Interview with Antony Folkers of ArchiAfrika

Antoni Folkers is a Dutch architect who is working in Africa since 30 years. “There are cities in Africa growing at 7%, 8% a year”, the architect said during the following interview.

During the fifth edition of the International Forum on Africa to be held in Taormina, Italy, next 6 and 7 October 2011, Folkers will speak about the African interpretation of architecture, about the differences with Western architecture and urban development and about why this should interest us.

Folkers’s speech will take place inside the panel about “Urban development in Africa and the investment opportunities in linked sectors: instrafructures, services, energy, transports“.

How does it start this idea of doing architecture in Africa?
This kind of lifelong mission stay behind very banal reasons. I just like Africa and I have this feeling that there is a lot to be learn from that continent and that I have had since the beginning. I just wanted to go to a place where there is always beautiful weather. It’s that kind of simpleness the reasons behind such decisions. Sound maybe a bit banal but this is how things are I am afraid. It’s a combination of those two things like the german call it …. you like to work in an exotic context combined with a mission that you need somewhere in the world to help people. In Africa in particular we all seem to pity that continent, that they need our help. That’s really true. That’s another thing. Those were the driver at the beginning and I’ve never left the continent since. That’s now almost 30 years ago.

In which part of Africa?
It’s an enormous continent, you cannot be everywhere. The places that I know well and where I have done a lot of work is in West Africa, in Burkina Faso, and in East Africa, in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and off late we also act in Morocco and South Africa. But most of the time I spend in Africa, if you would ask me, is Tanzania. That’s a bit my second home, you could call it.

Is there like a professional reason for Tanzania or not?
Yes, I think so. Tanzania was, less so today, but in the 80s and the 90s it was like a sugar baby of the development aid. Almost all western countries were having projects there. Because it was such a peaceful and friendly country with a charismatic president, Julius Nyerere, whom everybody liked. So there was a lot of aid, a lot of interest poured into the country and of course it was also a coincidence because I was working at that time for a German company who had quite an important office in Tanzania. So that’s really how it started there. But there were not only the Germans. There were the Japanese, the Canadians, the Dutch, the British, everybody was having projects in Tanzania in the 80s and in the 90s. It was a get together of a lot of expertise from Europe and America and beyond.

You are going to be one of the next speakers of the Forum on Africa in Taormina, which will be the 6 and 7 of October this year. Can you tell us some previews of your speech there?
Well that’s a dangerous question because I haven’t really started putting up my speech. But the question which will be put on the table there is, if I quote it correctly, is to find common ground for African and European professionals to cooperate on the continent. So in another way than in the past. In the past it was very much aid oriented now, I think, we are getting in a period more business oriented relationships. In other words we are not looking into Africa anymore as the poor place where they need our help but as the place where there is people who can be our business partners, with whom we can work together, and from whom we can learn certain things.

This is a streetscape in Kayelithsa, an informal shanty town near Capetown. This is taken by Heinrich Wolff.

Then in particular the question to me is that in the realm of city development and urban questions. Urbanisation in Africa is outrageous at this moment. There is no place in the world where urbanisation is so fast as in Africa. There are cities growing at 7%, 8% a year. It’s unimaginable and of course that needs attention from local governments, local business partners but there might be also a role in it for partners from Europe.

The BCEAO Bank HQ in Bamako designed by Pierre Goudiaby Atepa, self-declared greatest architect of Africa.

One of the reasons behind the conference is to see why it seems that initiatives from elsewhere, and then I am talking in particular China and India, seem to be more successful in current business deals in Africa than Europeans are. So it looks like the Europeans are sort of being caught in this old attitude of help and not an equal relationship between Africa and Europe whereas the Chinese and the Indians entrepreneurs and governments they see their relationship with Africa as an equal business base. On that aspect I want to focus and then in my own field of architecture and urban development.

This is a model by Bodys Isek Kingelez, a Congolese artist who builds the Africa City of the Future.

I saw on the website of ArchiAfrika that this association can help in achieving the UN mission to give houses, affordable houses, in places like Africa. What exactly ArchiAfrika is doing in this direction?
Well, yes, that might be in the mission statement of ArchiAfrika. It’s a long throw I must admit but ArchiAfrika is, in the first place, a network organisation with the attention to bring people together, to bring parties together, with the aim to give more attention to African architecture as a whole and of course in promoting African architecture and improving African architecture through academic exchange, education, through professional input, ArchiAfrika will eventually help, hopefully, in improving living conditions and there’s also work in the UN goals.

This is the famous Nid d'Abeille apartment building in Casablanca by George Candilis, developed through auto-construction.

In the first place ArchiAfrika is a platform for people to meet, to meet in the flash, in conferences or to meet on the web, through our website, database and newsletters. I think that so far, we have 10 years of existence, it looks that we have achieved quite something. We have been able to bring people together and that’s already reaching our main goal. Last year we have handed over the management and the property of ArchiAfrika to our partners in Africa. We were initially a Dutch organisation with five Dutch founders, all architects, and we’re all out. I mean we’re still related as vices and members but not in the future policy of ArchiAfrika and the future in general is not in our hands but is in the hands of our African colleagues.

This is a sketch of a generic development of an African road-side shop (duka) into the urban realm, sketch by Antoni Folkers.

By an architecture point of view, what do you find new in the African architecture?
Yes. That’s a very important question and one I have been struggling with for the past 30 years because I get this question quite often: what do you actually learn in Africa? and “what is it that attracts you?” and “why do you have so much respect for African architecture? There is only huts there, there is only poverty, slums”. It’s both true. I mean there is a lot of poverty but in that poverty of many African citizens you see an enormous creativity and power that is being tapped to build their own cities. I mean most African cities are built by the citizens themselves without the intervention of architects and very very modestly by planners only.
If you see what they have achieved in terms of the quality of their living environment I mean there are exceptions, there are slums, but in general the informal, as they call them, settlments on the periphery of the African cities are often places where you can live quite well, sometimes very well. And where there is a lot of attention being given to the public realm to how people come together but also to the individual dwelling.
This creativity in more loose way of designing and creating your own special environment is something very very distant from what we do in Europe. In particular in my country where everything is subject to regulations and to formal institutions where there is very little room left for the individual citizen to create his own living environment. That is one of the things.
Another thing I might mention is the temporality of African architecture. In Europe we are always starting from the assumption that we build for a long period. Something has to stand for 50 or 100 years and still we do demolish also quite often after 20 years, which is not sustainable at all. Whereas in Africa, traditionally, people are building for a much shorter lifespan maybe only for 15 years or even shorter, just a part of a generation or a part of a lifetime and again that is something that we’ve completely forgot, or maybe we have never really known in our European circumstance.
Something I think it is worthwhile studying and looking is how you create a house or a living environment which is not supposed to stand 100 years but which is like maybe a piece of clothing of fashion which is only there for 15 years to last. So there are more things. These are just a few examples of issues that I’ve found in my work in Africa and I think worthwhile of deeper study and interest from our side.

This is the re-appropriation of the Kwa Thema Mashesene Beer hall, that was burnt down during the 1976 riots in Johannesburg, a project and photo by Hannah Leroux.

Can you make an example of an African building as its own way interpretation of house or living. You said before that on the periphery of the cities, of African cities, you found very interesting things, there is lots of space for citizens to build their own houses, their own way of living. So can you make an example of this?
Well there are many examples to be mentioned. I must admit that so far I have not really studied in terms of doing proper research taking a lot of pictures, interviewing people. But interesting example has been brought recently is the townships and informal settlements of Cape Town, in South Africa, where people are using second hand materials to build, which is paramount in Africa. And they built houses which are incredibly joyful to look, … with so much decoration that a famous photographer has made a photo book on it. And is promoting this kind of architecture as what I recall Shack Chic. The reverse side of poverty. People respect their own environment and, even though they have little means, they create a living environment which actually transpire a lot of optimism.

Where was this? In which country?
In South Africa, in the Cape Flats, the periphery of Cape Town. Kylie sites is one important informal settlements and the book that was made is called Shack Chic by Hugh Frazer, if I am not mistaken. It’s very interesting but at the same time you have to be careful because when you start to photograph these things and promote it as a sort of human achievement, you should never forget that people are living in these houses, they are living on the fringes of existence, they have very very little means. So there is also a very bitter side to this as well.




Interview by Piervincenzo Canale

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