The Problem with Architectural Education in Africa is Rooted in Cultural Imperialism
Recently there’s been a growing global call for reforms in architectural education. These demands for change largely hinge on the disconnect between the kind of architecture that we design today, and the societies that we design for. In the last few months, I’ve read a number of essays on how architectural education has become not only outdated, but incompatible with the social, economic and cultural realities around the world. This is no doubt true. But, for architects in Africa, this is something of a double tragedy, as the profession is faced with both these challenges, and a mélange of others particular to our continent.
A few weeks ago, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), the higher education data specialist, released its 2018 World University rankings in Architecture. Just five African universities made it into the top 200. Even worse, the five universities that made the cut came from just two countries: Egypt and South Africa. This is a dismal performance, especially for a continent with well over one-hundred architecture schools. At last count, Nigeria alone has thirty-six universities that currently award degrees in architecture and this number does not include the several polytechnics across the country offering 4-year Higher National Diplomas (HND) in architecture.
The rankings, which were based on academic and employer reputation, research citations, and the H-index, exposed the dreary state of architecture education across the continent. Presently, most architecture students here are grappling with a set of almost primal challenges: unwieldy student-teacher ratios, overcrowded classes, and inadequate learning facilities. In Nigeria, for instance, very few students at public universities have access to personal computers; CAD classes are largely taught on chalkboards. Even when there are computers, the ratio of students-to-machines often makes it difficult for any meaningful knowledge to be imparted. (This situation is a tad better at private universities). Today, most local architects who are knowledgeable in CAD and BIM did not learn those skills at architecture school. They took private lessons and forked out extra cash to buy software and personal computers.
In Africa, the most fundamental problem with architectural education remains its contextually-irrelevant curriculum, one generically modelled after programs in the west.
While these issues are undeniably important, they’re not really the crux of the problem. In Africa, the most fundamental problem with architectural education remains its contextually-irrelevant curriculum, one generically modelled after programs in the west. Architecture students here are taught mainly western architectural histories, theories and urbanism. After graduation they’re often unable to relate this knowledge to the local environment in which they practice. Even worse still, architecture education does not confer on local architects any special knowledge of Western architecture, because most institutions in Africa offer a watered-down simulation of age-old pedagogies. They get, in a sense, the worst of both worlds. This places local architects at a disadvantage, especially when competing against architects trained in Europe and the United States.
This context-blind curriculum is also chiefly responsible for the poor state of architectural research on the continent. Although there’s near consensus among architects globally that research in the profession is lacking, architecture schools on the continent fare even worse, contributing little to the broader discourse. Quite often, I’m asked a lot of questions about African architecture and urbanism by non-Africans, who are frustrated at the paucity of serious research on the subject. This is not due to the absence of intellect at these universities, but at the narrow, irrelevant set of tools employed. Consequently, it is difficult—if not impossible—to engage meaningfully with a second-hand curriculum based exclusively on rote imitation.
As a result of this education gap, many western-trained architects now see design commissions in Africa as a sort of low-hanging fruit. Hence they’re pouring into the continent in search of work. It is no coincidence that some of the most celebrated pieces of architecture in Africa today were either designed by western architects or African architects trained at western institutions. Sadly, African-trained architects are for the most part unable to compete for design jobs outside the continent, a reality that has further narrowed the pool of work available to them. This reality is pushing the best and brightest African students abroad, to architecture schools in Europe and America. Unfortunately, even this comes with its own challenge, as these architects often return home disconnected from the local milieu and sometimes unable to design contextually-relevant architecture that acknowledges all the prevailing environmental and social conditions across the continent.
While African architecture schools will never be able to match the enormous resources available to their counterparts in Europe and America, they can still become competitive if they played to their strengths by developing Afro-centric curriculums. These must be contextually relevant to the social realities of the continent and also acknowledge all the prevailing exigencies of its local economies, culture, climate, and urban fabric. Rather than constantly trying to reinvent someone else’s wheel, African universities have the potential to become knowledge bases for tropical vernacular architecture, sustainable building materials, low cost housing, and design in multi-ethnic societies.
By concentrating on its natural strengths and tapping into its profound ethnographic narratives, local universities will not only increase their competitiveness and relevance, they have the potential to attract international students and faculties. This pedagogy will also provide western architects with insights on how best to provide contextually-relevant architecture rather than the current practice of designing for Africa from the comfort of studios in the US or Europe, and then passing it down like an imperial edict.