Construct Africa is the title of the latest issue of uncube, a new digital magazine about architecture. Leaving much of this vast continent untouched, the makers focus on a handful of modestly sized projects in the Sub-Saharan region that demonstrate social commitment. 

Besides showcasing projects, Construct Africa includes a discussion with many of their designers about the issues now facing architecture in Africa. The background to the issue is an exhibition entitled ‘Afritecture — Building Social Change’, curated by Andres Lepik at the Architecture Museum in Munich, which runs until 2 February 2014.

All of the featured works are small in size and have been built. They include a cultural centre, museum, research facility, orphanage home conversion, schools, and a master plan to restructure an informal settlement.

Apart from their location on the same landmass, what unites the selected projects? The answer lies in the intentions of the architects, all of whom describe their ideas in similar terms. In particular, they want to reconnect with local cultures, to reintegrate traditional materials and techniques, and to revive the culture of building among people. That culture is disappearing fast as urbanization advances, and these architects are making it their business to see that it survives.

‘In the village where I was born in South Africa,’ says architect Luyanda Mpahlwa, ‘there is no architect or engineer — but people know how to build. They learned it from their parents, who learned it from their parents. […] But over time this understanding has been lost in the face of Modernist planning methods. We now have the opportunity and responsibility to reconnect people with local building conditions and knowledge.’

We see lots of simple yet clever technical solutions, such as the floating school by Kunlé Adeyemi in a Lagos slum susceptible to flooding, and a public space by Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) in a Nairobi slum stabilized by gabions, which now forms a hub for community amenities such as a school, playground, rainwater tank and laundry station.

Other schemes lend themselves to repetition. DesignSpace Africa devised a kit of parts and standardized components that have been used in the construction of no fewer than 50 schools on poorly accessible sites in the Eastern Cape. All of them are arranged around courtyards to create a village-like setting that enhances the sense of community.

In Ruimsig, a township near Johannesburg, 26’10 south Architects ran a training course to help turn local residents into ‘legitimate experts of their own living situations’. The residents then helped draw up a master plan to restructure the informal settlement, which involved relocating and upgrading 38 structures.

Will all this tapping into the latent skills of locals and devising strategies for participation have much impact in the face of rapid urbanization and social transformation, which are affecting Africa as much as everywhere else? Curator Andres Lepik is under no illusions: ‘Anyone who believes it’s possible to save the world with some well-designed toilets or kindergartens is naïve.’

That is certainly true, but the projects presented in uncube do demonstrate that committed architects are coming up with alternative models for architecture and urbanism that improve living conditions. Limited resources are no obstacle to creating good architecture.