20th Century Urbanism and Landscape in Africa Conference @ ESALA, University of Edinburgh

The 20th Century Urbanism and Landscape in Africa conference recently held at the Edinburgh School of Landscape Architecture (ESALA), University of Edinburgh. It took place from 7 to 8 October, and focused on the subtheme of ‘Research Challenges and opportunities’.

The first day of the conference was dedicated to presentations by the four Key Note speakers, who were Dr Rexford Oppong of KNUST Ghana, Prof Luc Verpoest of KU Leuven, Prof Johan Lagae of Ghent University and Dr Iain Jackson of University of Liverpool. Although their presentations all brought the conference’s key theme of ‘Research Challenges and Opportunities’ to the fore, their various approaches and contexts had provided more divergent and interesting perspectives to the discussion.

The areas of interest covered by the four speakers ranged from Dr Oppong’s  “Challenges and Opportunities of Conservation Research and Documentation on the Urbanist and landscape heritage of KNUST”, to Prof Verpoest “Mind the gap: from historiography to [urban] preservation. The African case” and Dr Jackson’s “Research Challenges and opportunities in West Africa”. Prof Johan Lagae also presented a talk on the challenges of his on-going research on urbanism in Congo.


Cover picture for Dr Jackson’s “Research Challenges and Opportunities in West Africa”

In Dr Oppong’s talk, he presents the KNUST as a campus set, and much preserved in the Modernist architectural theme of the 1950s. However, the current state of its architectural drawings archives as highlighted in his presentation, need urgent conservation and documenting for posterity. He therefore gives insights into his current research in this regard, and the challenges of the project. One main challenge he sights is in getting the current University and secondary school students (who also played a part in the survey) to recognise the input of indigenous Ghanaian Architects in the building designs.

vc lodge

The Vice-Chancellor’s Lodge, KNUST Ghana

The challenges of conservation and documentation raised by Dr Oppong, was a theme which ran through the other presentations. However, in Prof Verpoest’s talk, he suggests that further strands of investigations are needed to be explored on the subject. Rather than being limited to buildings and famous architectural pieces he argues, researching conservation, preservation and documentation should look at the wider picture of processes, institutions, mechanisms and historical context. In essence, it should go beyond the built object as an individual subject of analysis. He therefore discusses this in the light of recent projects by Docomomo, where research is being done to go beyond individual building conservation to urban building conservation. He also explains how the organization is seeking to have regional linkages in selected African countries.


An image of Africa’s changing society as illustrated in Prof Verpoest’s presentation

Prof Verpoest’s  suggestion of research into urban, rather then individual building conservation, preservation and documentation in Africa and globally, is also seen to form the crux of work done by the third key note speaker – Prof Johan Lagae. In his current research in Congo, Prof Lagae looks at various types of infrastructure – Missionary, Railroad and Hospitals, but all within the wider urban form context and everyday living. He also looked at the Post Belgian period in Congo around 1965, and raises the issue of building production and technology – but again questions “where were the Congolese in all these?” On the challenge faced in his research, he stated practical issues of language, electricity, relating with local chiefs etc. He also notes the fantastic data and drawings present in the archives, but which unfortunately lacks infrastructure.


Picture of King Leopold II of Belgium in an archival administrative document on the Congo

Prof Lagae’s question on the contribution of natives, and poor archival infrastructure are two issues which Dr Jackson’s also raises in his presentation on Research Challenges in West Africa. With regard to the native contribution, he suggest that urgent work is required on the works of native architects in particular. While supporting the need for improved archival infrastructure in West Africa, however, Dr Jackson also makes a case for more fieldwork participation – arguing that “We have to get our hands dirty and explore…to create new photographs and records of the buildings”. He also suggest that further to such fieldwork exercises, the adoption of new technologies, like Drones and GPS need be encouraged to produce astonishing results. As seen in Professors Verpoest and Lagae talk, Dr Jackson was also of the Opinion that Architectural history needs to move beyond the conservation and preservation of important buildings. He argues rather, that research in this area become more inclusive of the intangible and the ephemeral, and sample user experiences and opinions. His talk raises several other questions on research challenges in West- Africa, including the theoretical base, further studies into Village plans and the PWD, art works and murals, architectural teaching etc. A most significant point he however raises, is on the need for collaborative research, rather than the lone-wolf and fear of plagiarism approach.

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Delegates at the 20 Century Urbanism and Landscape in Africa Conference on 8 Oct 2015; Left to right are Meshack, Dr Alex Brymer, Dr Ola Uduku, Dr Rexford Oppong, Dr Iain Jackson (on Skype), Professor Verpoest, Yemi Salami, Dr Ruxandra

Scheduled for the second day of the conference were two presentations to be given by Yemi Salami and Anthony Folkers. Anthony Folkers was not in attendance at the conference but had his paper presented by Dr Uduku The paper was titled “The Spirit of George Lippsmeier and His Institute for tropical Building”. Yemi, had only recently submitted her PhD and is awaiting her viva to take place. She gave a talk on the challenges of undertaking a doctoral research in Nigeria, and her paper was titled: “Challenges of Conducting a Doctoral Research in Nigeria: Reflections from my PhD work on “the Architecture of the Public Works Department in Nigeria, c1900-1960”. Here she discussed challenges ranging from very slow bureaucratic processes, to ill equipped archives and security and insurgency issues, as some of the hindrances she faced during her research. The symposium then held at the end of Yemi’s presentation, with Dr Jackson joining the debate via Skype.



  1. Good summary, however you need to add the concluding comments and initiatives agreed at the final session of the conference.

    • Yemi Salami said:

      Ok Ola, I’ll get that done. Sorry I was in such a rush to publish, I left that all important aspect out!

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