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Abstract What is the definition of Public Space? This question could result into a large discussion regarding each person has a different opinion about the same matter, whether it’s the most direct and superficial answer or the more philosophical perspective. In searching we see the standard answer that resumes all these different opinions into one; “a public space is a social space that is generally open and accessible to people”. When we stop to take a deeper look at these forms of interpreting the public spaces we notice that these are all influenced by various factors. Factors that not always might be so simple to understand, culture, traditions, social status...In this paper I want to reflect and explore “my definition” of public space in Blantyre, Malawi. Malawi is an African country; half of the country being composed by the third largest sweet water lake in Africa. Having had the opportunity of living there a large portion of my life, but at the same time having a foot set on Europe, allows me to have two different perspectives about the difference in cultures and development in the countries. In this paper I do not intend to make a comparison between the two cultures and how these influence the definition of public space because it would lead to a very extensive discussion. I intend to describe and understand more how and why public space in Africa is defined the way it is. How the change from a “villager” into a “city man” has influenced the way the city is lived and transformed into, what we see today.

PUBLIC SPACE IN BLANTYRE

SERGIO DA COSTA OLIVEIRA


“The role of the street is social as well as utilitarian.� Andres Duany


1. Brief history A small introduction is necessary to better understand how the architecture in Africa was transformed from its natural state to what we find today. In Africa after the Romans first set foot and constructed some elements, mostly in the North of Africa, the period of navigation and conquest was the most influential. The second civilisation said to be the most influential according the book Western Architecture in Africa, were the Portuguese. They brought almost standard constructive styles in which the rest of European civilisations adapted in their colonies too. Portugal brought especially the construction of forts, one of the first ports can be found in what is know today as Ghana, where in the 15th century in a few weeks was elevated a fort and chapel. The colonial period was a period of big influence in African a rchitecture. This was the period in which the first infrastructures were introduced and the main cities started to develop. The English, French, Germans and the Dutch followed after the Portuguese conquering some land too. Malawi belonged to the British colony, even thought it is said in some book that the first to set foot there was a Portuguese man. Malawi mostly known internationally as the Warm Heart of Africa, an African interpretation of Switzerland, a country for Holidays due to the lake, so it was never influenced largely as a country of big importance for the British. Malawi became a British colony 1859 and later in 1994 a democratic country. During this transition in 1994 was when a large flux of migration occurred. People from the village moved to the city looking for better opportunities. 2. Malawian villages: Malawi being located in the southern part of Central Africa, the tribes that settled in the country come from the Republic of Congo and some from Tanzania. These people mostly know as the Bantu people and the Swahili. Today if we visit Malawi, when visiting the African villages we still see them in the purest state of architecture, without being influenced by the Western during the colonial period. The shapes of the houses are still circular, either isolated or in a large group of huts; “huts� meaning everyone is invited and welcomed into it.

PUBLIC SPACE IN BLANTYRE

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Figure 1: Bantu spread through Africa


2.1 Cultural Beliefs and art Still in the twenty first century The Bantu’s stick strongly to their beliefs. They have a belief in one superior god, who can be associated to the sun or to their oldest ancestral, following sets of rules passed down from generation to generation. These strong beliefs influence largely their art, or better said their art is a form of interpreting their beliefs into a state visible to the eye of the person. To the western world we classify this form of art as African art, this is especially associated to countries in Central and Southern Africa, such as Malawi. The art styles differ from Country to country or tribe-to-tribe. But they are all an interpretation of the after life. To the Africans death is just a part of another journey in life, and they interpret their gods, ancestors in the form of masks. These masks are then used in special occasions, festivities and rituals. Based on these rituals they paint and decorate a lot the interior of their houses with special forms of decorations to protect themselves from bad spirits, or to portray special social status within the settlement. 2.2 Composition of the settlement I’m going to use an example of a study to explain and study the composition of the houses in the Bantu people. ( Fig.1) This is a typical example found in Malawian villages the round hut, confined in one limit, which is confined in a village limit. The organization of the house is based on the human body. (Fig.2) The human body helps to organise the spaces in respect to hierarchy. The head of the human is the main and most important part of the human body because it’s where all the ideas come from, all the commands to the rest of our body. Socially this would be interpreted as the main person of the family, the head of family being the man of the house. Hence the first space we come into contact to when entering is the house of the men. If we continue in a sequential order we will find the house of the Wife and the children, because in the society they have the same status and importance, if they have elderly members they would follow the wife’s house. After this we can find the kitchen which is where the wife will spend most of the time therefore it’s the most reserved space, and as we can see it is only connected directly to the wife’s house you cannot access this from the exterior. (Fig.4)

PUBLIC SPACE IN BLANTYRE

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figure 2: Ferme Mataka

figure3: Human boday inlfunece

figure 4: Private spaces in hiearchy


The images on the left highlight what can be interpreted as the semi-private space and public space. The orange resulting space in between the confined limits by the hut’s defines what is a semi-private space because this space in which all the member of the family gather together. This space is also where outsiders are welcomed and space for interaction, besides this space the mans house would also be considered as semi-private, because no outsider is allowed to enter the woman’s part of the house. In opposite to this the public space lies between the outer limit and the huts. This space is shared amongst all the villagers. (Fig. 5) (Fig.6) Influenced by their strong cultural belief and there idea of man being the main figure the house and the wife and children are secondary the space is almost dived into two areas that is attached by the semi-private space. These spaces can be classified into domestic and social spaces. The image below represents this idea more clearly. (Fig.7) 3. Migration from the village to city The passage from dictator regime to democracy in 1994, led to a large flux of migration and from the rural areas to the bigger cities such as Blantyre. Blantyre is a city now with the capacity for 750,000 people but where the actual population transcends over 1,000,000 inhabitants. The cities infrastructure remains and supports itself on what it was since the colonial era. The wide streets with extremely wide sidewalks with this the population that fled in from the rural areas started settling on the suburbs of the city. (Fig.9)

These settlements have however changed and adapted from the circular form they experienced in the village, and as explained before there are a lot of forms of dividing the spaces and defining, all in which suffers a great change moving to the city. (Fig.8) The house has now adapted to a more westernised style, adapting the rectangular (linear) form. This was the more immediate transformation to the visible eye because the changes also influenced on the implementation of the houses in the terrain. A house was allowed to e constructed if it had permission of the local chief who attributes a piece of this vast land to the family.

PUBLIC SPACE IN BLANTYRE

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Figure 5: Semi-private space

Figure 6: Public space

Figure 7: Domestic and Social

Figure 8: transformation of the hut

Figure 9: Main streets which have been transformed into Public space


This space has no visible limit because the houses all follow the same style of typology, usually if these differ it means they have more status within the circle of society they live in. What was confined to various individual spaces now has been compacted into one small space. With a slight transformation, because now that they have moved to the city they have lost the spaces in which they use to keep the cattle. The public space that existed from the resultant space between the exterior limits exists but now it’s not confounded to that house only it’s transformed into a public space shared by everyone. Each house defines the limits of these spaces. 4. The adaption of the village public space in the city Due to the fact that the public space is now very limited and shared amongst many, and what was once a semi-private space of one house is now shared amongst many others. This led to the need to adapt to a new form of public space. This new space passed from a resultant space between village huts to the wide sidewalks in the streets. To the naked eye this might seem a very irrational choice being that the street is not connected to the housing, but if we take a closer look and analyse the space we understand that it has a connection. The streets in Africa or more specifically in this case in Blantyre have a different concept from the western world. The majority of the people see the streets as a surface on which motorised vehicle’s travel on with sidewalks to allow people to circulate around the city on foot. In Blantyre this vision is a very limited way of interpreting this, here the street has a very different concept. Blantyre is very characteristic because of the contrasting image it portrays. A contras between the colonial architecture organised infrastructures as a background and then you have a whole different story happening in front of this image. You will see a sea of people walking backward and forwards, the large number of sale stands set up by local salesman trying to earn some income, hairdressers out in the open, vegetable stands, clothes, shoes… etc. street is taken over by the population an assumed as a private space in which everyone respects each others limits, even though these limits are not physically there.

PUBLIC SPACE IN BLANTYRE

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Figure 10: Scheme showing public space in the city

Figure 11: Scheme showing public space on the outskirts


4.1 How the transformation occurs Taking a closer look at the city now lets see how the streets in Blantyre are composed to better explain this idea. In the image below we can see the building followed by the sidewalk and the circulation lane. Interpreting this into a more abstract vision we see a physical limit followed by a space once again defined by another limit followed by another space. Looking back to the layout of the village I analysed it looking only from the plan perspective. If we look at it now in section we see the hut, space, wall and then space shared amongst other houses. Once again looking at this in abstract form we see a well-defined limit followed by space once again defined by a limit followed by more space. (Fig.13) The concept of space, we can see if we overlay the two images, we realise that this adaption was not random but instinctive, and that their cultural customs was not lost but interpreted. The only question that might arise here is that this well-defined limit in the city is not their house, true, but the concept of the house primarily sticks to its function. This function being a space where they sleep. Looking at the simplest version of the hut a simple circular form with one opening, this opening is directed to East, so that when the sun raises the rays enter the hut and serving as a wake up call. Taking this into consideration the space doesn’t necessarily have to be attached to the house, but it has to have one strong limit defined. 5. The effect of this transformation in the city This appropriation of the streets by the people, has had great influenced on the way all the new streets have been designed. This appropriation initially took place only on the existing streets that were initially constructed in the colonial period; this idea was then adapted and applied to streets on the outskirts of Blantyre. Of course this also had some new alterations because they couldn’t construct new buildings just to have a well-defined limit. These limits then started to appear more on the materials of the ground. The different solos defined the different limits. If we look at the outskirts we can see these limits with the material distinction; the well defined limit being the vegetation, the “space” can be seem by the dried soil then limited by the elevated layer of tar of the road. In Some occasion you can find the vegetation substituted by selling stands made from local materials.

PUBLIC SPACE IN BLANTYRE

SERGIO DA COSTA OLIVEIRA


Figure 12: Scheme showing public space on the outskirts (2)

Figure 13: Section scheme showing public space in the village


Looking at this I assume that unlike at a first glance you would assume that the limits are what confines the public space but quite the opposite public space is what defines the limits whether it’s within the city or in the suburbs. My curiosity rose because I wondered what would happen if the concept of the public space changed and an open space were to be introduced in the city? A space, which would have all the limits well defined in this case by an architect, rather than a limit defined by transitional spaces. I tried to imagine for example Aliados avenue how this space would have been transformed if it were to be implanted in Blantyre, with the photomontage I tried to explore this idea. From this image I reflect that we can’t assume that all limits are physical; they exist within social context too. Public spaces can’t be defined and confined by limits, it’s a space in which you respect different ideologies, customs and beliefs and within every square meter of space, we can experience a vast of emotions and sensations. Sensations that transcend the boundaries set by a space, a space in which we can’t define or set rules. The moment in time, the location, the people are the definer of these limits. Like Viktor E. Frankl would say “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Refrences: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_space www.google.com/images Benfield, Kein, Streets can be public space too, 2013 Western Architecture in Africa http://www.bukisa.com/articles/367584_traditional-and-cultural-south-and-central-african-homes http://documentaryaddict.com/Surprising+Europe++S01E08+The+Good+Life-8581-documentary.html

PUBLIC SPACE IN BLANTYRE

SERGIO DA COSTA OLIVEIRA


Figure 14: Aliados avenue, how it would look in Blantyre


Public space in blantyre