Archive for the Africa and Middle East category

July 6th, 2015

Urban Rebirth in South Africa


Maboneng Precinct, Johannesburg

The skies threatened rain, but the streets in Braamfontein were buzzing. On De Beer Street, crowds spilled out of the ground-floor bar of the Bannister, a hotel with retro 60s signage. Across the street, the scene was even more intense at the Neighbourgoods Market, which every Saturday transforms a parking garage into the most fashionable spot in Johannesburg. Downstairs, a crowd danced to a raucous jazz band. Upstairs: cocktails, street food and clothes made by local designers.

This was not the South Africa I had been warned about by people fed on a steady drip of news stories about violence, corruption and urban decay. Johannesburg in particular has been the subject of countless sensational stories about crime and abandonment, but my visit to the city revealed something far more compelling: rebirth. For all its troubles, Johannesburg felt like a city on the up and up, a place with the hustle and energy of a great metropolis in the making. What wasn’t clear was how widely the fruits of its renaissance will be spread.

In Braamfontein, I wander into Dokter and Misses, a design studio run by Katy Taplin and Adriaan Hugo. The ground floor is a slick showroom for their colourful, eclectic furniture, most of which is made in a large workshop downstairs. “When we started here about five years ago, there was almost nothing,” said Taplin. “Then the market opened up and the critical mass started. Bars, students, cool kids, then the Nike and Puma pop-ups. It’s a spirit of creativity and expression that’s going on here.”


October 24th, 2014

The City That Built Norman Foster

HSBC under construction

The HSBC Building under construction

It was a typically busy morning at Chek Lap Kok. Thousands of passengers swarmed beneath the vast sweep of the airport’s white roof, duty free bags in hand, squirming children in tow. The line for Starbucks inched ever longer. Yet a cool tranquility reigned over the terminal. That was especially true inside the first class section inside Cathay Pacific’s Wing lounge, where besuited travellers rested against a Carrara marble bar, gazing out to a row of jets sitting idle on the apron. Beyond that, the mountains of Lantau rose against a grey sky.

When the airport first opened, Cathay’s flagship lounge was one of the boldest and most intriguing in the world, with an unapologetically minimalist design by British architect John Pawson – one far removed from the wood panelling and grandfatherly armchairs of most airport lounges. Fifteen years of wear and tear meant it needed an overhaul, and the architecture firm Cathay chose to oversee the redesign was a natural fit: Foster and Partners, the same practice responsible for the airport itself, which opened in 1998. “The airport looks fresher and more modern than many airports built in the last five years,” says Cathay executive Toby Smith, who oversees the airline’s product offerings.

Airports are some of the most loathed spaces in the world: crowded, confusing and beset by increasingly onerous security restrictions that make them feel like some unholy cross between a shopping mall and a prison. But even after a decade and a half of intense use—nearly 60 million people passed through last year—Chek Lap Kok is praised for its durability and, even more importantly, its usability. “It’s absolutely efficient,” says architect Eric Schuldenfrei, who travels frequently for work and conferences. “Even aesthetically, the airport feels light, and the materials are good, so it won’t age badly.”


February 27th, 2013

La ville à l’échelle animale

Friend of man.

Bobo-Dioulasso. Photo : Matthew Bradley

Il est commun maintenant de dire d’une ville qu’elle est à l’échelle humaine. Il s’agit plutôt d’un compliment, généralement, mais a-t-on déjà vu une ville à l’échelle animale ?

Je réponds oui, et j’y ai vécu un court instant. Il s’agit de Bobo-Dioulasso, une ville du Burkina Faso, petite en terme de population, environ 500 000, mais élastique en terme de distance. Comme les bâtiments sont pour la plupart courts sur pattes, rarement deux étages, exceptionnellement trois étages ou plus, les distances s’étirent. D’ailleurs dit-on, peu de Bobolais marchent leur ville, préférant le vélo, la moto et exceptionnellement l’auto. Le curieux réalise rapidement que c’est faux et que plusieurs de ces citoyens n’ont d’autres choix que d’user leurs sandales sur l’ocre et le goudron.

Ici la ville se marie à la campagne : l’urbain n’est pas certain de son identité. Du reste, comme le Burkinabé en général est massivement campagnard, on s’étonne moins qu’il amène sa campagne en ville. D’abord, sauf exception des grandes avenues, la plupart des routes sont en terre. Ensuite, il n’est pas nécessaire de faciliter la vie aux visiteurs par des repères clairs basés sur les bonnes pratiques en matière de circulation routière et donc comme à la campagne, les points de références visuels sont les seuls aides (pont, courbe, mosquée, gare, rond-point, maquis, etc.). Et enfin, rare sont les Bobolais capables de lire une carte, donc inutile de prendre se raccourci.


January 13th, 2013

Accra’s Backyard Greenhouse

Skyline of Accra Ghana 3

Accra from above by Jason Armstrong

With tree-lined avenues and hilltop views, the ACP Estate in Accra already feels greener than much of Ghana’s fast-growing, densely populated capital. It has the appearance of a comfortable suburb: leafy, peaceful and wholesome.

But the yard of Florence Benson is more than just green. It also boasts a constellation of oranges, purples, reds, yellows and brilliant whites. They are orchids, the work of a former civil servant who has turned her passion into an unlikely, word-of-mouth-driven home business, and who now counts a university campus and an innovative children’s park among her public projects. “Auntie Florence” emerges from the foliage to meet us in a flowing green dress, like the spirit of the place come to life.

Benson’s market is small but lucrative — many miles from the cut flower mega-producers of Kenya or Ethiopia, both literally and metaphorically. She sells to other orchid enthusiasts and to wealthy individuals, some of whom are willing to spend hundreds of US dollars on ready-to-go prestige plants. User-friendly Vandas, a culture that takes well to Ghana’s semi-tropical climate, are a top seller.

She is also emblematic of the struggle to create and preserve green space, recently agreeing to work on Accra and Spokane-based charity Mmofra Foundation’s Playtime in Africa project. Designed to promote educational and exploratory play, its plan features rain gardens, wild areas, performance spaces and vegetable patches. It is mould-breaking stuff for a West African city, and follows on from her work on the campus of Ashesi University College, founded by former Microsoft engineer Patrick Awuah. Both projects are linked to the green-minded Ghanaian architect Ralph Sutherland, an old friend.


September 18th, 2012

Revisiting the Fortress Embassy

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Architecture, Books, Europe, Politics by Christopher Szabla

Security forces intervene during the protests at US Embassy Cairo. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.

There are probably at least a few in your city, hiding on the upper floods of office buildings, secluded in elegant townhouses, tucked somewhere behind high fences out of view. Nearby cars’ license plates are sometimes their only identifiable feature. Whether embassies in capital cities, consulates elsewhere, most diplomatic offices articulate an architecture that often seems as if it’s striving to be as discreet as the professionals practicing statecraft inside.

The foreign bases of diplomatic heavyweights are another story. In New York, small island states’ representatives to the UN often share the same small office suites, but the Chinese consulate occupies looming concrete monolith along the Hudson River. France’s massive embassy in Berlin is situated right next to the Brandenburg Gate on a square named, appropriately, Pariser Platz (Parisian Square).

US Embassy Abu Dhabi. Photo by Ryan Lackey.

Few of these countries lay claim to more conspicuous diplomatic real estate than the US. Ottawa’s American mission stretches the width of a neighborhood. In London, the US Embassy has long been considered a blunt statement of the most disfigured principles of American foreign policy. And perhaps no diplomatic complex in the world is as infamous as the Green Zone, Saddam Hussein’s palace-cum-fortress from which Iraq’s long, bloody occupation was run; the current US compound in Baghdad is as large as Vatican City.

For all its recent stumbles and whispers about its relative decline, the US remains the world’s sole superpower. The size of its embassies reflect that fact — and so do measures taken to protect them. Walking through Cairo’s Garden City, home to some of Egypt’s largest foreign delegations, it was always impossible for me to avoid feeling intimidated — even as a US citizen — by the American Embassy’s fortresslike ramparts, its deep setback, and the security forces who manned roadblocks at either end of the street that ran between it and Britain’s also very fortified (if more elegant) facility. That lasting impression left me all the more shocked when, last week, protesters breached the compound’s walls; in Egypt, only military bases had ever seemed less vulnerable.


January 9th, 2012

How Tall is Too Tall?

Dubai's Skyline

Dubai. Photo by Zeyad T. Al-Mudhaf

The Burj Khalifa defies the imagination. It stands nearly one kilometre above the streets of Dubai, spanning a total of 163 floors — 209 if you could the maintenance levels in the building’s spire. When it was completed in 2010, at a cost of more than US$1.5 billion, it was by far the world’s tallest building and almost certainly its most extravagant.

That extravagance was made all the more apparent by the economic turmoil that shook the world just before the Burj was set to open. Dubai was on the verge of bankruptcy, saved only by a US$10 billion bailout from the ruler of nearby Abu Dhabi, for whom the Burj was ultimately named. With most floors standing vacant and maintenance costs as dizzyingly high as the building itself — it takes a full four months just to clean the windows — the Burj revived long-standing questions about the sustainability of super-tall skyscrapers.

Those questions are especially relevant in Asia, where seven of the world’s ten tallest buildings can be found. Another 30 buildings taller than 300 metres — generally considered the limit between an ordinary high-rise and a “super-tall” — are now under construction in South Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and India.

“It’s an ego thing,” says co-founder of Singapore’s WOHA Architects, Richard Hassell. “I think a lot of the developers themselves have a ‘mine’s bigger and better than yours’ mentality. I think cheap energy was bad for architecture because people could basically make any kind of building comfortable, and that freed up the building to be anything they wanted it to be, so architecture’s become a bit lost in gratuitous form-making. The Dubai ‘look-at-me’ architecture. It’s a bit of a dead end.”


March 29th, 2011

Cairo’s Taxi Revolution

Photos by Peter Morgan (top), and MatHelium (bottom)

Hop in any cab in any city of the world and you’re likely to be treated to lively political commentary. That’s especially true in autocratic regimes, where the availability of other spaces in which random strangers can meet and speak openly has often been severely curtailed. Cairo’s sprawling cityscape, for example — segregated swathes of sumptuous subdivisions and mudbrick shantytowns each stretching out into the desert — rendered such common ground rare.

Despite the vastness of Egypt’s capital, car ownership is a relative extravagance, and the growing but incomplete mass transit system barely reaches even a fraction of the population, making taxis among the most vital forms of transport. At any given moment, the city’s classic, black-and-white cabs form a huge percentage of the vehicles trapped in Cairo’s notorious traffic. According to Greater Cairo’s General Transportation Authority, over 50,000 were registered in the city in 2005. Unofficially, the number is around 80,000 (for comparison’s sake, New York and London have around 15k each).

Most are third-hand Yugos, Ladas, or other now-obscure brands imported decades ago from the Eastern Bloc, their drivers often chasing down, often to the exclusion of keeping their eyes on the road, any potential fare they can find. And yet, despite their general reputation for unpredictability, Cairo taxis’ regimented color scheme is also what grants the capital’s sometimes chaotic streets any sense of uniformity and order. But it wasn’t until I was leaving the country that I pieced together their deeper political significance — with the help of Khaled al-Khamissi’s then newly-translated book, Taxi.

Enroute out of Egypt, at 35,000 feet, I became absorbed in al-Khamissi’s chronicle of taxicab confessions — the book is a compilation of the thoughts he’d gathered from the drivers who plied the streets down on the ground that was receding far behind and beneath me. Many began to replay in my mind when Egypt’s historic protests began in January. For all the debate over how and whether social media stimulated the Egyptian Revolution, much less attention has been paid to the urban social networks that reached many more Egyptians than Facebook. Like honeybees, Cairo’s taxis didn’t just collect the fares that were their drivers’ sustenance; they also cross-pollinate ideas — helping to gather and spread political dissent.


March 18th, 2011

Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, Hiding in Plain Sight

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Photo by Sarah Carr

I couldn’t quite glimpse Hosni Mubarak from my balcony in Garden City, but simply knowing that his portrait was nearby made me unable to shake the sensation of being watched. Not exactly towering over, but nudged by its rooftop mechanicals above the rooflines of the neighborhood’s decadently decomposing 19th century apartment houses was its home, the khaki hulk of the Ministry of Social Solidarity — more Orwellian in name than purpose. Mounted on its façade, the multistory banner depicting the longtime Egyptian president — slumping, casually, in shades — was what really gave the place its authority. I never encountered a more affirming symbol of Mubarak’s power than his pose on that photo: the longstanding ruler was so calm, collected, comfortable.

Dictators survive by avoiding blame and instilling awe. Both served Mubarak well. Russian peasants were said to have hated the czar’s officials — who constantly interfered in their daily lives — but to have loved the distant czar, whom they imagined, were he in touch, would ultimately set their lives right. Perhaps that’s why it was relatively hard to find, in Cairo, many more of the trappings — monuments, murals, political paraphanelia — that mark personally invested, ideologically rigid, and, hence, vulnerable regimes. It’s possible that, walking through Bolshevik Petrograd or late Maoist Beijing, you could have somehow put the omnipresent slogans and statues out of your mind, but in Cairo there seemed to be far less need.

True, Mubarak’s visage still gazed out from many posters, murals, and portraits, but their relatively low degree of frequency reflected the fact that his regime was more of a shadowy, bandit kleptocracy than a mass-murderous personality cult. Every classroom in Egypt apparently had an image of the president mounted on its wall, but they must have only made the president appear as a fixed, unresponsive certainty of daily life, or else an image that would recede in memories as quickly as algebra and playground fights. Many of the old posters were already fading by themselves. The bridges, streets, and stations named after the former president made him seem like a figure from distant history rather than someone who could be held to the consent of the governed.

By refraining from stuffing itself into Egyptians’ fields of vision, the regime also ensured it did not become a default excuse for the sometimes crumbling condition of the country or its inhabitants’ stagnant fortunes. That few, casual images of Mubarak produced — such as the one that hung from the ministry — spoke volumes about his removal from the people. As the revolution that broke out in January helped attest, they made the old ruler seem out of touch. Their isolation, for the longest time, made him seem untouchable.


September 1st, 2010

The Childish Folly of Dubai

Dubai from the sky

Dubai feels like it was designed by a five-year-old boy. What kid doesn’t get excited about the BIGGEST BUILDING EVER, or the WORLD’S BIGGEST MALL? And then there’s the idea of a SEVEN STAR HOTEL. Wow!

A real kid’s drawing would have these elements laid out side-by-side, in two dimensions. Drawings by five-year-olds generally don’t have much perspective or depth. Dubai’s recent urban planning efforts seem to lack them as well. Where else can you visit a city that actually implemented all those dumb ideas you thought were cool in kindergarten? And that laid them all out as ineptly as you would have when you were five?


July 24th, 2010

Beirut: Signs of Postwar Politics

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Politics, Public Space by Patrick Donovan

Beirut signs

Posters along the former green line calling for “real change.”


After years of foreign/militia rule, the Lebanese navy reasserts itself through this poster featuring a group of scowling teenage boys. “We’re back!” reads the caption in the lower left. Should we feel threatened or reassured?
June 21st, 2010

Cape Tin

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Politics, Society and Culture, Video by Christopher Szabla

A row of numbered tin shacks in Blikkiesdorp. Photo from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign

Nestled in a sun-kissed valley amid coastal mountains, pastel-hued, historic Cape Town is arguably one of the world’s most beautiful cities. So it’s long been a rude awakening for first time visitors expecting to arrive amid its sweeping vistas and colonial architecture that the N2, the highway stretching between the Cape Town’s airport and the city center, is lined by the handmade shacks that constitute the Joe Slovo informal settlement.

Nestled between the highway and the formal black townships established by the apartheid government on the Cape Flats, Joe Slovo was the result of the rapid population influx into South Africa’s cities since the end of racial discrimination in 1994 — and of the government’s inability to keep up with demand for housing, guaranteed as a right in South Africa’s progressive constitution.

In 2005, a fire that rapidly ate through Joe Slovo’s makeshift shacks left hundreds homeless. At the same time, the government began planning a permanent solution to the housing crisis that had produced the settlement, which was ironically named for Nelson Mandela’s first housing minister. Joe Slovo’s shacks were to be replaced by the N2 Gateway, a proper housing development. But first, Cape Town needed a place to put the refugees of the fire — and those whom it would eventually relocate to the N2 Gateway.

Enter Blikkiesdorp, officially the Symphony Way Temporary Relocation Area, and unofficially what translates from Afrikaans as, literally, “block village” — more often known as “Tin Can City” in English. Established in 2007, it was initially built to house another set of shack dwellers who had set up camp nearby — and it’s increasingly housing refugees from shack settlement and apartment evictions all across Cape Town. Enclosed by a thick concrete fence, constantly patrolled by vigilant police, its rows of numbered tin shacks have elicited comparisons to a concentration camp.


June 15th, 2010

Street View in South Africa

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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Hillbrow, Johannesburg

With the world’s attention trained to the World Cup in South Africa, it’s a logical time for Google to debut its Street View coverage of the country. People unfamiliar with South Africa now have a chance to peer beyond the stereotypes and get a look at the country as it actually is. While there’s only so much you can tell by looking at something on a computer, even a virtual walk gives you a better sense of what a place is like than reading a sensational account of it in the media.

One of the first neighbourhoods I checked out was Hillbrow, the central Johannesburg neighbourhood that was a popular with white yuppies and students during the final decades of Apartheid but suffered terribly from crime and poverty after 1994. As I dragged Google’s little yellow man onto a random corner, I expected to see derelict buildings and empty streets — evidence of the abandonment and lawlessness I’ve seen described so often. Instead I found a neighbourhood with few vacant shops and plenty of new investment. There must still be problems, but a new narrative has obviously emerged — one that hasn’t yet been told in much detail.


June 15th, 2010

The Art of Personal Space

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Art and Design, United States by Christopher Szabla

Nathan Destro and his “personal space protector” on the streets of Johannesburg. Photos by Christo Doherty

In New York, bulging sidewalks have led to the partial pedestrianization of Times Square and plans for something similar along teeming 34th St. In Cairo, fed up pedestrians often take matters into their own hands, competing with cars to form express lanes off the sidewalks of window-shopping meccas like Talaat Harb. And anyone navigating a busy scramble crossing like the one just outside Tokyo’s Shibuya station might feel like an extra in Braveheart, surging into battle against the horde on the opposing corner.

Ever since the concept of “personal space” was first coined in the late 1960s, the increasing density of the world’s rapidly urbanizing population has meant that it’s gone largely forgotten or ignored. Now, two artists on two different continents are fighting back — in a manner of speaking. As a Digital Arts postgraduate at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, Nathan Destro created a “personal space protector” to keep strangers at a distance.


February 21st, 2010

White Nights on Sharia Talaat Harb

Photo by Vyacheslav Argenberg / VascoPlanet

It’s two in the morning on Talaat Harb Street, the heart of downtown Cairo, and the sidewalks are sclerotic. People shuffle slowly past shop windows exploding with merchandise. An intense white light beams across the thoroughfare. Avoiding hawkers thrusting t-shirts in their faces, trying to lure them to clothes and sneakers piled in tables approximately every ten feet along the way, the throngs spill out onto the street, taking control most of the roadway, permitting only a lane or two for a line of taxis to proceed.

The scene doesn’t suggest it, but suburban flight is no stranger to Cairo. Its well-to-do are increasingly leaving the city center for suburban villas in the desert to the east, may now prefer to shop in tonier Heliopolis, or the cavernous (and, crucially, air-conditioned) City Stars Mall. Even a seemingly more entrenched presence, the American University, has largely decamped to a vast new McCampus on the city’s outskirts.

None of this seems to have affected the density of the crowd along Talaat Harb.