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Martin Robain: « Changing the way of inhabiting the world is much less stable in Africa »

Using the latest technology to create smart cities and eco-neighborhoods in Africa,  is the bet made by some architects who see in the continent a new cradle of all possible innovations. Today, Africa is experiencing many changes at all levels and architecture requires, certainly, deploying great efforts both on political, financial and industrial plans.

Interview with Martin Robain, a founder of the architectural firm ‘Architecture Studio’.

What actions are you taking to promote and develop African architecture?

As part of the contest related to the exhibition of the Venice Biennale of Architecture we discovered rich projects that we consider as the most interesting architectural projects among those that we found in previous exhibitions organized by us for the countries of the Arab League or Asia. Indeed, in terms of African architecture, we have learned a lot about the environmental necessity of this continent.

You hold the project of transforming two neighborhoods in eco-neighborhoods in Marcory, Abidjan, can you tell us about it?

We wish to transform two neighborhoods in the city of Marcory located in the downtown of Abidjan into ecological cities of the future. These neighborhoods are between two highly polluted lagoons and we aim to study them, then change them to get an effective result. They are both an area of ​​152 hectares. We study the whole community to redesign the city ecologically. Moreover, the project cannot survive in an enclosed space, but it must open to the outside and connect with the city of Abidjan. We also study the manner in which Abidjan can also become an ecological city rather than a concept of eco-neighborhood.

What are the problems encountered in African architecture?

In the West, the ecology is very abstract, very intellectual, even philosophical. We make great debates on ecology. However, this ecology is part of the African gene. In Africa, there is a strong relationship with nature, wind, sun and food. Indeed, in Africa, ecology is existential, whereas in the West it is not at all. In Europe, the ecology has to do with ethics. Africa will surely be one step ahead of this theme in a few years because it is already in the minds, although it is not yet effective.

What would it take, in your opinion, to further develop this ecology?

It would probably need funding. Ecology in Africa can be very individualistic and at some point, there should be a little more comprehensive reflection. The difficulties of obtaining funding have led us to carry out upstream studies. We prepare what we will achieve tomorrow and for now, it’s an investment on our part. However, political will is also beginning to emerge. It’s time to move to the implementation of projects. Moreover, each country has its own problems. The common concern  to most African countries is water. Indeed, it is polluted because of the fumes, but also because of the sewage systems in place in capitals. These capitals lack sewage networks. Ouagadougou, Lome but also Marcory … For all the big cities, water is a very important health issue. Ivory Coast, Togo are among the countries that decontaminate their lagoons. These lagoons are used as garbage dumps. Transport are also among the priorities to further develop the smart cities.

How do you finance your project in Marcory?

FASEP, the Study Fund and Support to the Private Sector, which constitutes a financial aid from the French economic and financial departments, allows us to make the diagnosis of this neighborhood and the entire town. From a technical standpoint, it is important to know the city, the different points of wastewater. From an urban point of view, we are currently evaluating the dwellings of the quality of transport and if there are important buildings to preserve. We start to get ideas on how to treat wastewater.

What is the future of smart cities and towns connected to Africa?

I think the smart and connected cities will have more opportunity to grow in Africa than elsewhere. Networks, satellites are very powerful. Almost the entire population has a mobile phone. This is a highly developed continent in technology. Africans have « burned » steps. In Europe, if we are to make smart cities, we must first erase the existing cities to replace. This requires a tedious job. However, in Africa, everything is to be done, and to achieve a neighbourhood, it will surely start from the latest technology. Change the way of inhabiting the world is much less stable in Africa, so it is much easier to change the architecture. This work is interesting.

Can we say that your previous experiences feed these thoughts, even if they are different?

We worked on master plans for eco-neighborhoods in France but also in Afghanistan. About smart cities, there are no direct answers. We are not in ideology. I think this is a set of responses that allow the development of future cities, green cities or participatory or places where the inhabitants will be connected to their city. Among the materials respecting the environment and  present in Africa is wood. It is interesting to work with local materials and recycled products stemming from circular economy. Africa must be sustainable substantially.

Will you use the local workforce?

We will have to work with local collaborators. We will work with people of the countries concerned. At the agency, we are already working with 24 nationalities. We also have the ambition to train stakeholders through work-shops, teaching architecture as in the school that we created in Lome. Besides, with this architecture school, we plan to allow a certain number of students to work on urban projects of the city. We wish to continue our efforts through this impulse transmission. Working with local staff in Africa in its diversity. Each country cultivates its own social differences, cultural, economic and architectural desires. Some countries are more prone to ecology than others. It must be understood that there are no standards to be applied to architecture in Africa. In Central Africa, it is possible to make mud houses, for example, and stone houses elsewhere. Ecology is working with labor and local materials. We must not move towards the totalitarian ecology but understand each of these 54 countries. There is no real model of smart African city.

Does the development of unplanned urbanization represents a  brake on the expansion of the architecture in Africa?

If there are no rules to develop a smart city in Africa, the architects were inspired by their background and experience, to develop rules. The fact that there are no standards allows more freedom in designing houses. This freedom of thought and standards enables some African countries wishing to develop innovative solutions unlike the West. It is also thanks to this lack of standards that we can find solutions. However, on the other hand, we must still normalize the architecture in order to limit the proliferation of unplanned urbanization. What is certain in Africa is that we can find different solutions, more local and more in tune with urban dwellers.

By Darine Habchi

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