The digital camera, rather than sketchbook, became an indispensible aid to seeing the 53 cities he visited. In particular, the democratic rawness of the digital image appealed. “I wanted the experience to have the kind of naivety of anybody landing in the city,” he says of the anti-iconic images made on his personally directed research trips. “This is not David Adjaye finding you the best buildings and saying these are the gems.” Widely exhibited, Sean O’Toole chatted with the architect at a Johannesburg showing of his photographs, hosted by dealer Monna Mokoena at his suburban-modernist Gallery Momo. The conversation, which begins with the architect’s decision to use photography to record his research, culminates in a digression on the ethical limitations of architecture and the utopian impulse. Interview: September 29, 2010
My first question is, I suppose, process orientated. I’m interested in how architects learn, not formally, but experientially. I have two questions in this respect, the first a collegial one. Rem Koolhaas seems to understand architecture, I think, through writing. Robert Venturi and Paul Virillio photographed places and buildings. Le Corb used the pencil. Why photography?
I guess for me I would say specifically digital photography, because it is not photography in the traditional sense. I was at no point interested in becoming a seminal photographer of content. I started to use digital photography at the end of the 1990s. In a way it started to supersede the way I used my sketchbook as a student, which was documentation, learning – the thinking eye. With the advent and shrinking of digital technology into a pocket-sized phenomenon, I realised that I could be much more fluid about the things that I was looking at, which I was recording in my mind experientially and reflecting on when I worked; I could actually document and reflect literally through digital photography. In the late 1990s I was taking a lot of photographs of what I do generally, and it was around this point that I decided to visit the countries I grew up in.
I didn’t want to make emphatic shots; I wanted to document it without affecting the viewer or the thing I was viewing, as much as possible. It was trying to capture what my eye was feeling and seeing. I wanted to do what I call snapped, really fast photography – almost like an espionage agent. [Laughs] Snapping away like crazy. That for me became very interesting: it had a spontaneity about it, which captured the things that struck my eye as I travelled around cities and towns. That became the format. In my own work, I love the format, because digital photography allows you to be very disposable – I could take ten images of the same thing, five different zoom points, and then choose three that I thought were really nice. I love that freedom: I’ll shoot it now and check it out later.
It is the experience of photography now, the finger flicking through the iPhone album.
Exactly. That became a way of documenting the continent, but also a way of me documenting the continent without the gravitas of me having to say, ‘I am embarking on this epic journey to photograph Africa.’ I was not interested the nineteenth century Romantic version of, ‘Here, this is what the continent looks like’. Rather, it was, ‘Here is my snapshot diary.’ In fact, this is my snapshot diary of things that I like as an architect of the built environment. And instead of it just being about the things I like, I thought, ‘Let me systematically look at all the typologies that I experience’.
The history of the camera is about establishing relationships and typologies.
Correct, so it was a natural bedfellow. In a way, the way I think and work with architecture is experience and imagery. I am very influenced by experience and imagery. The camera is a natural vehicle for me to use as the device I negotiate with.
Did it entirely replace the sketchbook?
For this trip, completely: I found myself being redundant whenever I brought my pencil out. The moment was lost and my hand couldn’t capture it enough. So it’s actually flipped my whole experience of my sketchbook, because my sketchbook really is a vehicle for conveying what’s coming out of my head, my outputs, onto paper, rather than my experiences in the world, which is a bit of shame.
In terms of that distinction between the visual and verbal, I’m interested if you ever made annotations while travelling?
I did. I have a diary of every city, and I would always make sure I wrote my journal before I left that city so that it was an immediate reflection of that city. The diary also took the form of me really trying to describe back to myself, experientially, what I felt the trip had shown me, and what the different groups or typologies told me about the place. It allowed me to create essays on each city, which I would look at and work out the groupings, about the way certain places have certain characteristics. My own writings reveal those connections without me being a priori in doing that.
Let’s talk about African urbanity, which constitutes the nub of your project here.
Let me repeat that phrase, “African urbanity”. It chafes against the notions of Africa the un-peopled expanse, Africa the wild, Africa the slum, Africa the contingent state, Africa the irrational.
Correct. The project is really fuelled by those statements you’ve just made, and hearing those, not just in popular circles where I’d expect a certain ignorance from people who are not travelled, but in academic and political circles. I became absolutely frustrated. I was born in a metropolitan city; I was born in a cosmopolitan condition amongst different groups of Africans, Indians and Chinese – that is my beginnings, and it was in metropolitan skylines. I was like, ‘I don’t know what Africa you guys think you are dealing with’, but the Africa I was born in had towers, was very metropolitan; we knew different cultures and religions – this is how I started my project. I am really perplexed by this dilemma of the dual images, one being projected from the west, and the one that actually exists. Of course, there is poverty and all these things, but at the same time there is this notion of the city and urbanity. I felt the only way I could systematically deal with this was to literally demonstrate it. I used to deal with it in talks, but it needed demonstration.
The first exhibition that started to make that change was at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design where I just showed 13 cities strictly as architectural places. I didn’t show any bucolic, picturesque image. In a way, my aggression in using the digital camera is against the picturesque, which tends to happen when you point at a landscape – you start to compose. I didn’t want that, to fall into the trap of making beautiful urban pictures. I wanted to say, ‘You know what, if you stick your camera out the window, this is what you’re going to get. It is there, it is not made up for you to consume as though it is a certain fragment. It is everywhere.’
So, in a way, the 13 cities that I showed at Harvard was great; it is one of the best schools in the world, and none of these students know anything about Africa. It’s absurd. They know everything about Vietnam, Japan, everything about everywhere but Africa. It was amazing to see the to-ing and fro-ing. Ouagadougou was the big find. ‘There’s a city called Ouagadougou?’ Yes, and there’s a country called Burkina Faso – it’s probably one of the most literate country’s in Africa. It was amazing to have dialogue and show that these countries have connections and links to the world; they are not isolated places. That was a good conversation, and it made me realise this has to be more than just a show, followed by a disappearance. I wanted to systematically do this and make a book out of this. But it took ten years. [Laughs] I really didn’t plan the
timing of it, but it is impossible to do this sort of stuff.
You repeatedly use the word typologies. Africa is a small word for a big continent. From your findings, what ties urban patterns in Africa? Conversely, what distinguishes Lagos from Cape Town, Kigali from Luanda, Maputo from Bamako, Johannesburg from Tangiers?
On reflection of the whole journey, I started to understand that if you look at the metropolitan centres and capitals as just individual phenomena – what I call population density and GDP – you miss how to understand the nuances between them. I realised the way to understand the differences was to understand the geography a little more precisely. We’ve become so ingrained with the notion of the political map that we have forgotten the geographical map of Africa, which is actually profound. It is one of the most dramatic geological layerings…
Sean O’Toole is a writer and journalist based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of Cityscapes magazine
image credit: Barcelona Institute of Architecture
Read older posts from this section