You trained at Yale University and you work in Abidjan. How well did your education prepare you for practicing as an architect back home?
Yale was a great learning environment. It taught me to think outside the box, to reach out to other disciplines, and to seek innovative solutions. These key lessons were essential in shaping the way I currently practice architecture back home.
When I first returned to Abidjan, my first challenge was to understand how to apply my training in a context that was so different from where I had studied. My initial reaction was that I was in an environment that had very little concern for architecture. [According to Issa, Ivory Coast has only 200 architects in a nation of 26 million.]
But then I realised that the methods I had been taught could be applied in different contexts. And that the key would be my ability to observe local systems and the way things worked, in order to develop appropriate solutions.
Trained architects should be able to work anywhere on the planet. The training that you get at a school like Yale is highly methodological; it allows you to tackle issues of any sort, from a wide variety of perspectives.
What role can African architects play in informal urban systems? I’m talking about informal economies, informal housing developments, that kind of thing.
The role of the architect in informal economies is key. When the environment is informal, it is the responsibility of the architect to organise, shape and provide structure.
The idea is to work with the environment, to look for potential solutions, and to recreate a sense of order within chaos.
It is also important to understand that all is not negative in informal settings. For example, they allow for flexibility, where more formal systems can be trapped by rigid structure. You also often find strong social ties in underprivileged urban environments, with people developing participatory approaches to organising their surroundings. This allows a sense of solidarity to develop.
These positive elements need to be maintained while moving towards more formal systems.
You’re interested in marketplaces. What particular challenges and opportunities do they present for planners? What can we learn from them?
Marketplaces have always been the ultimate expression of African modernity for me. They represent urbanity in its many shapes and forms, and offer insights into what is happening across the continent. Markets are also spaces where we, as Africans, digest modernity and give it back in new forms.
When I was teaching architecture I would take my students to one of the biggest markets in Abidjan and tell them to just observe what was happening. The next exercise would be to share their insights with the rest of the class. It was always amazing to see that each of us had focused on details that others had overlooked, collectively exposing a rich palette of behaviours, problems and solutions.
For example, we noticed that basic products like food remained in the centre of the market, while accessories like clothes were positioned near the edges, tempting shoppers into buying unnecessary items before reaching their destination.
There are countless lessons to be learned just by observing how things are structured.
Foreign concepts and ideas don’t always work too well when transported to other contexts. Is this an issue facing African architects and designers? Is architecture Euro-centric, and are there opportunities to develop and implement local solutions instead?
What doesn’t work is taking a solution from one environment and applying it in a totally different place. In order for a concept to work, it needs to tackle similar problems, in a similar environment.
We can and should learn from others, but need to think about our approach when it comes to adapting foreign concepts. Our own capacity to adapt is part of the inventiveness we need to cultivate.
Urban planning faces unique challenges in developing countries. In the West, where formal environments are firmly established, there are rules governing the relationship between governments and the public. In such a context, when you follow the rules, you obtain specific results.
In countries like ours, however, there tends to be a lack of vision for city planning, and consequently a lack of regulation. In this context, rules matter less.
Architects can still instigate change in informal environments, however. It is our responsibility to make architecture an integral part of contemporary debate. The question is not whether architecture is Euro-centric, but what we, as African architects, can offer to global discussions about design and planning.
With almost 1 billion people living in Africa it is about time that we invited ourselves to the international platform.
Two decades after the end of the apartheid Cape Town remains a very structurally divided city. You visited recently for the Design Indaba. What are your thoughts about this, and what can architects to do help bring about change?
I was certainly left with the impression that Cape Town is structurally divided, with physical division echoing social division. But 20 years is a short period in the history of a nation, and it will take generations to see more significant changes.
I hear South Africa’s next national election will be the first one to include ‘born-free’ voters. I am quite confident that this will start to reconfigure the social fabric of the country.
The new generation is seeking change and a new social structure that is different from the past. Architecture should evolve in a similar manner.
Is architecture political? Should it be?
Architecture is highly political. It can have major social impact and significantly change people’s lives. It is a vector for education, economic growth and sustainability, but on local scales.
For example, most African governments have not yet devised effective tools for managing their ever-growing cities. They are alarmed by informal settlements popping up behind residential neighbourhoods. Their first reaction is to remove them, not taking into account the social cohesion and opportunities that exist these places. But architects are familiar with these issues. We understand that it is more efficient to formalize informal settlements by integrating them with existing structures, not cutting them out. This adds a strong political dimension to our work.
What does your Abidjan of the future look like?
The Abidjan of the future looks like many other African cities. It is growing fast and attracting thousands of people every day. The challenge will be finding new ways of planning that will accommodate this growth, without being overwhelmed by it.
In order to do that, we need to think differently and use design as a source of innovation. How do we build, plan and imagine for larger populations? Do we rely on government policies that have historically been difficult to implement?
Empowering architects will be key.
A Japanese journalist I met at the last Design Indaba Expo told me something interesting: she said that Africans need to make Africa attractive to others, and go beyond stereotypes, preconceived notions, and the usual images of misery, poverty, and townships. We, as architects, have the power to do that: to initiate change.
At Koffi & Diabaté Group we foresee a bright future for Abidjan, and we intend to participate in its development. One major project we are currently working on is the Cocody Bay Landscaping Project, which involves the rehabilitation a polluted lagoon in Abidjan. This is coupled with creating new leisure space for city dwellers in the form of a major boardwalk surrounding the bay.
This project, which integrates design principles of densification, diversity and sustainability, reflects our broader vision for Abidjan in the future.