Conference Report: Colonial and Postcolonial Landscapes: Architecture Cities Infrastructure 16th– 18thJanuary, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon
Text and Photographs by Ola Uduku, Manchester School of Architecture.
This conference took place at the Gulbenkian institute from Wednesday 16th– Friday 18thJanuary. Its central focus was on having its audience explore research findings and aspects of post-colonial architecture and landscapes specifically from an infrastructure perspective in Africa with a primary focus on the Lusaphone African countries of Mozambique and Angola. Sessions however covered a wide range of topics such as the Chinese involvement in building projects in Africa and how to engage in transnational projects from a postcolonial perspective.
The Gulbenkian Institute was a good setting for the event as Lisbon in winter was best encountered from the urban oasis of the institute in its urban landscape setting. The plenary session on the Wednesday afternoon introduced delegates to the themes of the conference and ended with a lecture given by Helder Pereira, a young Angolan architect who was able to give his perspective on Angolan architectural history and the challenges of architectural practice in contemporary Luanda. He felt particularly exercised with the building industry and landscape in Angola today, but was clear that he was happy to work and contribute his skills to the new Angola in his capacity as a private individual with his own practice.
On the first full conference day the opening keynote session was given by Johan Lagae, (University of Ghent) who emphasised the need to join up and contextualise the research being done into the PWD archives of Angola, Mozambique and a few other former Portuguese possessions or territories. He focused on the non-completed railway network that would have connected Luanda with Lorenco Marques (now Maputo) and the evolution and execution – successfully or otherwise of other communication projects, and the need to collaboratively examine the histories. A honorary award was also given to the architect Fernao Simoes de Carvalho who had been instrumental to designing a number of buildings and plans in Maputo and across Mozambique.
The parallel sessions which followed covered a number of themes. The author contributed to the session titled “The Transnational Live Project: Critical Reflections on the ethics, politics and pedagogies of collaboration between the global North and the global South”, with Baerbel Muller, (University of Vienna) the Architects Sans Frontiers representative for Portugal, and one other contributor.
The panel was chaired by John Bennett and Peter Russell, and we concluded that it was possible but difficult to challenge the stereotypical student and institutional engagement and view of the Live project, and that this was an area which needed further exploration but that a radical change to the site project was required. The titles of other parallel sessions in the 1400 – 1600 time slot on day 1 included; Colonial Spatiality in African Sahara Regions, chaired by Samia Henni, and DeConstructing the Right to the City: focusing on Portuguese speaking countries.
In the second parallel session, themes included, Interrupted Utopia: Landscapes of Modern Collective Housing in former European (Socialist) Countries, Spaces in America Current efforts towards a non-Eurocentric theory, projecting Power and further sessions on Planned Violence and Deconstructing the Right to the City. The collective Housing session involved papers describing housing in Yugoslavia and how some of the precast design systems were adapted and designed for socialist countries including Angola due to the cold war connection with the post-colonial political party UNITA, the ensuing independence war meant that only two of these projects were built although countries such as Cuba had more connections to these systems.
We then were taken that to view the colonial archives and an exhibition of the infrastructure in the Belem district of the city, titled “Colonizing Africa”, were we had a drinks reception. Amongst the exhibited PWD photographs of bridges and public housing projects were also busts of Portugal’s unreconstructed neo colonial past.
The second full day of the conference began with a plenary session, where Paul Jenkins, (Wits University) gave an illuminating lecture on hard and soft infrastructure development focusing in Mozambique. He was able to trace the development of hard infrastructure projects from power supply to railway lines and then focused on road networks. He posited that the hard physical infrastructure need a soft (maintenance, services and planning) infrastructure approach to be successful. By taking a contemporary viewpoint he was able to demonstrate that new development partners, in this case the Chinese, and post revolutionary governments are yet to address the problem of having soft infrastructure packages in pace, to the detriment of current infrastructure being built in postcolonial cities like Maputo, with the Matende bridge and new ring road being case studies to support this theory. Paul pointed out that these projects as in the colonial times benefit investors and middle classes and rarely the masses who often have to ‘pay’ for development.
The session ended with further summaries of research projects being carried out using the newly catalogued archive sources, and then an honorary citation and award was given to the architect Jose Forjaz for the work he had done for Mozambique from the early revolutionary period to the present day.
The final parallel sessions in the afternoon focused again on a range of themes, including Single and collective housing in a modern laboratory in colonial territories, Infrastructural development in European Portuguese territories in the late colonial period, peripheral infrastructure in late colonial cities, and materiality and mobility in colonial landscapes. I attended the China in African, Latin American and Caribbean territories: examining spatial transformations around diplomacy and economic aid panel. Two papers gave illuminating accounts of the history of Chinese building aid in Africa from the 1960s to the present day. They both concluded that this involvement has now been historic, and despite having its tensions they are set to continue as China’s political relations and economic influence on the continent continues.
The last parallel session had a second panel on materiality and mobility, urban legacies, globalised regionalism, population spatialisation and control, and the panel I attended titled Beyond Colonialism: Afro-Modernist Agents and Tectonics as an expression Cultural Independence. The panel was set up to have younger conference delegates discuss their encounters with post-modern architectural images and landscapes in Europe (Belgium) and in Africa (Mozambique) and how todays tensions of identity and race are encountered by the public. The panel paper givers consensus was that this was still a problem in many European cities, whilst in Africa, the post-colonial city has not changed or adequately dealt with post colonial monuments of the past. Unfortunately there was no time to have the proposed debate about this.
The final panel session was in Portuguese and was unfortunately not translated so only a few of the conference delegates were able to participate in the session. We were told by those who were Portuguese-speaking, that some divisive views were aired relating to whether colonialization in Lusaphone Africa was a success. We did have a successful dinner to conclude the conference.
The conference was very focused, as was to be expected on issues related to Lusaphone Africa, but it did attract a wide range of delegates from as far afield as Brazil, China and Serbia. Its pre-occupation with discussing the material now available from its African colonial archives was welcome although most delegates, as international contributors to panel discussions encouraged the organisers to engage more with universities and researchers in Lusaphone Africa to “make sense” of the archival material now available and also to set up collaborative research projects in the same vein.
The exhibition Lisbon-Baghdad, co-curated by Ricardo Agarez, a conference delegate was also on show at the Gulbenkian Art Gallery during the conference. This showed the Gulbenkian links with modernist architecture and planning in Iraq from the late 1950s to 1960s.