Skin of the city: Luanda or the dialectics of spatial transformation

Monday, 5 May, 2014 - 15:00

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Writing on the city of Luanda, the capital of Angola, is not an easy task. Part of the difficulty stems from my aim to provide more than a descriptive account of the city. My primary intention in this book is to reflect on the spatial transformation of the city of Luanda over time. Or, to put it differently, I am interested in giving an account of the marks of time left upon the city. Luanda, founded in 1575, is in fact one of the oldest cities established by Europeans in the Southern Hemisphere. However, only later, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, did Luanda begin to have its contemporary and modernist shape. Important to note is that the modern core was not built by Africans or for Africans. Luanda’s expanding urban fabric materialized Portugal’s expanding empire, as the city was construed as a new home for Portuguese settlers. In this sense, Luanda came into being through this apparent contradiction: on the one hand, the concept orienting the expansion of the city was unabashedly colonial, but, on the other, the language in which this plan was executed was, to a great extent, modernist. This order of things did not last long. In 1975, only a few decades after the generation of Portuguese architects arrived and decided to transform the city, Angola became independent. Consequently, a significant part of the settler population for whom the city had been built was forced to abandon it. In the process, the form of the city and the distribution of space were drastically altered. There was firstly, a period of decay and collapse when what the Portuguese architects and urban planners left went almost untouched. This period also coincided with the long civil war that ravaged the country, from 1975 to 2002. With the end of the civil war, and soaring oil prices in international markets, the Angolan government, and, to a lesser extent, the private sector, lavished in expensive development projects that have dramatically changed the image of the city. This transformation of Luanda, in general, has primarily taken two forms. In the first place, the center of Luanda, pushed by an over-valuation of real estate, has experienced a developmental frenzy. Here, the rationale seems to turn Luanda into a hub for foreign investment, along the lines of what Vanessa Watson has recently called a “fantasy city. 1 ” The second one is the expansion of the limits of the once colonial city, which has produced two phenomena: firstly, the exponential growth of the slums; secondly, the emergence of a third axis that cuts into the dialectics of city center-periphery, that touchstone of colonial urbanism so famously depicted by Frantz Fanon: the separation between the white city and the black city.


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