A dusty potholed road, concrete drainage ditch and whitewashed barbed wire topped wall. This is the description I would give you if you asked for my initial impressions of Lusaka after spending 3 weeks here. Go anywhere in the world and it is the architecture that makes a place stand out, be it the terraced streets of London or the favelas of Rio; what a place looks like goes a long way in shaping its identity.
I first noticed Lusaka’s roads of walls when I found myself constantly thinking I had been somewhere before and often getting lost. I know this may in part be down to my poor sense of direction or the fact that Google maps is yet to wholly conquer Lusaka, however, I also think the repetitiveness of Lusaka’s walled streets also added to my delirium.
A response to this discussion about walled communities may be that they are needed to prevent theft. And that may be true. However, a report I read while at work suggested that the walls are more a status symbol or even fashion accessory than needed for security. For example, broken glass was apparently in vogue in the 1980s, barbed wire in the 90s and now electric fences are the must have security measure. In other words, the bigger your wall, the greater your wealth. Moreover, the house I live in has no wall unlike all of its neighbours but has not experienced any theft, suggesting that the perceived need for security may be unfounded.
There is a place where the walls disappear and the horizon opens up. That place is Manda Hill, Arcades and East Park. A sign of Zambia’s recent development and growing middle class. However, to me such shopping centres say nothing of a city’s personality or history as replicas can be found across the world. If it wasn’t for the abundance of chicken shawarma I could have been forgiven for thinking I was in a Milton Keyne’s retail park, not a bustling Southern African city.
The place that bucks the uniformity of the previous two examples may come as a bit of a surprise. The most aesthetically interesting place I have been to is the compounds. Here, out of more by accident than design, the hand-built low rise structures bring an individuality to Lusaka that the walls and malls lack. The changing width, height, density, building material, not to mention the colourful murals give the compounds their own style and personality. Maybe the means (abject poverty and marginalisation) by which this creativity has come about should not be celebrated but I think some kind of inspiration can be taken from its ends when shaping the rest of Lusaka.
I know that architecture is dictated by development which is a complicated process influenced by many different actors. And I also know that I haven’t conducted thorough empirical research into the crime statistics of Lusaka nor have I been to every corner. However, a developing country should be seen as a blank canvas, so if in the hands of the right painter, new building developments could emulate the individuality of the compounds rather than the bleak conformity of the walls and malls.