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UIA2014 & de Volkskrant

Last week the UIA2014 congress took place in Durban -South Africa, titled ’Otherwhere’. It brought architects and educators together from all over the world. It was the first time it took place on the African continent and for many participants it was indeed the first time, hence perhaps the title. Due to its location, it was well visited by African representatives and in the programme the continent was reflected appropriately. There was attention for the specific conditions and context, for which the presentation of Francis Kéré was spot on. Perhaps the high speed presentation of Rahul Mehrotra was most inspiring, with a waterfall of examples that show how important a critical position of the architect is in projects that are pushing boundaries and create broad ownership. And most important: not to be afraid to revisit projects, analyse successes and be honest about failures. The presentation of Toyo Ito came as a shock and from out-of-space, after days of discussing how to operate as architect in a world in which resources are scarce, communication with and involvement of users and communities are the basis of a project. It was obvious that the feeling that architects have something to offer to a better future is back, but this was not clear from the projects that Ito showed.

I am sure that the visitors from other parts of the world will look at the African built environment differently after the event, although as city Durban is still worlds apart from many other urban realities in Africa. And most of them will look back with pleasure, because the organising team was fantastic. It was sometimes difficult to navigate through the highly complex event with a huge amount of side programmes, exhibitions, workshops, tours and social events, but the organisation was in control and made you feel welcome, comfortable, at home.

Recovering from the hectic conference days after the event, I was flicking through the online Volkskrant, the third largest newspaper in the Netherlands. And was completely surprised by the headline on page 22 and even 23: ‘ArchiAfrika is giving Ghana’s housing own face’. The article was based upon interviews with the architects Immanuel Sirron-Kakpor and Joe Addo, and sketched the impact of and opportunities for returning professionals in Ghana, as well as their challenges. It is of course an honour that Archiafrika is mentioned as a stimulus, but personally I think it is too much honour to make it such a headline and perhaps it is beside the point. Nevertheless it is good to see that there is attention for Joe and Immanuel and it is great that the platform that we realised is having an impact. This also became clear to me in Durban, where Joe brought together a group of high profile professionals like Francis Kéré, Mokena Mokeka, Mpho Matsipa and others, discussing the state of the built environment in Africa in a crowded hall with next generation architects well represented. In another room, I was involved in talks on how alliances between architecture schools in Africa can be set up or improved, what it can contribute to the next generation architects and planners and why it is important. In this, I work in close collaboration with the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and of course ArchiAfrika.

The article in the Volkskrant showed impact that goes beyond talking on stage and in the corridors of a convention centre, and reaches the professionals out there and in the end: clients, inhabitants, communities. It was a welcome surprise at the closure of my stay in Durban.

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