Ugandan architect Doreen Adengo is profoundly concerned with how city development is responding to urban growth in Africa, and the role of the architect in this context.
“The way a city functions affects everything else,” Adengo observes. “Africa is one of the fastest urbanising regions in the world and, as a result, we are seeing profound environmental and social changes.”
After graduating from Yale University, Adengo moved to New York to work and later to teach. One of her internship programmes, which explored development work with students, involved a visit to Kampala – and she was inspired by the challenges facing the city and the possibility of applying the skills she had acquired in the United States to this regional context.
Built for 50,000 people under the British Colonial Government, Kampala now accommodates 3 million people during the day and 1.2 million at night – an unusual situation created by the fact that most housing is located outside the city.
Adengo explains that, of Uganda’s housing deficit of about 550,000 units, approximately 200,000 are a backlog in Kampala alone. A low-cost house of 15,000 USD (Shs54m) is only affordable to 20% of the population that needs housing – accounting for around 40,000 houses in the city. The remaining 160,000 units would need to be social housing provided by the government.
She adds that rentals are almost equivalent to those in New York, and can be as high as 3,000 USD/month. The alternative is for people to either live with family, or to find accommodation in slum-like conditions where they rent small rooms with shared facilities – as there is no intermediate housing available to the market.
Responding to this need, Adengo set up an affordable housing studio with local and American students, in collaboration with a local developer who was interested in producing affordable housing. A fictitious client was created to represent the target market – a large and growing group of low- to middle-income people that includes recent graduates who have modest incomes but no access to housing.
“In the process of running the studio, we came across substantial challenges,” Adengo says. “The biggest of these was that the developer would need to provide sites and infrastructure for services; that no government subsidy would be given to this end; and that he, the developer, would be heavily taxed. At the point where we realised that the issue was not the house itself but the infrastructure required, the project came to an end.
“That experience changed my perspective and approach to the role of the architect. In Uganda, the architect’s role has to extend beyond design and technical skills, into the realm of advocacy. Architects are increasingly helping to shape whole cities’ functions, and are not simply designing buildings. I believe that this is a larger social issue, and everyone needs to get involved.”
Adengo is approaching the challenge of advocacy in three ways – through the classes that she teaches at Uganda Martyrs University; through speaking about the role of the architect publicly at Pecha Kucha talks; and by writing articles for the media. “I like the fact that the audience is broad, so I’m forced to think about how to deliver my message.
“In our local language, Luganda, the term for architect literally translates as ‘the drawer of the plan’. This definition is only a small part of what an architect needs to be. But the expectation from clients is that they can ask for a plan and have it delivered in a day or two. One has to explain the processes of site exploration, design and programming. And architects practicing in Africa also face the challenge of persuading their clients and the wider society that professional work improves the cities we live in.”
Adengo is now in the process of setting up a studio with the National Housing and Construction Corporation (NHCC) as client, Adengo Architecture as architect, and students from Makerere University Kampala (MUK). The studio will attempt to propose solutions for housing in the unique context of Kampala, where a growing population is building structures in the wetlands between hills.
The consequences of these construction activities are threefold – disruption to the natural filtration process of the wetlands which results in polluted water supplies; erosion of the roads and flooding because of poor drainage; and, because slums are typically located at the bottom of the hills, poorer inhabitants who encroach upon the wetlands experience harsh living conditions during the rainy season, and are vulnerable to health risks.
Adengo explains that the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), the governing body in charge of protecting the wetlands, tends to evict people without having an adequate alternative housing solution in place – thus propagating a cycle of encroaching and evicting.
The intention is for the NHCC to provide the studio with a test site in the wetlands, so that innovative solutions can be explored that address the housing shortage without impacting the natural environment. “I’m optimistic about this process because the NHCC is an established entity, and I learnt a great deal from the challenges in our previous studio, so I’m informed and prepared for this experience.”
Adengo is also involved in two healthcare projects that are testing the boundaries of her role as architect.
The first is at Kampala Hospital, a private hospital in the centre of the city that started as a doctor’s house, was converted into a clinic, and then added onto by the doctor’s family until it became a large hospital. Because the building grew organically, it is disorienting. So Adengo Architecture has been appointed by new management to set up a clear pathway in terms of directional way finding, and to improve the experience of patients and visitors – through the introduction of light, plants, and thinking through the patients’ experience as they move through the hospital.
The second is a mobile medical clinic that has facilities for small surgeries, and is powered by a solar panel with a small battery. Initially designed to move between refugee camps in Sudan, the container unit is being redesigned to be transported on the back of a truck to very remote areas in Uganda, some of which do not even have roads.
“It’s easy to think that architecture is a first world concern and that, in the developing world, there are bigger problems to solve,” Adengo says. “But architecture and urban planning affect the way that people live everywhere; and increasing public awareness of the importance of good architecture could greatly affect how our cities evolve.
“That is why the Africa Architecture Awards programme is important. An award of this magnitude could promote successful, beneficial projects and, in doing so, help spread awareness to the general public about the role of the architect and the importance of architecture to the continent’s future.”