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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.

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From "Altbau" to "Gebrauchsarchitektur"

Some words, no matter how trivial they may seem in the original language, do not lend themselves to direct translation. Kyung Hun Oh, our in-house translator, talks about some challenges of his daily work.


Text: Kyung Hun Oh
Photo: "Altbauten" in Berlin's Schöneberg area © DOM publishers


Altbau: The word Altbau, literally ‘old building’, is a perfectly common word in German, denoting a Gründerzeit-era building from the late 19th or early 20th century. The word carries several connotations, and the translation must reflect the sense being emphasised. A text might be highlighting the fact that an ‘Altbau’ is more fashionable to live in than a contemporary building; it might be exploring how building practices and aesthetics changed after the Second World War; or it might be describing how an old building is being expanded as part of a renovation project. Possible translations thus include ‘period building’, ‘pre-war building’, and ‘existing building’.

Sortenrein: In some building projects, the architect might choose to combine materials in a way that is sortenrein – literally ‘pure in kind’. This means the materials are kept in separate layers without the use of glue so they can be reused. The word has no direct equivalent in English and would warrant an explanation in a subordinate clause.

Vorzeigearchitektur vs. Gebrauchsarchitektur: These two terms came up in an essay I recently translated. Literally, the former means something like ‘showpiece architecture’; the latter something like ‘use architecture’. The former implies 'prestigious', 'iconic', 'recognisable', and 'unique'; the latter implies 'ordinary', 'functional', 'plain'. I chose to translate the two terms as ‘landmark architecture’ and ‘ordinary architecture’.

Meet our team: Kyung Hun Oh, translator

After studying literature in Cambridge, UK, Kyung Hun Oh  moved to Berlin four and a half years ago. He has now translated numerous books for DOM publishers. An advocate of clarity, he gently reminds architectural critics: sometimes, less is more.


Text: Björn Rosen
Photo: © DOM publishers


Good translators ask good questions. The ones Kyung Hun Oh asks his colleagues are sometimes met with bewilderment and often spark long discussions. Is there, for example, a difference between the words ‘Konstruktionsart’ (literally: type, style, manner, or method of construction) and ‘Bauweise’ (building ­method)? And how scathing does a critic mean to be with the phrase ‘geistige Kurzatmigkeit’ (literally: ­intellectual shortness of breath)? Such questions are difficult to answer, even for the German native speakers at the Berlin-based publishing house. And they reveal some of the challenges involved in Oh’s work – and the high standards and degree of precision he aims for.

Oh joined DOM publishers two years ago, where his main task is to translate manuscripts from German into English. They are always about architecture and urbanism, though some texts are very technical, ­others very theoretical. He has translated ten books for the publishers so far, including the last three editions of the German Architecture Annual for the German Architecture Museum and most recently Radikal Normal, a collection of essays by the architect and architectural theorist Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani. When he speaks, you hear his unmistakable British accent. As the son of Korean parents, he grew up just outside London, though he has also lived in the US and Spain. He first came into contact with the German language when he lived in Frankfurt am Main for a few years as a teenager: there, he attended an international school and learned German as a second language. Later, while studying English literature at the University of Cambridge, he also had the opportunity to read German poetry and plays.

Berlin has been his home for four and a half years. ‘To me, English feels quite linear, with a clearer sense of direction. German is more circular. A sentence leaves more room for detours and asides before the verb is finally revealed,’ he says. His discerning eye has also registered several over-used terms in German architectural jargon. The word ‘vermitteln’, in the sense of ‘mediate’ or ‘connect’, is just one example. ‘Once, an architecture practice euphemistically described a high fence around a gated community as a “mediating element” between the public streetscape and the private spaces inside,’ he says. ‘I get the feeling that some authors try a bit too hard to write beautifully – often at the cost of clarity. Sometimes, what you have is four walls and a roof, and it’s perfectly fine to just say that.’ When asked about examples of good architectural writing in English, he cites the works of Oliver Wainwright, Jane Jacobs, and Richard Sennett.

Oh is co-editor of the English edition of the DOM magazine. And he has also translated this (in his eyes very complimentary) profile, which you have now read to the end, from German.


Diesen Text auf Deutsch lesen.

Unsere Mitarbeiter: Kyung Hun Oh, Übersetzer

Der 31-jährige überträgt bei DOM publishers Texte ins Englische. Die deutsche Sprache, sagt Oh, könne ein "ein großer Kreis" sein. Architekturkritikern empfiehlt er, das Wort "vermitteln" sparsamer zu verwenden.


Text: Björn Rosen
Foto: © DOM publishers


Gute Übersetzer erkennt man vermutlich an ihren Fragen. Jene, die Kyung Hun Oh manchmal seinen Kollegen stellt, lösen Verblüffung oder sogar längere Diskussionen aus. Gibt es einen Unterschied zwischen den Worten „Konstruktionsart“ und „Bauweise“? Oder: Wie vernichtend ist die Formulierung „geistige Kurzatmigkeit“ eines Architekturkritikers gemeint? Selbst für die deutschen Muttersprachler im Berliner Verlagshaus ist das schwer zu beantworten. Die Fragen zeigen die immense Herausforderung von Ohs Arbeit – und zugleich den hohen Anspruch und die Präzision, mit denen er sich dieser nähert. 

Kyung Hun Oh übersetzt bei DOM publishers seit zwei Jahren Manuskripte vom Deutschen ins Englische. Immer geht es um Architektur, doch manche Texte sind sehr technisch, andere sehr theoretisch. Zehn Bücher hat Oh bisher für den Verlag übersetzt, darunter schon drei Mal das Deutsche Architektur Jahrbuch und zuletzt Radikal normal, eine Sammlung von Aufsätzen des Architekten Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani.

Wenn er spricht, hört man Ohs unverkennbar britischen Akzent. Aufgewachsen ist der Sohn koreanischer Eltern im Großraum London, er hat aber auch schon in den USA und Spanien gelebt. Das erste Mal mit der deutschen Sprache in Kontakt kam er, als er als Teenager einige Jahre in Frankfurt am Main verbrachte: An der internationalen Schule, die er dort besuchte, war Deutsch Pflichtfach. Während seines Studiums der englischen Literatur in Cambridge las er später auch deutsche Lyrik und Theaterstücke. 

Seit viereinhalb Jahren lebt Kyung Hun Oh nun in Berlin, wo er zunächst für eine Übersetzungsagentur arbeitete. „Englisch ist relativ geradlinig, man geht in eine Richtung, Deutsch kann ein großer Kreis sein“, sagt er. Seinem sezierenden Blick entgehen auch die allzu populären Worte in der deutschen Architektursprache nicht: „Aufenthaltsqualität“, „Rückzugsbereich“, „vermitteln“, um nur drei Beispiele zu nennen. „Es gab sogar mal ein Architekturbüro, das über den Zaun um ein Gebäude schrieb, dieser vermittle zwischen dem Außenbereich und dem Privaten“, sagt Oh. „Ich habe das Gefühl, einige Autoren werden von ihrem Wunsch abgelenkt, sehr schön zu schreiben. Manchmal genügt es, zu sagen, es gibt vier Wände und ein Dach, das ist völlig okay.“ Als Beispiel dafür, wie man auf gelungene Weise über Architektur schreibt, nennt er den Guardian-Kritiker Oliver Wainwright, Jane Jacob und Richard Sennett.

Übrigens: Kyung Hun Oh ist mitverantwortlich für die englische Ausgabe des DOM magazine. Und auch diesen Text, den Sie nun zu Ende gelesen haben, hat er ins Englische übersetzt.

Rudolf Hamburger: ein Architektenleben in Bildern

Poelzig-Schüler, Exilant, Spion: Unser neues Buch Architekt im Widerstand. Rudolf Hamburger im Netzwerk der Geheimdienste rekonstruiert das filmreife Leben des deutschen Architekten (1903–1980). Hier zeigen wir sechs Fotografien aus dem Nachlass der Familie Hamburger.


Foto: Victoria Nurses' Home Shanghai, Rudolf Hamburger (1933), © Nachlass R. Hamburger


Auf dem ersten Bild sieht man den jungen Rudolf Hamburger in der zweiten Hälfte der Zwanzigerjahre. Der gebürtige Schlesier lebte damals in Berlin, wo er an der Technischen Hochschule bei Hans Poelzig studierte. In Dresden, wo er zuvor studiert hatte, traf er Richard Paulick, der ein guter Freund wurde.


Auf nach China! Im Jahr 1930 verließ Rudolf Hamburger das von der Weltwirtschaftskrise gebeutelte Deutschland. Er heuerte als Architekt beim "Shanghai Municipal Council" an, der Verwaltung des International Settlement. Die chinesische Metropole erlebte damals einen Bauboom. Hamburger schuf dort einige seiner wichtigsten Bauten – und wurde zu seinem Wegbereiter moderner Architektur in China. Sein Victoria Nurses' Home, ein Wohnheim für etwa 100 Schwestern, gehörte einst zum britischen Country Hospital und ist heute Bettenhaus des Huadong Hospital.


Schicksalhafte Verbindung: Ende der Zwanzigerjahre hatte Hamburger Ursula Kuczynski geheiratet, hier ein Foto aus glücklichen Zeiten. Beide stammten aus jüdisch-bürgerlichen Familien. Doch während Hamburger konservativ geprägt war, neigte seine Frau schon in frühen Jahren linken Ideen zu. In Shanghai ließ sie sich von Meisterspion Richard Sorge für die GRU, den Nachrichtendienst der sowjetischen Armee, anwerben. Ihre Missionen verschlugen sie bald in die Mandschurei, in die Schweiz, nach Polen; manchen gilt sie als "Stalins beste Spionin". Die Ehe mit Hamburger zerbrach, doch bald würde auch der Architekt selbst für die GRU arbeiten. 


In Diensten der Sowjets: Ende der 1930er Jahre hatte Rudolf Hamburger – unter dem Eindruck der weltpolitischen Lage – selbst bei der GRU angeheuert. In der Zwischenzeit lebte er wieder in Europa. Im Frühjahr 1939 entsandte ihn der Geheimdienst nach China, das nicht nur von den Japanern angegriffen worden war, sondern wo auch Kommunisten gegen Nationalisten kämpften. Hamburger reiste zunächst nach Singapur und von dort über Land bis nach Shanghai. Sein Aquarell einer Landschaft mit Tempel nahe Lampang, Siam, entstand im Mai 1939.


Zwischen allen Fronten: Die Spionagetätigkeit für die GRU führte Rudolf Hamburger Anfang der Vierzigerjahre nach Teheran. 1942 nimmt er dort eine Arbeit als Architekt im Industrieministerium auf. Er zieht die Aufmerksamkeit von Amerikanern und Briten auf sich, wird inhaftiert. Als er schließlich nach Moskau ausreisen kann, wirkt das wie eine Befreiung. Doch die Sowjets verdächtigen ihn nun, ein Doppelspion zu sein. Hamburger wird die nächsten Jahre in Haft, im Lager und in der Verbannung verbringen. Erst 1955 darf er wieder nach Deutschland – in die DDR. Das Foto zeigt ihn nach seiner Rückkehr in der Stalinallee. Die Dachterrasse gehört zur Wohnung seines alten Freundes Richard Paulick, nun ein wichtiger Architekt im kommunistischen Osten Deutschlands und selbst an den Entwürfen für die Stalinallee beteiligt.


Als Architekt wirkt Rudolf Hamburger in der DDR vor allem beim Aufbau der "zweiten sozialistischen Stadt" Hoyerswerda: Dort entstehen in Großblock- und Plattenbauweise Wohnungen für Arbeiter der Braunkohleindustrie. Hier sieht man ihn 1960 vor einem Plan der neuen Stadt. Die Schriftstellerin Brigitte Reimann lässt sich von dem Architekten für ihren Roman "Franziska Linkerhand" inspirieren. Und auch Hamburgers Ex-Frau Ursula – inzwischen als Schriftstellerin Ruth Werner bekannt – veröffentlicht 1977 unter dem Titel "Sonjas Rapport" einen autobiografischen Roman – in der DDR ein Bestseller. Hamburger ist unglücklich über das Buch, das an alte Wunden rührt. Drei Jahre später stirbt er. Erst 1990, im Zuge von Glasnost und Perestroika, wird man ihn in Moskau rehabilitieren.

DAM Preis für Architektur in Deutschland 2021

Nun steht sie fest: die Shortlist für den DAM Preis 2021. Das Deutsche Architekturmuseum (DAM) in Frankfurt am Main vergibt diese Auszeichnung seit 2007 jährlich. DOM publishers ist seit längerer Zeit Partner – auf allen Etappen des Wegs. Es beginnt im Herbst mit dem Architekturführer Deutschland von Christina Gräwe, Peter Schmal und Yorck Förster (Bild 1), dessen Ausgabe für 2021 in diesen Tagen vorbereitet wird. Das Buch versammelt stets an die 100 Bauten zwischen Flensburg und Berchtesgaden und entspricht weitgehend der Longlist des DAM Preises für Architektur in Deutschland; die drei Autoren sind Teil der Jury. Traditionell wird der Architekturführer auf einer Veranstaltung bei Satellit – Architektur Galerie Berlin(Bild 2) präsentiert. Dann wird noch mal gesiebt, die besten Gebäude kommen auf die Shortlist und werden Anfang des neuen Jahres im Deutschen Architektur Jahrbuch (Bild 3) vorgestellt sowie in einer Ausstellung im DAM (Bild 4). Dort wird auch der Gewinner bekannt gegeben. 2020 erhielt die James-Simon-Galerie in Berlin den Preis. Und 2021?

Vann Molyvann: The architect who shaped the Cambodian capital

He melded modernist principles with Angkorian tradition to invent a new style: Khmer Modernism


Text: Kyung Hun Oh
Photo: Chaktomuk Conference Hall, Vann Molyvann (1961), © Henning/Koditek


In 1956, Vann Molyvann returned to Cambodia from his studies in Paris to find his home country electrified by a new feeling of creative dynamism. There was a palpable sense that the nation, newly independent from France, was seeking to reconnect with its ancient tradition, ‘to reassert its own personality’, as he told Moritz Henning and Walter Koditek, co-authors of Architectural Guide Phnom Penh, recently published by DOM publishers. Soon appointed as the nation’s chief architect, he went on to forge the new architectural identity of Cambodia in the early postcolonial era.

He had studied the modernist masters in France, above all Le Corbusier, and the tenets of modernism would become a central hallmark of his work. He made radical and innovative use of reinforced concrete and valued honesty in materials: ‘they taught us not to use architectural lies; if we used stone, they should see stone; if we used cement, they should see cement.’ Function, too, occupied a central place in his architectural thinking: ‘a building has to work and find a use, according to the habits and customs of the culture.’ However, Vann’s modernism was also, distinctively and unmistakably, Cambodian. He took inspiration from the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, drew on elements of traditional Khmer architecture, and incorporated vernacular building methods that had been developed over centuries.

His most iconic works in Phnom Penh include the Chaktomuk Conference Hall, the Teacher Training College, and the National Sports Complex. Each of his buildings is an object lesson in climate-adapted design. He frequently raised his buildings to enhance natural ventilation and used perforated panels, full-height windows, and filtered light to temper the scorching heat of the Cambodian sun. Water, too, was a recurring design element, perhaps most remarkably in the National Sports Complex: there, he directed rainwater into a basin beneath the indoor stadium to produce a cooling effect through evaporation and convection.

Vann’s prolific career in the Cambodian capital came to an abrupt end after just 14 years, cut short by the military coup of 1970 and subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge, which forced him to seek refuge in Switzerland. Sadly, many of his works from the 1960s have been demolished or altered beyond recognition. Preservation projects of recent years are attempting to safeguard his legacy. Only time will tell whether his heritage will survive.


This text is taken from DOM magazine, no. 2, from May 2020. Our magazine is published four times a year – twice in German and twice in English. Receive a free copy with every order in our webshop.