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Schools in a flat world: Global perspectives on pedagogy

Address for the AIA Helsinki conference, September, 2008

Levels in Africa


I live in Botswana, and much of this talk is based on southern Africa. I thank the AIA for involving me in this conference.

Time and place

In Africa, time is split, running on multiple tracks. My first and last illustration proper is of Saturday morning laundry in southern Angola on the bank of the Okavango river, opposite Rundu in Namibia, in July 2007. The people at work are operating within their economic capacities, and when opportunity arises will educate their children and find more efficiencies and productivity in their lives which in time and for better or worse will bring mains electricity, drains and water here. The crocodile presence in the populated zone of the river will likely be reduced as the cellphone presence continues its massive take-up. Individuals in Africa are acting rationally, though they are often thwarted, usually by politics and sometimes by nature.

Around 4500 years ago, pharoah Sneferu's son Kanufer is recorded as being the master of works and chief architect. In an Egyptian story, the prince of Byblos, Lebanon noted about 3500 years ago that '... skilled work came forth from [Egypt] to reach this place ... and teaching came from [Egypt] to reach this place ...'. The Giza pyramid for Cheops, son of Sneferu and later pharoah, was the world's tallest structure for 4000 years, until the construction of Lincoln cathedral. It remains the heaviest structure ever built, and over its 756x756 foot masonry base and angles 'any error can be covered by one's thumb' in the words of Sir Flinders Petrie.

Geography has made it hard to communicate across parts of Africa, which runs 7400km east-west and 8000km north-south. The politics of Africa, national and within nations, continue to act against communication. The Sahara has been drying out for around 12,000 years, making Egypt and north Africa more tenuously connected to the rest of the continent, though there has been a persistent mainly camel-based trade across the desert. Forests, rivers and diseases have constrained connections. Even today, intra-African trade and travel appears to me to be less than trade and travel outside Africa.

In Southern Africa the Cape settlement had literacy training for communicants in the 18th century, and a few elementary schools existed towards the end of that century. In Cape Town, the first high school opened in 1714, but closed in 1742 for lack of pupils. From 1812, schools were encouraged, spreading to country districts in the Cape. After 1829, schools were established by missionaries in the east Cape. More schools were established in the east Cape from 1841, some of which have endured and upgraded. Girls were educated, as well as boys '... so the discrepancy between the education of men and women, which has been so marked in east, central and west Africa never emerged'. The initial pattern was for mission and private schools to be established. By c.1850, governments were taking up a role in developing schools. A similar pattern tended to follow in tertiary facilities, and the great majority of education facilities today are state-developed and run, though at University level there is often autonomy.

Among the first schools built in Botswana was that of David Moffat, missionary, at Kolobeng c.1850, a house-like construction.

Schools in the early colonial settlements often followed models from a metropolis. In Southern Africa, in Natal, some examples of early schools are the Collegiate Institution 1862 (requested to be in Elizabethan style),

St Mary's school c.1869 in Richmond

and the Girls' Collegiate school of 1878 in Pietermaritzburg.

At Plumtree in Zimbabwe, a school set up to cater for the children of staff operating Rhodesia Railways through Bechuanaland, the hall is characteristic of perhaps c.1950,

and administration a little more contemporary.

In Northeast Africa, Asmara, Eritrea, we find Ibrahim Sultan secondary school c.1925 extended 1964, Semaetat secondary school c.1950 and the Theological school of 1954. The Ibrahim Sultan is in a neo-classical modernist style.

The Semaetat was originally a convent school, expropriated in 1982 as a state secondary school.

The Theological school is a Catholic seminary.

In South Africa, pressure for democratising came also from interested parties who set up the New Era Schools Trust (NEST) which had this open private school under construction at Tongaat, Natal in 1986.

Infrastructure and resources

Like time, in Africa infrastructure has a wide variety of levels. Water is collected at public taps today in many places in South Africa, still the richest African country. An access road to a school may only work for cars in the dry.

Resources are widely variable, although one fairly consistent thread in the development of education facilities has been the absence of detailed architect input for the great majority of schools at primary and secondary levels. Africa has many schools of architecture, a number of long standing. Quoting from an article by Ghanaian Lesley Lokko, who has taught architecture for some time outside Africa, '... The tradition in which I had been schooled made no reference to anything other than Europe or America (with the occasional nod to Japan); it was routinely assumed, and declared, that Africa as a whole (excluding South Africa and perhaps a couple of the North African countries) had very little to say on the subject of architecture. ...' and further '... The architectural canon I studied (incidentally, not that different from the canon that is currently being taught all over South Africa) does not include people of my culture, my language or my place. I am an African architect but I do not see myself in the discipline I have been taught. This isn't to say that I'm not there, but rather to say that I am not seen. ...'. A further point is '... It has roots in a particular history and way of seeing and participating in the world which colonisation spread to other parts of the globe, but these distant. other places were not empty or without their own systems of construction and spatial practice. In some areas of the world, the tensions generated by the meeting of two - or possibly more - distinct ways of being... what we today might call culture, produced a new, hybrid culture that was greater than the sum of the individual cultures that preceded the clash. ...'. On 'architectural' sculpture provided by a friend after returning to Ghana to build a house '... Pieces like these remind me again and again that I am living in a place with a rich and complex architectural heritage that, sadly, seems to have lost its place in the modern African urban environment. ...'. My view would tend to be that Africa needs the Lokkos teaching and studying further at home to build on developing the profession and the schools of architecture from these perceptions. The images shown here are from various parts of Africa.

Resources include the availability of competent builders and of architects and other building industry professionals, but reach into the economy, whether the legal framework exists and functions, whether banking systems work and function, whether sufficient security is maintained for people to work in peace. A number of states have been unfortunate in finding obstructions along the way.

Words and actualities

Many sweet words, many noble statements and articulated ambitions, but a rather consistent absence of product both in the sense of architecture and often in the sense of drawing out the child's mind and potential. How we do better is something that needs work by Africans. Some projects and positions follow.

Community Junior Secondary Schools in Botswana

Botswana has been lucky in geology, and has mainly tried to use its diamond income prudently. The primary school systems were developed and eventually reached near-universal capacity.

A scheme that has worked from there provided an expedited expansion of secondary schooling. The Boipelego Education Project Unit was set up under the Ministry of Education, and was given a reasonably free hand to implement a national system of Community Junior secondary schools. The schools provide the first three years education post primary school.

The success of the scheme was based on a policy of utilising resources effectively. Botswana is very flat. Architects designed a range of school buildings for repetitive use, in two versions. Census results were used to establish the sequence, with corrections from the following census, on grids to avoid skewed deployment. Two key decisions were that all schools would have electric power and secure water supplies, not an easy thing in a country the size of France with a dispersed population of 1.5 million, with power and mains water only available in the 2 cities, 7 towns and some large villages. Hostel accommodation was also provided in order to provide access to children beyond walking distance.

Sites were surveyed and individual school developments planned using the standard blocks. Normal tendering procedures were followed and the schools were duly constructed and brought into service over a ten year period.

We were involved in many surveys, site plans and some construction, and these are a few perceptions from that work:

A school like a ship in the dark night: Sefhophe CJSS, Botswana. A buzz of activity in the library, classrooms and hall, riding on that decision to put power in. The village outside had no visible lights, by contrast.

In in the construction of a new and an expanded school in the Kalahari, a semi-desert sand face, and between our initial work and completion, a tar road and public telephone reticulation had arrived in the area, cutting the last hundred kilometre journey from 4 hours to one and making it possible to communicate with the site from our Gaborone office. The foreman for the new school had originally turned up in a regular pickup, and couldn't reach the site.

For extensions and updates, we found the fastest method at one stage was to make air photos to get an as-built plan, and use this with the original site data to arrive at the expansion plan. Not at all what we learned at school, but cost effective because of the modular units.

About 200 schools were provided across the country, putting in place state schools in a sector previously serviced mainly by a few private schools. Private schools continue to expand in number and capacity, but with the CJSS implementation, secondary schooling has become the norm. There are issues of style and content of education which need work, and the control of development and funding is still more with state than communities, but the system has been created and is making that level of schooling available nationwide.

Sampler of state schools in Egypt, Botswana and South Africa

In Egypt, the General Authority for Educational Buildings (GAEB) is responsible for the construction, furnishing and maintenance of all school infrastructure throughout the country as identified by the targets set out in Egypt's plan for general economical development. GAEB was installed in 1990 in order to assist the Ministry of Education in providing the physical infrastructure required for the educational system in the country. It believes that using typical integrated model designs and unifying planning steps and components can reduce cost, increase the speed at which they can build a lot of schools in a short time, will enable them to achieve a better quality, and will allow for ease of supervision and follow up of construction work.

A simple primary school illustrated from Egypt:

The following is an example of the current typical schools stated as being built by GAEB in Egypt, for about 10,000 new classrooms each year:

In a surprising number of respects, Botswana and South Africa have near-identical schools in the mostly primary sector, based seemingly on a generic Department of Works drawing office product of about 1950. There is not much architectural participation visible in these schools in 2008.

In South Africa, we have:

Teco Bridge primary school, in the east Cape, a very basic facility.

Kwaggafontein farm school, west of Johannesburg.

A rural secondary school in Zeerust district, with a fairly clear division between the intial and the current developments.

In Gaborone, Botswana, there are the same two ages visible at the Old Naledi primary school.

Current samples of architect designed school work

To quote again from Lesley Lokko, '... Like the majority of 'developing' countries, ..., there is very little time or space available for the discussion of anything but the most pragmatic concerns. ...'. The result tends to be that the only published examples of work to hand are from South Africa. The descriptions are taken from the publication. I have not seen these projects myself.

Two day care centres in Delft, Cape Town. Noero Wolff Architects

'Delft is situated in the low-lying area called the Cape Flats, east of Cape Town. The Flats are edged by varied and imposing mountains. This design, for two day-care centres in the community, seeks to connect buildings, landscape and city together in new ways.

The division between the flat landscape and the distant mountain ranges is mimicked in the design. Wall surfaces are pastered to a height of 1.5 metres, forming a continuous horizontal line that wraps around the buildings at eye level. Above this line, the walls are bagged. The plastered surface is painted green or blue, to represent land or sea, whereas the bagged surface is painted white in sharp contrast to the sky-similar to the silhouette of mountains against sky.

Each centre is identified by a brightly painted vertical pylon as a symbolic marker within the community. The pylon extends horizontally into a seat which is adjacent to the entrance path-the tension is deliberate and reflects back upon notions of landscape that have informed the design of the buildings. The entrance is marked by a shadecloth pergola, defining a safe place to protect children, while also serving as an after-school waiting area. Consequently, it has become the most architecturally elaborate aspect of the centre.

The centres are painted in different colours. In both cases, the importance of the toy room, a storeroom for toys donated to the centre, is represented not only by its central location but also by bright red colouring.

The need for resourcefulness-to achieve the maximum ends with minimum means-shapes the work. Linked to resourcefulness is the notion of modesty, in its Latin sense of 'moderate'. In this case, within limited means, it was necessary to decide where to invest weight in design-in other words, to decide where to be forceful and where to be retiring and modest.

These centres aim to do the right thing in a context that is design-hungry. They articulate simple design solutions clearly and directly, and give dignity and civic presence to an otherwise indistinct environment.'

Usasazo Secondary School, Cape Town. Noero Wolff Architects

'This secondary school was commissioned by the provincial government and consists of 37 classrooms, a library, computer room, hall and an administration section. The brief was expanded by the architects to allow the school to adapt to new legislation which called for more entrepreneurial training.

The site is in a densely populated <informal settlement>. In response to the need for land, the school occupies the smallest possible area and leaves the remaining site for a communal sports field and agricultural production area. The L-shaped forms of the classroom blocks protect the open spaces from the strong directional winds.

The single-storey classrooms on the street edge are designed to be used for entrepreneurial teaching with hatches that open to the street to allow interaction with the public. The fragmented articulation of the street facade mimics the scale of the informal settlement around it. The central circulation space is similar in character to the spaces created in the surrounding settlement.

The section of the buildings is designed to minimise the amount of openings on the side of the building that is exposed to the severe winds. The rooflight is shaped to cause suction on the leeward side of the roof and to improve natural ventilation.

In terms of spatial layout and design strategy, this project is a hybrid of a known type and of lessons learned in the immediate urban landscape. It is a good example of architecture's ability to allow a critical insertion into an area in need of improvement,healing and the reconciliation of competing demands and traditions.'

Brief glimpses of university works:

To the best of my knowledge, most Universities on the continent use architects to design their facilities.

Thakaneng bridge student centre

Bloemfontein, Free State, South Africa: The Roodt Partnership

'This scheme uses a building to bridge an existing road between two portions of the campus, and offers a robust environment for students to socialise in, with enough elegance to hold its own within the larger campus context.'

Performance sports centre

Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa: SoundSpaceDesign

Sport is a hero in the flat world. 'In South Africa, sport has a particular cultural and political dimension, and a particular institutional aspect. The promotion of sport and its projection and embodiment as a science on an academic campus is therefore symbolically highly charged.'

Link for the Institute of infectious disease and molecular medicine

Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa: Gabriel Fagan Architects

'The institute runs across three separate buildings, and commissioned this pavilion structure as a physical and symbolic link of its activities. The link encourages valuable informal interaction between colleagues and heightens the feeling of community within the institute.'

Law Faculty

Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa: StudioKrugerRoos

'The University of Pretoria campus is home to some of the best modern regional architecture in the city, and has a tradition of commissioning buildings particular to their time. The new law faculty is the first major building commissioned on campus after the emergence to democracy. It was to embody the principles of transparency and gravitas-and successfully addresses this potential conflict of expression.'


I have avoided political correctness as far as possible. Most schools in Africa are based on classes of pupils, and the class groups may be between 20 and 60 depending on state and level of education.

The following are figures on life expectancy, infant mortality, GDP/capita, Illiteracy & education which give some hope for the future in African development.

I close with the view of rational economic activity on the Okavango at Rundu.

David Young


The civilization of ancient Egypt

Paul Johnson

Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London

Second edition, 1999

ISBN 0-297-82464-3

The Oxford history of South Africa, Volume 1

Monica Wilson and Leonard Thompson, editors

Oxford University Press, London


ISBN 0-19-821641-6

The skeptical environmentalist

Bjorn Lomborg

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge


ISBN 0-521-01068-3

Contemporary South African Architecture in a Landscape of Transition

Thorsten Decker, Anne Graupner, Henning Rasmuss

Double Story Books, Cape Town


ISBN 1-77013-056

Asmara, Africa's Secret Modernist City

Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren & Naigzy Gebremedhin

Merrel, London


ISBN 1 85894 209 8

An Atlas of African History

J D Fage

Edward Arcnold, London

1958 reprinted 1973

ISBN 0 7131 5131 5

Designing the Earth

David Bourdon

Abrams, New York


ISBN 0 8109 3224 5

Architectue in Natal, 1824-1893

Brian Kearney

Balkema, Cape Town


ISBN 0 86961 025 2

Decorated homes in Botswana

Sandy and Elinah Grant

Phuthadikobo Museum, Mochudi


ISBN 99912 0 140 8

What future for South Africa's private schools?

Michael Corke

Optima vol 32 #1


Innovation in education: the NEST schools

Prof GR Bozzoli

Optima vol 34 #4


Mud matters to the African Architect (and other minor mishaps)

Lesley Lokko

Digest of South African Architecture


School Building Design and Learning Performance with a Focus on Schools in Developing Countries

Eberhard Knapp, Kaj Noschis & Çelen Pasalar, Editors

Internet (See also book by Imprimerie Chabloz S.A. Lausanne)


ISBN 2-940075-11-5

Photos at Teco Bridge

Laura Young


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