The politics and power of buildings

By Jenny Lunn

Buildings are a part of our everyday lives. We live and work in buildings. We go to buildings for different activities – schools, hospitals, railways stations, supermarkets. Buildings host the machinery of our country – government ministries, banks, law courts. Buildings symbolise aspects of our culture – royal palaces, churches, cinemas, football stadia.

The geographical study of architecture has tended to be a small sub-field of cultural geography. Peter Kraftl’s article in Geography Compass (May 2010) gives an overview of scholarship on this topic, looking at the three main methodologies that have been used by geographers to study architecture and two prominent themes: interest in mobility and movement and the politics of architectural design and practice.

It is the latter that is particularly relevant in the light of the recent BBC documentary Building Africa: Architecture of a Continent (BBC Four, 27 April 2010, 11pm). Architect David Adjaye travelled through Africa looking at the continent’s architectural history and showed how buildings express the interplay between politics, economics and culture.

Whether Dutch colonial buildings in Church Square, Cape Town, such as the former Slave Lodge, or the Art Deco Cinema Impero in Asmara, Eritrea (see picture), which was part of Mussolini’s dream of a modernist city in Africa. Whether the concrete Central Business District in Nairobi – including the 30-storey Kenyatta International Conference Centre – built in 1960s and 1970s which expressed the hope and optimism of newly-independent nation, or recent developments such as the spectacular National Theatre in Accra, Ghana, built in collaboration with the Chinese government. The politics, power and symbolism in Africa’s built environment is a fascinating and worthy topic for geographical enquiry.

Read Peter Kraftl’s article in Geography Compass

Read about David Adjaye’s BBC documentary on African architecture

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