With a background in both practice and academia, Patti Anahory is an architect and urban activist who is embracing the narrative opportunities presented by digital media to communicate the stories, problems and potentials of contemporary African cities.
Hailing from Cabo Verde, Anahory studied in the United States. Her academic work focused on gender, political and social issues from the outset. Following a visit to South Africa in 1996, she began to engage, in her academic and professional practice, the varied and heterogeneous conditions of urban Africa; and, in her graduate studies at Princeton, chose to address issues around violence and space in South Africa. Subsequently, her Master’s thesis centred around a UNESCO international competition to locate a slavery memorial in Dakar, Senegal – a project which allowed her to further her enquiry into identity, socio-cultural and geo-political issues around spatial and architectural thinking in, about and from Africa.
In 2000, Anahory won the prestigious Rotch Traveling Scholarship through a two-stage architecture design competition, which presented her with the opportunity to travel on an architectural grand tour of her own devising. As only the second woman to be awarded the Scholarship in 117 years, she challenged the idea of a traditional tour to Europe by proposing to travel to sub-Saharan Africa, the first winner to do so. Rather than focusing on architecture manifested in built form, she reported on cultural uses and appropriation of space, and engagement with different practices of place making on the African continent. She travelled through 13 African countries in one year.
In 2008, following 23 years in the U.S, Anahory returned to Cabo Verde for a visit – and was challenged to take on the post of Founding Director of a newly established research centre in settlement, development and urban issues, the Centro de Investigação em Desenvolvimento Local e Ordenamento de Território (CIDLOT) at the University of Cabo Verde.
“One of my responsibilities was to set a research agenda around enquiries that we found to be relevant in Cabo Verde at the time. Because the university lacks funds for this type of knowledge production, the research coordinator and I had to sometimes draw on an amazing network of colleagues from the U.S, Brazil and around Africa – to set a lecture series on, among others, the impacts of neoliberal globalisation in Africa, the complexities of urban growth, sustainable development, housing, identity and land settlement. We also wanted to put forward further questions on the imported Eurocentric curricula and the paradigms used in academia to think about architecture and the role of architects in our diverse African contexts.”
However, it was not sustainable for the centre to continue conducting research without adequate funding. “This is a structural problem in a lot of African countries, where academics depend on political will to understand the long term priority of local knowledge production – but governments are obliged to prioritise the more pressing needs of poverty alleviation, healthcare and service delivery. So universities end up partnering with European institutions with their own set agendas. In some cases, there was no way for us to contribute new perspectives or for the university to benefit epistemologically from funding received.”
Moving away from academia in 2012, Anahory co-founded together with architect and urbanist Andreia Moassab, and transmedia designer Salif Diallo. XU: is an interdisciplinary art collective proposing a critical understanding of, and alternative integrative approaches towards, urban dynamics, architecture, environmental and inter-media studies.
XU:’s first project sought to provoke thinking around four particular issues in Cabo Verde related to environmental and social injustice and climate change – the impact of mass-scale tourism; the difficult access to water in a very arid region by the poor; the removal of sand for selling, primarily as low paid work for women and girls who have no other means of subsistence; and the collection of firewood as fuel by the poor.
A poignant example is the issue of tourism, where large areas of some islands are being taken over by all-inclusive tourism projects; and where, on the nine islands that constitute Cape Verde, four international airports receive tourists on a daily basis.
“Our collective of artists and architects uses artistic language to make commentaries on some of the strategies being adopted for our country; and to speak of socially just and ecologically sustainable approaches to development through other forms of visual language interventions explored in the virtual and digital world.
“XU: deals with, among others, the dynamics of rapid urban growth, climate change, and the models of development that are currently being implemented in Cabo Verde. Currently, XU:Collective is a small multi-disciplinary, collaborative practice, but part of a wider network of colleagues who are thinking about issues in Africa that have social and environmental impacts.”
Currently, Anahory is collaborating with photographer and filmmaker, César Schofield Cardoso, to develop an interactive online platform – – where architects, artists, sociologists and activists create web documentaries that interrogate the lives and work of marginalised communities in cities. “We have developed a methodology around knowledge exchange through participatory map making and various forms of self-representation that enable us to learn more about how people live and negotiate space. And, with the skills we share around film narrative and spatial analysis, people begin to produce their own knowledge and storytelling as an instrument of contestation as well as negotiation.”
The pilot web documentary, , was produced at the invitation of community leaders in Praia, a group of former gang members who occupied a building and converted it into a community centre, primarily for the benefit of children.
“It’s very much about the community wanting to have a voice and share their stories. In the act of occupying an abandoned building, they are claiming space in a spatial and political act. They are using space and changing the dynamic around it, which has repercussions for the entire neighbourhood. We hope to give them a place to continually develop their interventions, to document their spaces through stories and maps, and to represent their neighbourhood in a digital world beyond the limits of physical boundaries.”
“I believe that our training as architects allows us to make interventions which are not limited to physically constructing our built environment. Design and critical inquiry are tools which allow us to have impact in our profession and society in general. That is why I was very encouraged that the Awards Steering Committee chose to focus on values rather than categories. This approach opens up various ways of thinking about and being a practitioner in the built environment.”
Anahory is considering running for President of the Association of Architects in Cabo Verde. She believes that, in order to do any kind of advocacy, one has to be very involved at all levels by connecting with academia, practice, institutions and communities, in order to challenge and broaden awareness of what it means to be an architect. In this context, she absolutely supports a continent-wide award that recognises other forms of innovative practice and multi-disciplinary critical enquiry.
“I am very pleased that the entry process is through a digital platform. It is much more economical than printing; and young and emerging architects will benefit from the communication skills and visual tools learnt through this process. Speaking from experience, the more visually and digitally savvy we are about our work, the more reach we have.”