Decolonizing the Campus, According to Hannah le Roux
Hannah le Roux is an architect, curator and professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her work revisits the modernist project in architecture in Africa, and considers how its transformation presents a conceptual model for contemporary design in Africa.
In the recent bauhaus imaginista symposium, Decolonizing the Campus at the University of Lagos, le Roux focused on tropical architecture and building skin. Here, in this interview she gives an overview and talks about Africa as a catalyst and conceptual model for contemporary design.
The term ‘building skin’has become a major part of architectural lingo, could you explain why it is so relevant today?
Buildings have been a proxy for the human skin as long as they have existed, augmenting the skin’s functions of being both a barrier to, and zone of exchange with the environment. The thinning of the building skin during modernism coincides with the more dynamic exchanges made possible between the building and the environment. This happens through technologies that modify the building’s comfort and differentiate it from uncomfortable exterior conditions, while keeping the illusion of continuity through expanses of glazing or even near-immaterial boundaries. In the face of environmental changes – new temperature extremes and new concerns about carbon emissions – the challenge is to maintain this function without expending too much energy. As a result, we need to understand the physical functioning of building skins with precision and intentionality, conceiving them beyond their visual appearance.
How can Africa, a continent known for her hot, tropical climate be a conceptual model for contemporary design?
In Africa, prior to colonisation, people developed a dynamic relation to the challenges of climate. Lifestyles adapted to the coolth of the morning, the release of evening shade, the seasonal urgencies and relief of wet and dry periods. People also learned to work with portable and ephemeral infrastructures that adapted to changing conditions. Many of these ways of living are still apparent in African cities. Their flexibility is a quality that can be lent to contemporary projects of adapting existing environments for reuse, and possibly also for design in a fluctuating environment. Such configurations will be more efficient and lively than modernist space.
The origin of cement dates back to the Age of Enlightenment in Rome but remains a major building material in Africa. What has been its impact on our domestic buildings?
In Maxwell Fry’s words and work, cement had a very specific role, which was to take the role of maintenance out of domestic life. People no longer had to render their walls after a rainy season or repair them against insects. This in turn freed up people to run the home, raise more children and enter the workforce, creating a labour surplus that was in the interests of the colonial capitalists. In turn, however, the dynamic and intimate relationship with the house as an object of constant evaluation and seasonal renewal, and as something that disappears back into the environment on the inhabitant’s passing, has been lost.
Is there such a thing as ‘African architecture’ and what environmentally conscious approaches should local architects employ to adequately accommodate and reflect indigenous traditions?
In the sense that architecture is about ways of arranging things, there are certainly many African ideas about space and its use. But used to describe a variation of contemporary design in relation to a pre-existing definition of architecture, the term “African architecture”raises some concern. It is often deployed to excuse buildings that superficially alter the appearance of forms derived from abroad. Their approach often feels like a short cut. Before we arrive at a really useful set of definitions that we can use to respond to the issues of the continent, we need to embrace more exploratory work that accounts for the diverse spatialities, materials, ordering principles and actors who construct African environments. Towards that, we have to face the challenges of finding patrons who will share visions and support diverse ways of working.
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