November 23 2016 2Comments

All 21st century cities look the same.

Jean-Marie Kamiya is one of the handful of Rwandan architects working in the country, and his firm, GMK Architects, is heavily involved in the Kigali Master Plan. Educated in Congo and the US, Kamiya is a stately, imposing man, softened by his wide, bright-white smile.

I paid a visit to GMK, which is responsible for several malls, convention centers, and skyscrapers in the city, all built in the last five years. In the lobby of the office, glossy renderings of the firm’s work were on display. The buildings were clean and modern in material — every one made liberal use of glass and steel — but flashy and extravagant in sensibility.

Balloon-shaped glass roofs, spiraling steel facades, jenga-block story arrangements, curvaceous concrete walls. Several looked like five or six buildings of different size, shape, and style adhered together to form one schizophrenic structure. Each certainly required significant air-conditioning and numerous elevators.

Kamiya’s office had enormous glass paneled walls; he sat at a wide mahogany desk at the far end of the room; I sat in a folding chair about 15 feet away from him. After a long exchange of pleasantries, I asked him whether his work was guided by any Rwandan principles, whether he felt he was building for Rwandans specifically. He immediately took issue with my question.

“Is there such thing as architecture specifically for Rwandans? Do you see other countries putting a label on their architecture — this is Singapore architecture, this is Dubai architecture, this is American architecture? Cities today are about the same things: density, efficiency, economics, population growth. All 21st century cities look essentially the same.”

I countered: But what about cultural difference? What about differences in weather, topography, pace of life? What about creating spaces that people feel comfortable in, that people feel were designed with them in mind? What about using materials that are native and plentiful in a country, rather than relying on imports? And what about learning from the mistakes of previous cities?

Kamiya sat up straighter in his chair and cleared his throat, as though about to give a lecture to a misbehaving student. In the 21st century, he explained, these questions are superfluous to the task at hand. As the world globalizes, everything and everyone is becoming more homogenous. People’s lives are more and more similar across nations. The distinctions between cultures are becoming blurred, and increasingly irrelevant.

“Cities today are about the same things: density, efficiency, economics, population growth. All 21st century cities look essentially the same.”

So why assert some need for architectural difference? Architecture is about functionality. It doesn’t need to concern itself with the so-called “specific” needs of different kinds of people in different kinds of environments. Just because people haven’t always lived in apartments, haven’t always relied on cars, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t. “Sometimes you just have to push people’s boundaries. They’ll adapt.”

This is the crux of the widening schism between the practitioners and the academics. Of course, the folks at FAED would argue that architecture’s functionality is contingent on its consideration of culture, that cities must look different and must reflect the culture of the people that inhabit them. As Rwanda imports foreign models, should it not look closely at the telling flaws of these foreign models?

Jean-Paul summed it up this way: “Not every place has to go through the process of combining small neighborhoods into one big city, sprawling outward, building suburbs, relying on cars for daily transport between suburb and city, facing an oil crisis, and then wishing there was a way to turn back, to return to the small, self-contained, walkable neighborhoods of the past.”

Perhaps there are alternative paths.

This is an excerpt from a story by BY MEARA SHARMA titled “REMAKING KIGALI: A 21ST CENTURY RWANDA BUILT BY RWANDANS” that was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

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