Joan Razafimaharo is one of Madagascar’s leading architects. She holds a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Montreal and gained valuable experience at different firms in Canada before returning to Madagascar, where she runs a successful practice. Trano Architecture specializes in master planning, architecture, interior design, landscaping, furniture design, and branding. Razafimaharo is also active in architecture and urbanism advocacy, involved with think tanks and working groups on larger issues, such as environmental sustainability, affordable housing, social design, and public engagement. I recently talked with Joan about the unique challenges of practicing architecture in Madagascar.
MAJ : Mathias Agbo, Jr.
JR: Joan Razafimaharo
You studied architecture in Canada, then returned to Madagascar to practice. Beyond the obvious emotional attachment to your home country, were there also professional considerations that influenced your decision to practice in Madagascar?
No. In spite of a few months of internships at local firms and institutions during my studies, I knew nothing of architecture practice in Madagascar. We went back home very spontaneously. In Montreal, I was a working-mom architect and pursuing an MBA, but decided to leave everything to return home. In Madagascar, you tend to think: “As an expat, your skill set is badly needed back home.” Technically, you’re bringing home some knowledge, experience, and enough maturity to manage high-skilled projects. But as they say, “La nature a horreur du vide” (“Nature abhors a vacuum”), so while you were busy working abroad, these opportunities were filled by well-trained resident professionals, most of whom are foreigners. These arrangements are very common for programs backed by international funds.
Sadly, the private sector doesn’t care much for indigenous architects. This is a common problem we have in Africa. So, as a young African architect, you must train yourself to accept this reality. I’ve been in Madagascar for six years now and got involved in so many advocacies: improving building-permits instruction; creating building codes—we don’t have those; promoting sustainable architecture. It’s too early to say if our efforts made some kind of impact, but volunteering helped a lot with networking, so I believe returning home was the right decision.
You just touched on a very sensitive matter: The poor regard for local architects by the private sector, especially foreign entities in Africa. I have heard similar complaints from architects and designers cross the continent. How bad is this problem?
Coincidentally, I had an interesting, but also frightening, experience in this regard just yesterday. We were invited by a bunch of foreign consultants for a workshop on resilience and climate change training. The meeting room was filled with senior or midcareer engineers and architects. A few minutes in, they made us sit for a test, out of the blue—a four-page, one-hour test! It was maddening, because I was expecting a more collaborative way of working together. Foreign aid is needed of course; Madagascar cannot afford to pass on opportunities to get funds for education. It is the most sustainable way to reach development. Hence, I always take part, willingly, in workshops and seminars, from the most interesting to the most boring and time-consuming. But this time I left the room because they were clearly not considering us as their equals. I also left because I had student papers to grade.
Madagascar presently has no school of architecture. How has this affected practice in the country, and what are local architects doing about this challenge?
It’s true. We don’t have architecture schools in Madagascar, and most architects here have trained abroad. We’re currently in a very heated debate at the Ordre des Architectes Malagasy, our local association, around this topic. I’d rather not disclose publicly the details of these conversations since I have just quit my position as secretary general of the association.
Madagascar recently debuted at this year’s Biennale in Venice. How was this received within the arts and design community there, and what does it portend for your country?
The artist [Joël Andrianomearisoa] chosen this year is very well-known and is very active in the design community. Artistic expression is now trending in the capital Antananarivo, where there are many foreign-funded cultural institutes: French and German, but also Malagasy initiatives funded by European or Asian communities. We also receive visiting artists and send artists to nearby countries of the Indian Ocean and South Africa, mostly. But what Venice Biennale is offering is a window to the world that we never had at such scale. In fact, Madagascar’s artefacts were exhibited at the famous Paris Quai Branly Museum back in 2018, but it stayed at the scope of historical interpretation with colonial background. It helped Madagascar make a huge jump in its recognition as a country with acknowledged skills in artefacts.
In 2008, UNESCO inscribed on its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage the wooden craft of the Zafimaniry of Madagascar. How has this and other local crafts inspired the practice of vernacular architecture in Madagascar today?
The Zafimaniry region is very difficult to reach. Therefore it has not been too much contaminated by outside influences—that is to say, from other tribes and cultures. Madagascar is populated by 18 tribes that are different in practices and ethnicities, but share a common culture such as language and beliefs in Zanahary and ancestors.
The Zafimaniry tribe is very privileged because they could afford to preserve their culture thanks to their landlocked region. But they witness the same threats as Malagasy countrywide: deforestation caused by slash-and-burn are heavily reducing the stocks and quality of wood. Since independence, Madagascar has lost in 40 years more than 50% of its forests. Back then, highlands architecture was mostly made of a mix of trano tafondro, brought by Asian settlers, wood-based constructions with straw high roofing, and trano rotsopeta, built in adobe to protect from low temperature, as opposed to their use in Northern and Saharan Africa. Zafimaniry, the only known tribe with recognized skills in carpentry and wood carving, didn’t transmit their knowledge. Vernacular architecture slowly disappeared when Malagasy towns were influenced by European trends. What they call trano gasy is basically the interpretation of Creole House with masonry. Adobe or wood constructions are very present, countryside, but remain the architecture for the poor. We saw multiple efforts to develop technology around these materials, especially in the ’70s, but it remains very poorly perceived.
What has become the fate of Madagascar’s large collection of colonial classical architecture? And how much has it influenced contemporary design practice in Madagascar? Are there presently any stylistic architectural divisions or local shades of the Classicism vs Modernism debates in Madagascar?
I am the worst architect when it comes to debating around influences and styles. Having trained abroad with no background or prior experience with Malagasy culture, it puts me at the bottom of the list when it requires expertise in cultural preservation—or, worse, knowledge in local art or music.
In Madagascar, we can find Arabic, creole influences before colonial classical architecture infested the place late 19th century. We had a very beautiful period of Victorian architecture around the 1860s. Many churches were built by the London Missionary Society’s architects, and Malagasy houses were inspired from their techniques. French colonialism lasted 70 years and was very present in institutional architecture. Interestingly, commercial buildings are the most preserved today, since their owners didn’t change very often.
With help from a handful of Modernist architects, some from the CIAM [International Congress of Modern Architecture], the then-young government and Malagasy designers trained in Europe were very keen on developing the country. The very next day after we celebrated our independence in 1960, schools, hospitals, houses, etc., took life in new quarters of the cities. They went on taking further steps in developing new techniques of construction based on traditional materials—adobe, wood, etc.
Sadly, concrete and Brutalist Soviet influences took over the place by the 1970s, the most popular design so far. Even in the 21st century, we are still following the same principles: rectangular shapes, flat roofing, and absence of ornamentation. These are the norms from North to South in Madagascar, even though the climates and cultures are very different. I have doubts that recent Dubai-like buildings will improve our urban environment. Also, it is expensive and somewhat complicated to replicate.
Along with fellow architects Miora Raharivelo and Rado Rakotoseheno, cofounders of La Maison de l’Architecture, I was recently invited among other cultural actors to discuss the project of including Antananarivo’s old town in the UNESCO World Heritage. We were asked to talk about “Petite Architecture,” and the audience wanted to expand the debate to design parks, water fountains, bassins, lalankely (little roads), tohotobato (public stairs), etc.
What we see in this part of the city is four centuries of architectural evolution, but also generations of families that have helped shape their neighborhoods. Maybe the answer to your question remains in the social impact of architecture in people’s daily life. Today, people have their say, and they know how to communicate their needs. Whether it goes dramatically in forms of riots and places being burnt—ancient Town Hall in 1972, Manjakamiadana Rova Palace in 1996, hectares of commercial malls in 2009, etc.—planners should listen more and not just follow the money.
Most Africans on continental Africa know very little about Madagascan cities beyond Antananarivo. Which are the other important cities in Madagascar?
Antananarivo, Antananarivo, and Antananarivo. Our capital is at the center of the island and since the 16th century has been at the center of everything here. Though there are a few smaller cities like Fianarantsoa, which was created in the image of Antananarivo by Radama 1st. This beautiful city is also located in the highlands and built on hills. The difference [is] in its wonderful efforts of preservation of its vernacular architecture, an effort largely led by local association leader Jimson Heritsialonina. He helped owners of old trano gasy preserve their architecture in offering them opportunities such as hosting tourists or opening a small business in exchange for renovating with, and adhering to, a native building code he created and lobbied municipal authorities to ratify.
There are also a few urban coastal areas largely built from Madagascar’s very old traditions of commercial trades with nearby countries. There’s Old Majunga, which houses a very strong Arabic community and has tight relationships with Zanzibar and the Comoros islands; Fort-Dauphin, which was “discovered” in the 16th century by Portuguese and then Frenchmen; Tamatave and Diego-Suarez on the eastern coast are still very close to Mascareigne Creole islands.
You earlier mentioned that Madagascar lost nearly 50% of its forests in the last 40 years. What role does urbanization play in this? Are they any strategic local efforts at combating this challenge?
Madagascar is experiencing the same kind of demographic and economic crisis as most countries in Africa. City populations are exploding on account of rural-urban migration, as more people are daily moving from impoverished villages to earn a living in cities. We have very recently started to lobby around the concept of sustainability not only in forest management, but also in finding better ways of reducing our energy consumption, which is presently based on fuel and wood charcoal. This extensive use of charcoal is largely the link between urbanization and deforestation.
Threats to the forest and its biodiversity come from slash-and-burn, illegal wood exploitation, and, since around 2010, the displacement of hundreds of thousands due to drought or flood. Just last week, environmental associations and NGOs in the country made a call to action to protect two of the biggest forest reserves in Madagascar, with one of them losing as much as 64 hectares in a year. It happens mostly in the south and, sadly, close to protected areas. These people were not trained in fishing and depend on very rustic agricultural unsustainable techniques. After two seasons of slash-and-burn, crops don’t grow that easily anymore, and they move somewhere else, leaving behind a trail of destroyed patches of fauna and flora.
Featured image by Bernard Gagnon, via Wikipedia Commons.