6 / 2015 - global village

Facilitated information flow has expanded the map of contemporary architecture, highlighting previously unknown areas. In this issue of Arkkitehti, David Basulto, founder and Editor-in-Chief of online publication ArchDaily, the world’s most followed architecture medium, assesses the new architecture of the emerging world, which has now become recognized through the Internet. "Amidst the fast and ruthless dynamic of the developing economies the need for and scarcity of resources has engendered an architecture that can do more with less. This kind of architecture has an aesthetic that has been very appealing to the rest of the world." Half of the world’s population lives in Asia, where urbanisation is extremely rapid at the moment. "Density requires thinking about a project not only from the inside but how it plugs into a dynamic existing framework – a chaotic city." Asia is in the process of developing a 21st century city, a densely constructed "vertical village".

The issue travels from Vietnam to Taiwan and via India to Tanzania. Also countries more familiar through their architecture, Japan, Switzerland and Austria, are visited. Indian architect Rahul Mehrotra believes that through his work he can impact people’s actions and bring different groups together. "You cannot be an architect in India, unless you are also a humanist." Africa with its population explosion is the word of the day. The issue also looks back in time into the development of African modernism in the 1960s. Contemporary Africa is visited at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, where the Finnish architect trio Hollmén Reuter Sandman designed a women’s shelter house. The project was self-initiated and the architects raised the funding as well through their NGO Ukumbi. All the buildings featured in the issue are designed by Finnish architects but are located in different countries around the world.


The Chilean architect David Basulto, founder of ArchDaily, assesses the new architecture of emerging economies, which has become recognised through the Internet.

Paraguay’s bricks, Chile’s housing, Iran’s geometry, Vietnam’s natural ventilation, and India’s craft – innovative solutions born from the constraints of their contexts. These are the new architectural influencers for a captive audience in the developed world.

As we continue to press on into the urban age, with a forecast of the urban population doubling in 35 years, the world faces an unprecedented challenge. To put it plainly, we need to build twice as much as what’s already on the planet, a task that will inevitably involve our profession.

This growth will happen mostly in the developing economies, in countries where informal settlements were the rule and architecture has historically been a luxury. And this issue of fast growth has been dealt with very quickly, focusing on the provision of basic shelter for millions of people moving from the countryside into a megapolis. Urgent matters like proper infrastructure and public spaces or important issues such as belonging, equality and access to opportunities are not priorities. But amidst this fast and ruthless dynamic the need for and scarcity of resources has engendered an architecture that can do more with less, an architecture that is more adequate and adapted to this chaotic, intense evolution – an architecture that is inherently urban and dense.

In parallel, globalisation has significantly impacted how architectural publications serve and facilitate the hyper-urbanisation process. The traditional, closed and geographically-biased circles of architectural publications only focused on an immediate network. Hence, location played a huge role. That’s why most of the existing traditional publications included a vast amount of work from Europe and North America. However, the advent of the Internet radically changed the role of location by democratising not only access to information but also its production, shifting who influenced who and tremendously impacting architectural publications (such as the one I founded). ArchDaily evolved and obtained influential status from the outside, capitalising on our detachment and leading us to a different way of seeing and doing things.

This is how a new architecture has found its place – through a shift in how information is being produced, reproduced and circulated. Thanks to a new visibility, this “more with less architecture” can now become recognised and influential.

Success in an emerging economy is contingent on resourceful thinking. When on the outside of any established network you have to expend extra effort, which trains you to maximise your scarce resources and forces you to do more with less. This results in an architecture that is different, raw, and indelibly connected to its landscape – as it has to be done with local materials, awakening a degree of freedom unavailable in an established network. Architecture from emerging economies, driven by this freedom, has an aesthetic that has been very appealing to the rest of the world.

The Saigon House by a21studio in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, one of the fastest growing cities in the world, is a strong example of the above as it raises the question of what it really means to develop quality housing in dense urban settlements with rich traditions. Density requires thinking about a project not only from the inside but how it plugs into a dynamic existing framework – a chaotic city. Infill plots will become the standard, rather than single standing structures. In this context, the Saigon House creates an extension of the alleyway, an urban piece that contains its own life. Above the alleyway a vertical village contains the different rooms and facilities of the house, generating generous voids that allow for air to naturally ventilate the spaces in a country that has a lot of humid weather. From the street this house remains humble, with a facade that merges into the block as if it has always been there – it’s an architecture that recognises that the construction of identity in this dynamic context has much more to do with being part of it than trying to stand out. ark

The Chilean architect David Basulto is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the online publication ArchDaily. He is the curator of the Nordic Countries Pavilion for the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. 

photos a21studio, Saigon House, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam 2015 / Quang Tran

Most African countries gained independence in the beginning of the 1960s after the sudden decolonisation. Ambitious modernisation projects were visible in the architecture of many new states.

The builders of independence

Until recent times, Sub-Saharan Africa has been the “dark continent” in terms of the history of modern architecture. Now the situation is gradually becoming better, thanks to new studies, publications and exhibitions. The book edited by Manuel Herz, African Modernism, outlines an overall view of the architecture from the 1950s to the 1970s by comparing the development in five countries: Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Zambia. There are still many fascinating phenomena to explore in future studies, including the colonial architecture in Portuguese Mozambique and the Belgian Congo.

The core question of the book is how the architecture reflected the sudden decolonisation. Over thirty African countries gained independence between 1957 and 1966, with as many as 17 of them in 1960. This seems to have had surprisingly little impact on the development of architecture. After World War II, the colonial powers built a large number of schools, universities, hospitals, museums and parliament buildings in their colonies. The leaders of the newly independent countries continued the reform program and built office towers, luxury hotels, convention and exhibition centres, stadiums and other symbols of modernisation in the capitals.

Almost all of the countries celebrated their independence with a remarkable construction project: Ghana with a gigantic parade ground, Zambia with a parliament building, Kenya with a conference centre and Ivory Coast with a luxury hotel. New administrative centres were the most megalomaniac projects, including the transformation of the Ivory Coast President Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s home village, Yamoussoukro, into the country’s symbolic capital with the world’s largest cathedral.

Eastern and western influence

The newly independent countries had a crying need for trained architects and thus the most demanding design work was assigned to British and French firms that had become familiar with the local conditions during the colonial period. The most productive firm was French architect Henri Chomette’s BEHC which designed buildings for over twenty African countries. The first Sub-Saharan architecture school – outside of South Africa – was established in Kumasi, Ghana, in 1957. Until then Africans had been offered some studies at European universities, particularly at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. In 1954 Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry had launched a postgraduate course in tropical architecture within the school. A considerable number of the buildings presented in the African Modernism book have been designed by the school’s teachers or students.

In addition to the former colonial rulers, there were also a large number of Nordic, Eastern European and Israeli architects in Africa. Many African countries adopted a socialist economic system, which provided work especially for Polish and Yugoslavian architects. Israel, on the other hand, tried to secure African countries’ support in the UN by offering them a generous amount of professional assistance, for example architects and city planners. Most African countries turned their back on Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the subsequent oil crisis. The sudden withdrawal of the Israelis can still be seen in the Lusaka university campus that could not be completed after the contractor left with the drawings.

The popularity of Nordic architects was based on the generous development aid and absence of a colonial past. Norwegian Karl Henrik Nøstvik was given the task of designing the symbol of Kenya’s independence, the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (1973) in Nairobi. Danish architect Erhard Lorenz’s studio home (1967), which he built for himself in Lusaka, represents an entirely different architectural style where the Scandinavian simplicity has been adapted to the tropical climate of Africa. Finnish architects are not mentioned in the book as they focused mainly on urban planning and teaching in the Sub-Saharan countries. Aarno Ruusuvuori’s development bank in Addis Ababa (1976) would, however, withstand comparison with the most successful buildings in the book.

Styles of tropical architecture

In most African countries the dominant style until the mid-1960s was tropical modernism which was characterised by narrow volumes enabling cross ventilation, long eaves, ribbon-like balconies and gauze-like screen structures. No particular attention was paid to local building traditions. Prime examples of this trend include the educational institutions in West Africa designed by AA teachers Drew and Fry as well as the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology’s School of Engineering (1956) in Kumasi by James Cubitt which has wing-like concrete beams guiding natural light in and warm air out of the building.

Local natural materials, building types and ornamental motifs were first used in the early 1960s by European architects who had settled in Africa. Sculptural concrete buildings inspired by international brutalism became popular towards the end of the decade. The aim was to provide protection from the heat of the sun with volumes widening towards the top, massive parapets and precast concrete screens. More and more buildings were also equipped with mechanical ventilation systems.

The book is illustrated with Iwan Baan and Alexia Webster’s incredible photographs. They tell about the ambitiousness of the modernisation projects as well as about many failures. The futuristic buildings rarely have a connection to their environment and often there have not been enough resources for their upkeep. Some of the documented buildings had actually been demolished by the time the book was published. One of the saddest examples included in the book is the Italian architect Rinaldo Olivieri’s tetrahedron-shaped commercial centre La Pyramide (1973) in Abidjan. The building has been empty for years, as if it was a symbol of an overzealous faith in the future. ark

book Manuel Herz, Ingrid Schröder, Hans Focketyn, Julia Jamrozik (eds.): African Modernism. The Architecture of Independence. Ghana, Senegal, Côte d´Ivoire, Kenya, Zambia. Park Books, Zurich 2015. 640 p.

Kristo Vesikansa is an Aalto University lecturer who is currently preparing his doctoral dissertation on the architecture of Reima Pietilä. 


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