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"On the downside, the Chinese come with their own styles"

Africa is at the centre of our publishing programme this year: Its cities are the fastest growing in the world, which brings many challenges. Remy Sietchiping, from the UN, is an expert on the urbanisation of the continent. An interview on Chinese infrastructure, the perils of glass façades, and cities as engines of democratisation.

 

Interview: Björn Rosen
Photo: Informal constructions house the majority of Angola's population, © K. Luchansky

 

According to the World Bank, urbanisation is the single most important transformation that the African continent will undergo this century. Cities in Africa are the fastest growing in the world, and Lagos, Nigeria, is projected to become the largest city on earth by 2100, with 88 million inhabitants. Is this development stoppable?

No. People have always migrated throughout history. It’s part of human nature, and no policy or intervention can stop this behaviour in a democratic context. This is in fact a good thing. Developing countries usually have a higher percentage of their population living in rural areas. It seems that nations cannot really start being seen as emerging economies until they reach 50 per cent urbanisation.

Africa is currently still the least urbanised continent. But it also lacks an industrial sector, unlike recently emerging economies such as India, China, and Brazil.

I don’t expect Africa to take the same path towards urbani­sation. Of course, industrialisation is a lever of change, but it is not the only one. Cape Verde, for example, has a high human development index and a relatively high GDP, yet it has zero industry. Rwanda is also emerging, but not based on industries. I should also emphasise that the African continent is very diverse, and it is crucial to consider the nuances. Some countries are highly urbanised, others are not. Going back to Cape Verde: this is a small island country, where the majority of people live in urban areas. Meanwhile, in Namibia, people are highly concentrated in certain areas, while large parts of the country are almost empty.  

Africa’s population is rapidly growing. How much of its urbanisation is simply due to the higher birth rates?

That’s certainly one factor. The situation is far different from Europe, where birth rates are low and some cities are even shrinking. But another – often overlooked – reason is that life expectancy has been increasing in Africa over the last 30 or 40 years. Moreover, many villages or peri-urban areas are being agglomerated into ­urban ­areas. And, of course, people are moving from small ­rural towns and villages to bigger settlements.

This also leads to the growth of slums. On the upside, an article in Foreign Affairs recently argued that urbanisation is an ‘engine of democracy’ and that denser social networks make it easier to organise protest.

To some extent. Recent revolutions and protests all happened in cities, from the Arab Spring in Tunisia to the protests in Sudan. However, this is more a phenomenon of dense neighbourhoods where people feel that their fundamental rights have been violated. Those who live in posh neighbourhoods don’t necessarily feel the urge to take to the streets.

What can architects do to better manage African urbanisation?

Cross-sectoral collaboration is still largely under­explored in Africa. Architects often design a space without considering its impact on the city, region, and nation. This is a shame, because working with sociologists, anthropologists, and health practitioners can significantly boost creativity and innovation. Diverse viewpoints from different disciplines are crucial for understanding how society works. I also think African architects could be more careful about adopting ­other building cultures. It often makes no sense to build with a lot of glass. The material forces you to rely on air-­conditioning, which is costly and certainly avoidable if you adapt your building methods to local conditions. It is unfortunate that the use of local materials is widely seen as a somehow inferior approach.

Another major trend in Africa is the growing engagement of Chinese developers, who are building infrastructure all over the continent. Is this a positive trend?

Chinese investment has led to both improvements and concerns. Developers from China complete projects on time and rarely revise the budget. Working with Chinese developers is appealing for many African countries because the financing is easy. The interest rates are attractive, and you can pay with natural resources instead of cash. Chinese investment has enabled much of the business infrastructure built in Africa in recent years. So there are many positive aspects.  On the downside, the Chinese not only come with their own architectural styles, they tend to bring everything else required for the construction: tiles, doors, finishings – even parts that could be produced locally. Moreover, the architectural plans and maintenance manuals are all in Chinese. I have noticed during trips to China that the materials there are sometimes of a much higher quality than what I see in Africa. Finally, the contracts are prepared by the Chinese developers, and the countries often just sign them.

What about the rural regions that are being abandoned due to urbanisation? Do they need more attention?

Urgently. But so do the smaller cities, especially because they are more manageable. Early intervention enables you to attract investment and create the kind of city you want. If towns become more attractive, people won’t always want to flock to the major cities. This leads to a more balanced kind of development, with services and functions evenly spread out throughout the country instead of concentrated in one area. Rwanda is a positive example. The Rwandans make sure that the ­smaller towns have a clinic, a school, or another particular ­urban element that shapes the identity of the place.

 

REMY SIETCHIPING is a Nairobi-based representative of UN Habitat, the United Nations programme for human settlements and sustainable urban development. Born in Cameroon, he holds a PhD in Geography from the University of Melbourne. He has contributed two articles to Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa.

The wait is almost over! After many years of research and preparation, our Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa will be on the shelves in December. It will offer a unique insight into a wealth of buildings that is frequently overlooked in the west.

Other articles:

The fascinating story behind Moscow's Four Seasons Hotel

Myths surround this luxury accommodation and its peculiar story. For 4000 euros a night you can now stay right next to Red Square where the first Stalinist-style building once stood – it looked exactly the same.

 

Text: Damien Leaf
Foto: © depositphotos (skaliger)

 

On a booking platform, a German tourist praises the ‘great view of the Kremlin’ and an Italian extols the wellness area with its large pool. Judging by the reviews, the Four ­Seasons Moscow has satisfied customers. However, a one-night stay costs at least 800 euros and it can be 4,000 euros for the Premium Suite. The hotel with 180 rooms and suites is located between Red Square and the Bolshoi Theatre and is one of the largest and most exclusive in Russia’s capital – and it has an incredible history.

The latter began in the early 1930s when the Hotel Moskva was built on the same site – it was one of the first new hotel buildings in the Soviet Union. Architecturally, under Joseph Stalin, who had been sole ruler since 1927, the country was undergoing a shift from the avant-garde to neoclassical eclecticism. Part of the shell construction was already in place when the original constructivist plans for the building by Leonid ­Savelyev and Oswald Stapran were abandoned. ‘Stalin wanted a monumental, rather classical and richly decorated building,’ says architectural historian Dmitrij Chmelnizki. The task of adapting the design to the dictator’s taste was given to Alexey Shchusev. ‘He created what can be considered the first Stalinist-style building’: an eight-column, six-storey portico with an open terrace, generous arcaded loggias in the centre of the main façade, and numerous balconies. The corners were accentuated with turrets. Bruno Taut, who was also involved in the designs, later wrote in a letter that Shchusev had taken over his floor plans, but in a distorted form.

Alexey Shchusev, born in 1873, was a special case in that he was one of the very few who had managed to rise to the top of the architectural hierarchy under the tsars and then repeat this success under Soviet rule. His name is associated with a wide variety of styles. He designed churches and the Kazan railway station in Moscow, but also constructivist buildings. He is probably best known for the Lenin Mausoleum of 1924. ‘Under Stalin, Shchusev was one of the country’s most important architects. That was cynicism, he adapted,’ says ­Chmelnizki, who recently published a critical monograph, Alexey Shchusev. Architect of Stalin’s Empire Style, on the architect. There were many myths surrounding the Moskva, the interior of which was furnished with works by the Soviet Union's most respected artists. No wonder: ‘The secret service was involved and everything was top secret. It was a hotel for foreigners and cadres, no normal Muscovite could enter.’

To this day, the legend circulates that the façade was asymmetrical because Stalin put his signature between two different designs and no one dared to ask. ‘In truth, it was just a matter of statics.’ The hotel was expanded in the 1970s, but it came to an end in the turmoil of the post-communist period. In 2002 the building was demolished for obscure reasons and against an initiative of the then Minister of Culture. Ironically, it was rebuilt almost immediately afterwards – with an asymmetrical façade true to the original.

Happy Holidays!

🇩🇪 Ein ereignisreiches Jahr liegt hinter uns: 2021 haben wir unter anderem Architekturführer zu Peking, Rotterdam, München und nicht zuletzt ganze sieben Bände zu Afrika südlich der Sahara veröffentlicht, wir haben das populäre Buch Baumhäuser neu aufgelegt und uns dem immer wichtiger werdenden Thema Quartiersentwicklung gewidmet. An dieser Stelle möchten wir uns für Ihr Interesse an unserem Programm bedanken. 2022 geht es dann weiter mit Titeln zu Halle (Saale), Algier, Feuerwehrbauten, Aquarien ...

Schöne Festtage und auf ein Wiedersehen im neuen Jahr!

🇬🇧 An eventful year lies behind us: in 2021 we published architectural guides on Rotterdam, Toulouse and last but not least on Sub-Saharan Africa, the popular title Treehouses was updated, and we presented a magnificent book on Buddhist cult buildings in Tibet and Nepal to the public. We would like to thank you for your continued interest in our publishing programme. In 2022 titles on Almaty, Boris Iofan, Diagrams, the North Caucasus will follow.

Happy holidays and see you again in the new year!

Architekturführer Almaty: Jetzt unterstützen und gewinnen

Unbekannte Metropole zwischen Europa und Asien: Gegründet im 19. Jahrhundert erlebte das frühere Alma-Ata den Aufstieg des russischen Zarenreichs, die Kolonialisierung Zentralasiens, den Fall der Sowjetunion – und bis heute ist die Stadt das kulturelle Zentrum Kasachstans. Edda Schlager lebt seit mehr als 16 Jahren überwiegend in Almaty, als einzige deutsche Zentralasien-Korrespondentin. Ihr Architekturführer über die Stadt soll nächstes Jahr erscheinen.

Wer das Buch jetzt vorbestellt, unterstützt nicht nur das Projekt, sondern wird belohnt – mit Almaty-Kühlschrankmagneten, kasachischen Filzpantoffeln, einer Stadtführung …

Alles Informationen gibt es auf Kickstarter: Klick

Unsere Autoren: Andreas Wenning, Baumhaus-Spezialist

Seit der Corona-Pandemie ist er noch gefragter als zuvor: Der gelernte Tischler und studierte Architekt aus Bremen entwirft weltweit einzigartige Räume. Nah an der Natur – und in luftiger Höhe. Nun ist die vierte, erweiterte und aktualisierte Auflage seines erfolgreichen Buchs Baumhäuser erschienen.

 

Text: Björn Rosen
Foto: © Andreas Wenning

 

Es begann 2003 zwischen zwei Buchen. Andreas Wenning war damals oft zu Besuch bei Freunden, die im niedersächsischen Bassum eine Landkommune gegründet hatten. »Ich habe mir da einfach einen Ort gewünscht, oben in den Bäumen, wo ich sein kann«, erinnert sich der 55-Jährige. Den Begriff Baumhaus hatte er gar nicht im Sinn, »weder hatte ich mir entsprechende Literatur angeschaut noch mich an Vorbildern orientiert«. Wenning schuf schließlich einen bootsähnlichen Raum aus Holz, knapp acht Quadratmeter groß, plus Terrasse, der zwischen den zwei Stämmen an Stahlseilen und Textilgurten aufgehängt wurde.

Dieses Baumhaus Plendelhof gibt es noch immer: In neun Metern Höhe blickt man von dort auf die Baumkrone und die umgebende Wiesenlandschaft. Wenning nennt es »den Prototyp«. Denn heute, 18 Jahre später, ist er als Architekt auf Baumhäuser spezialisiert – und weltweit gefragt. Mehr als 80 Projekte hat er mit seinem Büro Baumraum schon realisiert, in gut einem Dutzend unterschiedlicher Länder. Erfreuen sich professionell geplante Baumhäuser schon seit zwei Jahrzehnten zunehmender Beliebtheit, vermutlich weil die Menschen Nähe zur Natur suchen, so ist die Nachfrage mit der Pandemie weiter gestiegen. »Besonders im Bereich Baumhaus-Hotels. Viele gehen davon aus, dass die Leute künftig mehr regional verreisen, aber eben ein besonderes Erlebnis suchen.« Wennings Buch Baumhäuser erscheint jetzt bereits in der vierten Auflage – aktualisiert unter anderem um das Projekt Black Crystal in den Catskill Mountains nördlich von New York, das mit seiner Fassade aus dunklen Blechen wie ein Edelstein zwischen den Laubbäumen schimmert. Es ist auch auf dem Cover zu sehen.

In den USA hat der Architekt schon häufiger gearbeitet, die Begeisterung für Baumhäuser sei dort vielleicht noch größer als anderswo. »Das hat kulturelle Gründe. Historisch sind die Amerikaner Landeroberer, robuste Leute, die in der Natur leben und ihre Freiheit lieben. « Mit den USA verbindet Wenning aber auch prägende Erinnerungen aus seiner Jugend. Nach dem Zivildienst reiste er vier Monate allein durchs Land –  nicht zuletzt ein Crashkurs, um sein Englisch zu verbessern.

Andreas Wenning stammt aus Weinheim an der Bergstraße und lernte nach der zehnten Klasse zunächst Tischler. Ein Baumhaus besaß er zwar nie als Kind, aber Basteln, Bauen und die Natur lagen ihm seit jeher. Nachdem er das Abitur nachgeholt hatte, führte ihn das Architekturstudium nach Bremen, wo er noch immer lebt.

Natürlich ist die Expertise als Tischler eine solide Grundlage für seine Spezialisierung, und bis heute packt Wenning auf der Baustelle selbst mit an, doch seine Entwürfe sind entscheidend geprägt von seiner Liebe zu avantgardistischer Architektur. »Handwerker, die Baumhäuser bauen, wollen möglichst alles allein machen. Für mich spielt das keine Rolle, und ich bin auch nicht auf bestimmte Materialien festgelegt. Holz ist wichtig, aber ich arbeite ebenso mit Kunststoffen oder Stahl.« Zugleich, sagt Wenning, könne er auch freier gestalten als viele seiner Kollegen in anderen Feldern der Architektur: »Die meisten haben ein engeres Korsett. Ich kann im Bereich der Formen und der Materialität in meinem losgelöster und auch skulpturaler gestalten.«

Ein Baumhaus zu bewohnen, fühlt sich nach Freiheit an. Eines zu entwerfen, offenbar auch.

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🇬🇧 Never miss a great DOM book again – with our newsletter you benefit from exclusive offers, peek behind the scenes of our publishing house and stay informed about upcoming events. You can now subscribe to an English-language newsletter covering all our international titles: click.

🇩🇪 Nie wieder ein neues Buch verpassen: Mit unserem Newsletter profitieren Sie von exklusiven Angeboten, werfen einen Blick hinter die Kulissen unseres Verlags und erhalten vorab Infos zu Veranstaltungen und neuen Titeln. DOMmail gibt es weiterhin auf Deutsch (mit Informationen zu allen deutschsprachigen und internationalen Titeln) – und jetzt auch auf Englisch. Einfach hier anmelden: klick.

The engineer who updated Venice

Whether you visit the lagoon city for pleasure or for work, whether you head to the Biennale or the Lido: You will encounter Eugenio Miozzi's work everywhere. His rationalist parking garages and innovative bridges linked Venice with the mainland while also preserving the historic structure. Read our portrait of a man who combined centuries-old traditions with a spirit of innovation.

 

Text: Kyung Hun Oh
Photo: Miozzi measuring the base of the Column of San Teodoro, one of a pair of structures located in St Mark’s Square, around 1950. © IUAV, Archivio Progetti, Fondo Eugenio Miozzi⠀
 

Eugenio Miozzi, chief architect of Venice from 1931 to 1954, played a key role in shaping the city as it is today. Yet he remains a largely unknown figure. This obscurity can perhaps be traced back to his links to Mussolini’s fascist government. Nonetheless, locals and tourists come in contact with his works on a daily basis. Now a monograph on him has been published by DOM publishers – the book is available in both English and Italian.

Miozzi’s central idea for Venice was to ensure its survival as a ‘normal’ city, which, in his view, would only be possible with the introduction of cars. To this end, he realised a major car park in Piazzale de Roma as well as a new Municpal Garage, allowing visitors to easily access the city from the mainland. He also drew up an ambitious plan to build a large new motorway under the lagoon, running clockwise from Piazzale de Roma to the south of Venice. The project was never realised, though it was worked out in detail. Ponte degli Scalzi is perhaps his most emblematic project. The bridge was based on a highly creative solution from a technical perspective, made entirely of stone, with no iron or concrete reinforcements. Miozzi developed a new calculation method to predict the movements of the bridge’s stone pieces, and thus pared down the structure to the essentials. The outcome represents a seamless combination of modern and traditional building techniques. ‘There is no excess, and no lack, with a perfect balance between function, form, construction, and material,’ said Clemens Kusch, editor of Eugenio Miozzi: Modern Venice Between Innovation and Tradition. So lean was the structure that people were afraid of passing beneath it, for fear that it would collapse.

Miozzi was respectful of the city’s architectural heritage, always placing his modernist projects on the peripheries. In the centre, he endeavoured to find a language that was adapted to the historic urban context. This partly also explains why there have been no attempts to demolish Miozzi’s works in Venice: ‘It doesn’t occur to people that his works aren’t part of the historic city,’ says Kusch. Moreover, each of his works stemmed from a real necessity that still exists today: ‘Their survival is linked to the necessity of his interventions.’

Miozzi’s works also sparked a new debate on the future of Venice: between conservatives who wished to preserve the city as it was, and those who saw the need for modernisation. Ultimately, it seems the former prevailed. The spirit of innovation ebbed away after his death. As Kusch says: ‘Very few important modern buildings were built in the city after him.’