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Dynamism, cities and waste

Iviorian architect Issa Diabate is interested in the interface between the indigenous and the classical, especially from the perspective of the African city. He sees cities as developing organically, as gatherings of energy and negotiations of space. He shows a wonderful sketch of a fantasy version of Lagos, a grid of organic-looking buildings which an architect dreamed of two decades ago. It looks nothing like Lagos, but it somehow captures the energy and intensity of the city.

In seeking dynamism, Diabate is especially interested in markets. He’s especially interested in their creation of waste, evidence, he feels, that they are organic entities. “Trash is not collected, though taxes are.” When you sell a lot, you produce a lot of trash – trash is a good indicator of energy in a system.

Diabate sees city-dwellers as pushing for a vision of their city, a vision that is rarely carried out as governments are rarely capable of inplementing the vision. Change happens instead through the “aggressive taking of space” – “If you don’t occupy the street, you don’t sell. If you son’t sell, you don’t eat.” And if you don’t eat, you can’t expect the health care system to care for you. So you occupy the sidewalk, whether or not this fits within the city plan.

Diabate shows us two African masks to talk about his definition of design. He believes that design involves function, cost and aesthetics, and that design that ignores one or more of these elements fails in some sense. He shows an art-object chair, a beautiful and impractical work influenced by traditional African chair design. “It’s pretty, but unconnected from the people,” as it’s wholly impractical, beautiful but expensive.

In contrast, Diabate shows us examples of indigenous design that meet his criteria more neatly: a lumber cart made from salvaged tires, the display of calabashes in a market, sidewalk shoeshine stands. He talks about “human vending machines”, the young men who appear in traffic jams to sell things you don’t need at exorbitant prices.

How do you make objects that connect with people? By looking at the objects that are around you, from cellphone booths to plastic shoes. What’s produced through lack of means is often more important than what’s created with a surplus of money. He urges us to look for design solutions that are “around the corner” for problems we face.