Monday, October 29, 2012

Boidus- Importance of Memory and History in Planning

A few years back I wrote a couple of articles for a local paper about the importance of Culture and Identity and also touched upon the equally important issue of History.

I also quoted Sir Seretse Khama’s famous statement that we cannot understand where we are going, if we don’t know from where we are coming. Hence, we cannot build a future with identity without the proper visual artefacts of our history and culture, in my opinion. And her I take rather recent history as often important to connect with the past.

We cannot treat our few landmarks as objects in a china crushing stand at a carnival! We have now a situation of that kind coming up:

Let us start with a picture of a very famous architect, planner and designer from Southern Africa, well known and awarded prizes from all over the world – Jose Forjaz from Mocambique – the designer behind the first phases of UB (or UCBLS – Univ College of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland), designed and built in mid-70’s and opened in 1977:

Jose Forjaz – UB architect 1974

My story is – when reading a paper I see an “Invitation to Tender” from the Tender Committee, University of Botswana – “Consultancy Services for the Proposed Decommissioning or Demolishing of Old Buildings at UB”.

As some of it is already demolished and new, tasteless and bombastic buildings are the fashion, I immediately come to think of the few remaining original buildings from the early day of UB (when Swaziland and Lesotho were our partners). That’s the careful design by Jose Forjaz, internationally well-known architect that in 1989 was rewarded the Ralph Erskine Award for his designs. A Fact that R E pointed out when here in 1992 when having a workshop/seminar at UB, sponsored by SIDA.

Consequently we have a landmark in Gaborone that not many other African Cities have. But according to the Tender Invitation, now prone to demolishing! Minus another landmark so to say if you have followed my earlier essays.

However, I got a message from Killion Mokwete, architect and lecturer at the UB dept for architecture (furthermore the editor of Boidus Focus).

His message to me simply said – “the demolition has been suspended after a colleague started a petition which gained a lot of support from staff and students”. Well and fine, but...

It’s a good first step but hardly the last – an academic tender committee has as many lives as a cat! So I read the message as “temporarily suspended” and the committee will probably be lobbying with various authorities. And as far as I know, UB doesn’t have to ask for planning and building permission, just notify about the start of the project, as far as I know.

We are in fact dealing with the Ministry of Education here, not City Council and the Town & Country Planning Board. Thus, I think the anti-demolition activists must see that the famous old buildings will have a “building preservation order” from the Minister in charge.

I see it, the future for the landmark is still uncertain – keep fighting at the grassroots and involve the antiquarians at the Museum!

I find it important for the future that we follow SSK’s statement – UB is an important part of Gaborone (and Botswana) and has a history of its own. And that history must be made visual to students, teachers and visitors by preserving more than one or two buildings – there is a living environment to be preserved!

And wouldn’t it be fair by UB to contact the architect and ask him for advice. Maybe he can incorporate the old parts into some new concept while keeping a creative view on history and identity? That’s normally done when the architect is still alive and active.

Let me now give you some few words in general about History, Culture and Identity - how important the issues are, especially when we are coming to a “renewal situation”.

A renewal and the ever ongoing expansion of the City don’t start with a blank slate or panel. It is always primed by topography, existing objects and history. It is unthinkable to imagine that an established university of reputation (and, thus, ranking) would demolish old buildings to create new – they mostly don’t have the finance for that – do we have that

Impotent two-variable thinking has already cost a fortune to Botswana. For instance the de-construction of easily upgradable roundabouts to horrible non-functional robotized four way stops. I have written a lot about this in other articles, but to no avail. I only hope that the unfortunate financial recession will put a stop to this frenzy so we can mildly upgrade the ones left for us (as memory of earlier times).

Let me finish with an example how history and previous use of land for agricultural purposes also can determine the future use and planning. Almost all existing “expansion” land outside cities, towns and major settlements have been divided up in fields and used for crop production since many generations.

Consequently, they have a history and certain conditions that must be understood by the planners. Fields are “”belonging” to somebody, have distinct borders, often with drains, tracks and some trees. The fields have soil conditions peculiar to planting. Tracks are compacted and drains clayish. 

We often see plans produced by either DTRP or consultants (working in accordance with DTRP orders – remember, this authority has the most un-experienced planners you can find – often employed straight from university). If you check new detailed plans, you mostly find iron-grid layouts with no reference to the existing fields or topography. It’s like a big brother from government will come in with a bag of millions and prepare for the infrastructure.

But development on tribal land is seldom Council or GoB-funded like the old Accelerated Land Servicing Programmes for towns. They are Land Board based and there is hardly any project finance. The development must evolve bit by bit over time and for many years, the new settlers must suffer from no constructed roads, drains and probably no sewers.

Furthermore, the overworked LB surveyors must deal with a lot of claims from “landowners” that have a corner here and there cut off. And new plot owners must build houses partly on an old field, partly over a ditch or an old track. Knowing the situation at LB’s, this is not feasible.

If the development had been “field by field”, tracks kept for transportation and ditches for storm water disposal, and existing vegetation intact, we have a more pragmatic and rational development in tune with the history of the place – the spirit of the place, called.

A paper on this methodology has been presented by me many years ago but can’t even be found in the DTRP library, today.

Bad methodologies cost government a lot of money – I don’t like to say this but fortunately we have to Change, just like in USA. And like there – it’s most important to find housing concepts better than the “bungalow” one!

Jan Wareus

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