Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation

African cities erase their history

Rivista Africa 24.09.2022 Federico Monica Translated by: Jpic-jp.org

Many African capitals are changing their look. But the restyling desired by the authorities involves the demolition of historical buildings or neighbourhoods that are considered obsolete, unfashionable, unbecoming or even embarrassing for the past they represent and remember. But bulldozers and pickaxes inflict irreparable wounds

Last July, the Cairo authorities began the removal and destruction of the last awamats, houseboats that have always dotted the course of the Nile and enshrined the unique relationship between the Egyptian capital and its river. Dating back to the time of Ottoman rule, these characteristic two-storey coloured wooden buildings with large terraces were allegedly demolished because they lacked permits and authorisations, as well as to launch a project for the redevelopment and 'beautification' of the riverfront.

The redevelopment pickaxe myth seems to be back in vogue in Egypt: only a few months ago, a portion of the so-called 'The Dead City', the huge and very old monumental cemetery, with mausoleums dating back centuries, many of which are occupied and inhabited by thousands of families, was demolished to make way for a new, large highway. A unique place in the world, where an ancestral cult of the dead and scenes of everyday life coexist, and which unfortunately is being reduced year after year under the guise of urban development and infrastructure.

Unfortunately, what is happening in the endless Egyptian capital is only one example among many on the continent: from Dakar to Dar es Salaam historic buildings, vernacular architecture (typical/traditional), symbolic and typical places are increasingly giving way to anonymous concrete buildings, the result of unstoppable urban growth and consequent building speculation.

In Freetown, the centuries-old krio houses - wooden buildings with verandas and dormer windows inspired by Mississippi architecture and unique in their kind - are fewer and fewer, while in Addis Ababa, between the destruction of modernist buildings and dubious renovations, the phenomenon has become so alarming that groups of architects and historians have begun a series of increasingly bitter campaigns and battles to protect what remains of the city's historical vestiges.

Facts that highlight the controversial relationship of many African metropolises with their history and their architectural and cultural heritage. Nothing new under the sun, just think of the devastation suffered by the Italian territory from the economic boom to the present day, yet in these contexts characterised by dizzying growth rates and institutions not always solid, the phenomenon of the historical heritage destruction is particularly evident and worrying. However, it is not just a matter of mere building speculation: the diatribe is also 'cultural' and pits those who aspire to a modern and efficient city against those who recognise the importance of preserving the traces of the past, both among insiders and ordinary people.

A past that in some cases is heavy. Very often, for example, historic buildings date back to colonial times: protecting and preserving them also means, of necessity, perpetuating the memory of oppression eras. This is how historic buildings or entire neighbourhoods are perceived by investors and local authorities as useless trappings of a bygone era, with a mediocre and dilapidated image far removed from the idea of the modern city of car-friendly streets, tall buildings, reflective glass. Losing historic buildings or distorting established urban places is, however, very often a wound that is difficult to heal: one runs the risk of creating cities without distinctiveness, without a soul. Officially approved and flattened on lifestyles, anonymous and mediocre forms and spaces, a bad copy of models developed elsewhere, unsustainable both socially and environmentally.

Are there exceptions? Yes, there are. Asmara, for example, has long since protected its historical centre, even managing to obtain UNESCOs recognition; in the same direction a new generation of African architects, urban planners and technicians, increasingly attentive to the rediscovery of local traditions in a contemporary key and to preserving and perpetuating the resources already present, is moving, scattered throughout the continent. A difficult challenge, both against the clock and against huge economic interests, but very necessary, since historical and cultural heritage is not simply a building, a square or beautiful architecture to be maintained. It is much more: it is the deeper, non-negotiable soul of a city.

See, Le città africane cancellano la loro storia

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