12. Big City Africa

The macuti blog is in Tanzania – yesterday in Dar-es-Salaam. The architecture downtown, in the city’s historic and commercial district, contains a form of art deco shophouses and apartments built by a largely Indian population and thus with Indian and some generally British colonial style features. The intriguing houses are now threatened by demolition to give way to skyscrapers in a booming metropolis.

Many of the shophouses have been transformed over time. Based on a superficial appraisal, it looks like some older buildings have been given new decorated street facades between ca 1925 and 1960, and some of the buildings newly constructed in this period. The typically three storey houses extend backwards with elaborate systems of corridors and airy open verandas, with tall staircases in narrow alleys to give access to the upper floors from the small backyards – and some times access to a covered roof terrace acting as a cool living room.

During colonial times, the idea of geographically and physically separating people of different ethnic origins for “hygienic” reasons, led to colonial Dar-es-Salaam being divided into a generally European part with government buildings and big villas along tree lined avenues, an Asian part where business was done, filled with shophouses and apartment blocks as described above, and lastly an African part with residencial houses and markets mostly in precarious conditions near the army barracks. (Next time in Dar, I will visit this part. )

Today the centre of Dar-es-Salaam is the engine of a booming African metropolis with 4 million people, investments coming in from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the rest of the world. The construction business is at the centre of this boom, with high rise towers growing up mainly in the old commercial district. The urban fabric of shophouses in human scale and with carefully detailed facades three stories high, is being changed to a skyscraper landscape in steel and concrete, covered with blue mirror glass and a different type of shopping arcades.

I immediately fell in love with the shophouses. Through a friends working in Dar, I was lucky to meet artist Sarah Markes  who has spent 10 years in Dar, documenting the disappearing urban fabric with her pen and with words (www.sarahmarkes.com, blog: darsketches.wordpress.com). Last week the beautiful book “Street level” by Mkuki na Nyota publishers came out, portraying the houses and the urban life around them now in danger of disappearing. The book is neither an architectural documentation nor an activist campaign for heritage conservation, but communicates in a personal style which only art can, the value of these at times collage type houses, and how they can affect you if you look just a littlebit closer when rushing through the city.

Architect friends of mine living in Dar are working with the Goethe Institute to organise the conference “Global City – Local Identity?” in Dar-es-Salaam in October, gathering architects and urbanists from the region to discuss the city an cultural identity. I am sure the shophouses and how to protect some of them against demolition, will be an important topic on the agenda. More info and call for papers can be found here:  http://www.facebook.com/pages/GLOBAL-CITY-LOCAL-IDENTITY/152306671505413

Some issues are similar in small town sleepy Ilha de Moçambique and in the big metropolis on the same Indian Ocean coast a bit further north – as they are in Northern Europe and in Asia. The scale of the shophouses and the proliferation of skyscrapers reminds me of the situation in Singapore many years ago and in Kunming, which I was lucky to visit more recently. Do the shophouses of Dar have the potential of becoming luxury boutiques in a “theme park” style historic urban centre like in Singapore, Kunming or many places in Europe? Are there other alternatives to complete extinction? I hope to be back in Dar in October to participate in the discussion.

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About Silje

Architect and PhD Candidate based in Copenhagen, Denmark, but working mainly with heritage conservation and urban development in Ilha de Moçambique 2011-13. You can contact me on macutiblog at gmail dot com
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3 Responses to 12. Big City Africa

  1. Pingback: 15. ‘Ostalgie’ on The Other Side – Zanzibar part 2 | Macuti

  2. Pingback: 19. Moz heritage in Dar | Macuti

  3. Pingback: 24. The Straw Hut Sculpture Park | Macuti

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