Updated: Mar 4, 2020
Why world-renowned architect and urbanist, Rem Koolhaas, his think tank AMO and the architectural department of the University of Nairobi are urgently turning their attention to the rural spaces of East Africa.
By Rand Pearson
In the Big Cities across Africa, in places such as Lagos, Cairo and Johannesburg, young professionals like 24 year-old Sam Munene in Nairobi, are suffering from a self-imposed urban tyranny, or what might be called an ‘industrial disease’— an imagined aching malaise caused by the chaotic drudgery of city life.
Munene works a 12-hour shift at a tech start up, living the dream of a cutting edge existence at his company’s swanky Euro-styled co-working space in the heart of Silicon Savannah. You may know a Munene. For his dream, he pays dearly: one-hour commutes each way and a shoebox apartment in South C that he can barely afford on his entry-level salary. The free time he gets on weekends is devoted to furthering his career or occasionally having a beer with mates after work at overpriced bars in Westlands. At the end of the month, after he’s sent the rest of his earnings upcountry to his grandmother, he cooks a packet of Ramen noodles over a hot plate in his closet-sized kitchen. And over that cup of Ramen, his mind drifts nostalgically to his ancestral plot outside of Meru to which he fantasizes going next long weekend in order to escape the mounting pressures of the city and breathe fresh air once again. Maybe, he thinks to himself, he can go back there one day and set up some type of Agri or Fin-tech business of his own. What he doesn’t yet realize is that his idyllic vision, this understood balance between city and nature, is also quickly becoming the same urban nightmare from which he wants to ultimately escape.
Munene’s story is representative of a 60 percent slice of young people (18 to 34 years-old) living in Nairobi today. With 200,000 people moving into the Nairobi CBD each year, accelerating congestion, pollution and the affordable housing crisis, the plight of Munene’s daily life and those like him is likely to get worse before it gets any better.
The U.N. projects that by 2050, 70 percent of humanity will live in cities, and that more than half of global population growth between now and 2050 is expected to occur in Africa. By 2060, African cities will have more than doubled in population—more people, more cities, more congestion…more, more, more.
How do we get off the ever-faster spinning, gleaming carousel of the city, take a breath and look ahead to how we want to shape our lives? One of the greatest critical thinkers and designers of a generation, Rem Koolhaas, would say the answer may well lie in the forgotten or ignored ‘countryside’ of this world and imagining, or perhaps re-imagining, what future we see for this vast landscape.
“Are we really heading to an absurd outcome where the vast majority of mankind lives in only two percent of the earth’s ‘over-populated’ surface and that the remaining 98 percent would be inhabited by only one-fifth of humanity, staying there to serve them [the cities]?" asks Koolhaas.
"In the past decade, I have noticed that while much of our energies and intelligence have been focused on the urban areas of the world, the countryside has changed dramatically under the influence of global warming, the market economy, American tech companies, African and European initiatives, Chinese politics, and other forces. This story is largely untold.”
These are some of the big themes driving Koolhaas’s recently opened Guggenheim exhibition Countryside, The Future?. The exhibit is co-authored by his firm’s think tank, AMO, its director, Samir Bantal, and a host of global contributors including two University of Nairobi lecturers in architecture, who also run their own private practices, Dr. Linda Nkatha Gichuyia and Etta Madete, alongside a raft of UoN architectural and design students.
In what could well be called the world’s largest info-graphic of mixed media and meta-data spanning eight floors of the Guggenheim - or about eight New York City blocks - the show covers the history and future of our complicated relationship between urban places and nature. It encompasses over five years of research from every continent and may well take as many years to unravel it as it took the curators to produce it. But the general consensus of the exhibition’s content seems to regard the world’s countryside as a fully un-explored opportunity for all of humankind.
“It’s the strangest thing, ever since we invented the city, we’ve been leaving the countryside,” says Bantal. “The agenda of the show and the Kenya installation is to put the countryside back on the agenda. To make sure that people understand that this imbalance between city and country needs to be corrected and that if we talk about the city, we cannot do that without thinking about the consequences in the countryside. Countryside has proven to be humanity’s imminent future.”
The co-authors of the Kenya/East Africa installation, entitled Ocha: African Avant-Garde, sees the countryside as “an opportunity to plant seeds of a new life, different from the generation before us but rooted in old ancestral grounds.” And they go on to explain a leap of faith that Kenyans, particularly young Kenyans, must take in no longer regarding the Kenya countryside as a “backward notion of farm life.” In their eyes The Village, our collective Ocha, is now “a voice of reason” and perhaps an answer to Munene’s zombie-like struggle in the absolutism of the urban landscape.
In the exhibition’s 350-page report of personal stories by the show’s curators, entitled “Countryside, A Report”, Gichuyia goes on to write:
“Are mega-regions, mega-cities, urban agglomerations the inevitable fate of East Africa? I wonder whether this status on the ‘inevitability’ of urbanization is robbing us of a chance to ‘see with innocence’ what is actually happening in the leftover space—the countryside regions of East Africa?”
Madete, on the other hand, sees un-intended benefits rising from the chaos. “As cities have grown and the population becomes more educated, this advancement (in urbanization) breathes life, hope and growth into our rural homes. Many of my generation are starting to invest back into their homes due to the high cost of living in Kenyan cities, other urban pressures and rural nostalgia.”
However, the reality of Kenya’s relationship to countryside is more complicated than a growing nostalgia for going back to the farm or preserving the escape routes from a crushing urban routine. The truth is most Africans – young Africans in particular -- are in love with their cities, and for at least one generation have left their family farms behind in hopes of a better life. The city possesses it’s own magic and attraction as a creative playground—a place to discover one’s own upper limits of possibilities. For this, Nairobi is a vibrant cultural gateway, teeming with art, music, film, and thumping with international heart at the center of East Africa.
We love our cities, at scale. We value bigness - or at least that is the message cast by our leaders and planners and investors. Take a look at many of the newly devolved county websites or social media pages, and there is an image of some sort of futuristic city or development. Machakos and it’s provincial governor, Alfred Mutua, for instance, infamously envisions the replication of a Dubai-like city complete with 20 skyscrapers, an F1 raceway and Africa’s largest amphitheater, spread over thousands of 'greenfield' acres at a cost of KSh 1.8 trillion.
This and other envisioned mega-planned cities across Kenya points to an ever-increasing love affair with modern, Westernized urban developments with giant, shiny buildings that seem to proudly tell its residents that despite 16 million Kenyan citizens in poverty and sprawling slums across the nation, we are not third world, anymore, if we ever were. And the thirst for this type of urbanization across Kenya is at the top of the national 2030 agenda:
“We must now turn to the politics of development,” said President Kenyatta at a Machakos investor rally in 2018.
Kenya's Futuristic City Renderings, from left: Machakos, Tatu City, Konza City
Nowhere is this sentiment more seen and felt than in Nairobi. Just as construction of the Chinese-built, KSh 40 billion, 184m-tall Avic Tower complex is set to complete in the next few months, one can look down from Upper Hill across Nairobi’s skyline chocked-full of towering construction cranes and imagine this image of a bustling, muscular city being Kenya’s emerging sense of a global cultural identity that resonates the idea that one day Nairobi will be the New York City or Hong Kong of Africa—the same philosophy that has given birth to tech-scapes, such as Tatu City and Konza City. As we beat everyone in marathons, let’s also beat them at designing Afro-Futuristic, sci-fi cities.
The underlining implied narrative of these sparkling new Kenya metropolises seems to say, the vast open plains of Athi River or the border estates at the edges of the counties all over Kenya are just there to house more mega-cities, or to be developed at the will of the land owner.
Despite what then Minister of Lands, Charity Ngilu, described in the Ministry’s published report, National Spatial Plan 2015—2045, as “an integrated approach to development in order to address the intertwined problems of regional imbalances, skewed development and unsustainable human settlements,” Gichuyia sees a much different picture. She is witnessing Kenya’s countryside going, in her words, “completely rogue” through an unmanaged system of generational land subdivision and a lack of big picture design.
“In this sense of considering the urban and the countryside, we see that most urban areas (around the world) have master plans,” says Gichuyia. “Master plans that cut across how to balance infrastructure and services, balance energy, water, waste management, road networks with demand. And you see all these master plans done for just the two percent of the land that urban areas occupy. But we don’t think in the same way about the countryside.”
For Gichuyia the answer posed by the exhibit, Countryside, The Future? lies in organizing all the layers of the countryside into a single vision unique to the needs and culture of each area.
The brains behind the Kenya 'Ocha' insights.
From left: Dr. Linda Nkatha Gichuyia and Etta Madete
“To find a balance as Rem and AMO rightly point to – finding this balance between urban-life and country-life is critical to Kenya’s future," says Gichuyia. "We still need these wide-open spaces, we need the national reserves for tourism, we need huge expansions of land to run our agriculture, we need land that remains open that we consider countryside. But we need a very rationale way of achieving this good mix of all these elements, between urbanization, industrialization, preservation and countryside. And most importantly we need leadership thinking about regional master planning and not just random planning (or no planning) where anything goes.”
Because of the unique challenges and opportunities facing Africa’s countryside, Koolhaas and his team of brilliant architects, critical thinkers, academics and writers are turning to East Africa, because in their view there is still time to affect this next phase of African development in the next century by examining and questioning alternative and sustainable models of development for both city and country. And, in their view, Kenya has the talent and opportunity to lead this critical investigation.
“I think the beauty of Africa is that there is a solid and very responsible way of teaching architecture, which to some extent in America and Europe has been not quite abandoned, but is much less rigorous,” says Koolhaas. “So that is really a beautiful discovery; that you can look in a rigorous way at the substance of Africa, and what, for instance, an African village means and how the African village is evolving under the pressure of globalization, or the pressure of the Chinese presence, the pressure of the Chinese Railway, and of course the pressure of tourism. Or to what extent (the African village) is benefitting from these elements. There is a kind of tension between coping, exploiting and benefiting.”
Driving the inquiry into Africa, by Koolhaas and his team, are a central set of questions: is Africa programmed to move most of its inhabitants to large metropolises; is that actually a necessity; and is this actually what Africans think, or want? “In that sense we were modest in our ambitions, and we were really curious how Africans, themselves, respond to their possibilities,” says Koolhaas. “On the Kenya wall, it seems that devolution, which is a call to emancipate the decision-making process with regard to the countryside, is only leading to a fantasy of multiple metropolises in the countryside.”
There is a general feeling amongst the OMA/AMO team that Africa is critical to any future world plan, because there is still a vast countryside left to explore, and Africa is at a major turning point in reconciling the relationship between city and countryside.
“I think the largest opportunity that we have right now is how to deal with this (subject) in Africa in the next coming decades. We need to actually find another answer, rather than simply surrendering to these larger and larger cities,” says Bantal.
As the pressures of Nairobi build, time is running out for Sammy Munene’s ability to cope, and for the countryside of his dreams to remain this idyllic, fresh air retreat and future ancestral home. Something will have to give. Either he will continue to endure a worsening urbanization, or he will try and understand how to reconnect to his Ocha in such a way that will improve his quality of life in the city, or find ways to build his tech career in the countryside. Mobile money and high-speed internet has made it easier for urban youth to work and live in the countryside, and the opportunities in Agritech and Energy sectors are making living in rural settlements more attractive.
But Kenya’s immediate mass urbanization future and the very real affects of climate change wait for no one.
“There are two really suggestive maps in the exhibition that start with the realization and also the statement that at this point it has become very clear that either the world turns into a hell; or, if there is almost a believable amount of intelligence breaking out at the same time we can do something about it,” says Koolhaas. “And as part of what we do about it there has to be an enormous increase in the percentage of nature that we keep, no matter in what way, where we distribute it, how we inhabit it…so that drastic change is on the horizon, no matter what.”
(Editor’s note: In the next edition of The Future of Our Ocha, we dig into the content and substance of the Kenya installation and unravel its meaning and implication for East Africa’s rich countryside.)