15 February 2013

Namibia: Architecture Needs to Involve Artists

Windhoek — Both panelists and members of the audience agree that Namibian architecture needs more input from artists to make architectural designs and the buildings resulting from such designs more habitable or useable and democratic, human and aesthetic.

This consensus emerged at a public discussion, Art and Public Places, on Saturday at the National Art Gallery as part of the exhibition currently on at the gallery titled: Legacies of a Colonial Town. Many may not have been aware of it but such eye-catching and architecturally innocently looking monuments taking some of our public spaces may not be as innocent and purely artistically aesthetic as they seem for they are not there without an ideological reason. Panelists and the audience also further seemed to agree. The talk was one of three the coming three weeks inspired by the Legacies of a Colonial Town exhibition, which traces predominantly the various historical phases and faces of the city of Windhoek from the pre-German colonial era to the post-independence era. It highlights, among others, the political, cultural and socio-economics facets of the city during this period as well as the transformations thereof, which included such enforced transformations such as the demolition of the then so-called Ovambo Hostel. The exhibition also highlights such watershed civil-political happenings such as the 1971 labour strike in the country. The exhibition, which showcased as part of the British Council's International Architecture and Design Showcase 2012, has been running since January 24 and is closing on February 23.

The discussion on Saturday, since the National Art Gallery is now open on Saturday till two O'clock (14h00), attracted people as far a Katutura who were bussed in into the city. Opening the talk which consisted of a formidable mixed team of academics, activists and artists panelists like Papa Shikongeni, Alpheus Emvula, among others, University of Namibia academician, Andre du Pisani, posed the question whether monuments such as the Reiterdenkmal The Rider), could not be seen as inherently racist in view of the discourse of Edward Said on Orientalism on whose reading it relies. Heroes' Acre, the Struggle Museum, Christuskirche "and many other buildings, not least of all State House, attest to the fact that states in their different trajectories almost without fail, express their own aggarandizement, power and self-importance in the built environment," du Pisani postulated.

Adding their voice to that of du Pisani the panelists and artists Shikoneni and Emvula noted the lack and/or exclusion of especially African artists from architectural designs, the effect which has been the alienation of people in general, and Africans in particular from the buildings they were meant not only to inhabit but use daily for one or the other purpose. The buildings were in particular critique by the panelists for their impersonality because of the very lack of a personal, humane input in terms of their architectural design. "The premise should be that democracy as a political project is deliberative and it denotes the politics of the ordinary," says du Pisani invoking the philosopher John Dunne. "It is simply a matter of deliberating in public, or making the conceptual design, and tender processes transparent and deliberative. If one wants to know what a person wants or needs, simply asks, suggests du Pisani as a way of democratising public architecture.

There seems consensus among both the panelists and members of the audience that indeed current architecture needs democratisation not only in terms of more public input into architectural designs if building which are the subject of such designs are to have a democratic and human face, but the question also arose as to whether there was any public space that the public could claim as own and own it, and if the few that may exists are not quickly being defaced?

Legacies of a Colonial Town seeks to trace the complexity of production of space throughout Namibia's history. A timeline-collage of historical images, maps and drawings juxtaposed with contemporary aspects of the city and its architecture and its inhabitation. This exposes some of the lasting legacies of Namibia's colonial history, and the contrasting spatial realities that define the contemporary, post colonial city.

The project is being commissioned and funded by the Directorate of Arts in the Ministry of Youth, National Service, Sport and Culture, with further funding from the British Council. The Department of Architecture, Polytechnic of Namibia, is responsible for the overall development and production of the exhibition.

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