect in the world today, from the lip service the profession usually gives to enhancing sustainability and diversity. His great achievement has been to come up with a truly innovative and successful alternative to the all-glass high-rise that tropical countries tend to import from the North. Perhaps it is no coincidence that such an architect has wide experience of working in the tropics, where ecological, economic and political crises are so pressing and so serious that they demand nothing less than ingenious solutions, not only for the benefit of the local population but for post/neo-colonising world of the North.”
Interesting analogy is evoked by Mick Pearce regarding early US settlers solving the housing problem in the newly acquired lands by building timber houses on their own, without the central planning. This used to be a huge trend in Harare too. But the Operation Murambatsvina put a halt on the individual construction of the unofficial settlers in Mbare, a township of Harare.
Read novel Highway Queen by Virginia Phiri to sample a literary interpretation of the slum-clearing campaign that reportedly affected at least 700,000 people directly through loss of their home or livelihood and thus could have indirectly affected around 2.4 million people. Valerie Tagwira‘s The Uncertainty of Hope is another novel on the topic.
More on architecture from Zimbabwe and her neighbors
Zimbabwean veteran architect, Mike Clinton, is responsible for designing the glittering Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Karigamombe Centre, Pegasus House, Century Towers, CABS head office, Corner house, BFC Building in Seychelles, Reserve Bank of Malawi.
Countrywide and regionally, he has designed plans for prominent hotels such as the Elephant Hills Intercontinental in Victoria Falls, Zambia’s Ancient River Lodge, Mount Soche Hotel in Blantyre, Malawi, Kuchawe Hotel in Zomba, Zambia, remodeling of the Victoria Falls Hotel , Meikles Hotel among plenty others. (See Zimbabwe tourism trends and prospects) He also did renovations and alterations to Hwange Power Station at the end of the colonial rule as the Ian Smith regime had closed down most sections of the station.
Mike Clinton talikng to The Herald last year:
I am worried that because of the economic challenges faced by the country in the past 10 years not many huge buildings like the ones we used to do are coming up. Certain buildings have finally come up, but it took too long to be built. Such a slow pace of infrastructural development must have been quite hard for university graduates who ended up with no jobs because the demand for building was quite low.
He also said a lot of buildings in Harare are in need for a facelift. “There has been a marked deterioration of office blocks and factories. At some learning institutions, maintenance has been neglected and windows are falling down and doors missing.”
A private residence in Zimbabwe’s Forrester Estate, an agricultural farmland one hour’s drive north of Harare. Dramatically sited on a granite monolith (kopje) 50 metres above the man-made Gota Dam, the project is fulfilling the modernist aspirations of the clients, landowners and farmers Mr and Mrs Heihrich von Pezold, one of the few white commercial farmers left in Zimbabwe.
Appearing to have sprouted right from the ground like a cluster of mushrooms, the 2012 Wienerberger Brick Award winner Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre is a dynamic cultural hub located on a World Heritage Site at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers on the border of Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. (See UNESCO partners with NHK to produce World Heritage videos, Biosphere Connections by Star Alliance, UNESCO and National Geographic and What the world’s only active Somali archaeologist has in common with the Iraqi-British winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize)
The center and surrounding park celebrate the indigenous peoples of the area and the structure itself blends into the natural beauty of the mesa. Designed by Johannesburg-based Peter Rich Architects, the domed buildings were built with local materials by unemployed local workers, providing them with skills they carried over to work on their own homes.
You can write to Andy Kozlov on firstname.lastname@example.org