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Centring Africa: Postcolonial Perspectives on Architecture

Georg Lippsmeier, photographer. Image from slide, National Printing Press, Nouakchott, Mauritania, ca. 1971. Georg Lippsmeier Collection, CCA. ARCH280728. Gift of African Architecture Matters

The Canadian Centre for Architecture is launching a collaborative and multidisciplinary research project on architecture’s complex developments in sub-Saharan African countries after independence. The architecture practice and discipline, along with academic institutions, archives, libraries, and museums, have been integral to what Valentin-Yves Mudimbe calls “the invention of Africa” by the West. This project therefore asks, first, how to understand architecture’s historical role in decolonization, neocolonialism, globalization, and their manifestations across the continent, at local and regional scales; and, second, how this understanding can challenge established methods and disciplinary conventions of architectural and urban studies. “Centring Africa: Postcolonial Perspectives on Architecture” seeks to contextualize such seemingly paradoxical relations as those among building and unbuilding, formal and informal, appropriated and expropriated, and modern and traditional. The project aims to question, and eventually shift, perspectives shaped by North/South knowledge divides.

This research initiative is catalyzed in part by the recent arrival at the CCA of three important archival collections related to architecture, urbanism, and territoriality in Africa: those of Dutch planner Coen Beeker, German architect Georg Lippsmeier, and Kiran Mukerji, an employee of Lippsmeier. Together, these archives form a unique research library of nearly three thousand titles, which will serve either as a main source or an investigative starting point for the studies developed, individually or collectively, in the framework of a new Mellon project as part of the CCA Multidisciplinary Research Program. Generally, the CCA considers archival research essential to building new forms of evidence, understanding the archive broadly, even as one which still needs to be constructed. Research may look beyond institutional archives to others constructed around single buildings, international organizations, urban spaces, new policies, statistics, laws, photography, financial programs, and philosophical, intellectual, or cultural propositions.

The CCA solicits proposals for research projects that will address crucial but unresolved historiographical questions of architecture in postcolonial Africa, arising from the transnational, multidirectional complexities of the new world order created around the idea of the Global South in the second half of the twentieth century. This order remains shaped, in large part, by the impact on the built environment of multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, UNESCO, and the International Monetary Fund, of international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the European Development Bank, and of private philanthropic agencies such as the Ford Foundation and the Aga Khan Foundation.

The thematic spectrum includes a variety of entry points across different scales of development. Research could explore the:

• Architectural scale: new buildings, representative of the formation of new states whose independence is complicated by entanglements with international development bodies; the ethics of investment by private or state businesses, such as construction companies, from more developed economies; the operation of architects as global experts able to mediate geopolitical collaborations between Cold War powers, or between movements such as the Non-Aligned Movement, pan-Africanism, and Negritude; the design, building, and implementation of typologies of modernization such as schools, playgrounds, and hospitals.
• Urban and rural scale: the role of international aid in development projects such as so-called self-help housing and informal urbanization; the fostering of knowledge exchange through new university campuses and especially architecture curricula; the professionalization of city planning authorities as organizations for international collaboration; the implantation of emergent national and international markets through spaces like fair grounds, hotels, and airports; the importance of worship in shaping societal formations and therefore models of urbanization; the distribution of infrastructure required for rural-urban mobility and the development of peri-urban zones; the urbanization of transnational migration through the appropriation of existing buildings or the establishment of migrant camps.
• Territorial scale: the development of new spatial systems based on access to land, limited by the architectural imprint of industrialized processes, such as cultivating, harvesting, processing, and distributing food; extracting and mining oil and minerals; or constructing large infrastructure like dams, highways, and railways.

With funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the CCA will direct an eighteen-month project to analyze and historicize the ways in which architecture manifests transformations in post-independence African countries, potentially tracing these processes back to colonial periods. The grants will support original, case-based research on concrete projects, actors, architectural typologies, key geographies, or urban developments that explore the history of architecture’s agency in sub-Saharan Africa.

External advisors
• Johan Lagae, Ghent University, Belgium
• Taibat Lawanson, University of Lagos, Nigeria
• Ijlal Muzaffar, Rhode Island School of Design, USA
• Itohan Osayimwese, Brown University, USA

CCA Committee
• Mirko Zardini, CCA Director
• Giovanna Borasi, CCA Chief Curator
• Kim Förster, CCA Associate Director, Research

CCA Mellon Seminar

“Centring Africa: Postcolonial Perspectives on Architecture” will unfold in two phases. First, the CCA invited sixteen shortlisted applicants to participate in a Mellon Seminar to collect ideas and discuss the scope and urgency of such a project. Seminar participants will present their research projects and debate the conceptual terms and the methodological structures for conceptualizing African architecture’s agency through history writing. The multi-day Mellon Seminar will be held in an African city in the spring / summer of 2019 and all sixteen shortlisted applicants will receive a stipend to attend. Second, through a peer-review evaluation process, eight applicants will be selected to participate in the Mellon-funded research project based at the CCA in Montreal. It is essential that applicants demonstrate a productive engagement with the work of the other participants to be considered in the final selection.

CCA Mellon Multidisciplinary Research Project

The eight selected Mellon Researchers will reconvene in the fall of 2019 to begin their eighteen-month engagement with the Mellon Research Project on “Centring Africa: Postcolonial Perspectives on Architecture,” and will continue the work through the winter of 2021. The research is structured around three multi-day workshops and seminars (location will depend on the composition of the group). Mellon Researchers will contribute to various objectives and outcomes of the research project by writing a collaborative white paper, by producing individual essays (visual and written) in conversation with the group and with CCA staff, and by critically engaging the CCA Collection and library holdings.

This is the CCA’s fourth Mellon Multidisciplinary Research Project; please click here for more information on the program.

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