Koolhaas’ Lagos

“Rather than Lagos catching up with the West, the West may be catching up with Lagos”, says Matthew Gandy about Koolhaas’ appeal.

Rem Koolhaas, the controversial super-star world architect, has a vision of Lagos that triggers both intense rage within social scientists, and creative passions within architects and designers. This not only signals a profound disciplinary divide, causing indignity in one kind of people and an optimistic urge for action in others: it also shows that urbanization trends in Africa are sort of a brainteaser. With slum-growth and urbanization rates both around 5%, the African cityscape is and will continue to be mostly composed of underserved neighborhoods.

When studying Lagos, Koolhaas concluded that after the first impression of dense disorder and pervasive poverty, the city actually works. Certainly, it has its own way of working:

Our words cannot describe our cities…the notion of the city itself has mutated into something that is not longer Western (…)

What seemed to be improvisation proved to be a systematic layering where the enormous amount of minuscule transactions necessary to stay alive in Lagos –the endemic issue of poverty- were made possible through the arrangement, intersection, and mutual confrontation of people and infrastructure (…)

Our preoccupation with the apparently “informal” had been premature, if not mistaken.

Koolhaas, 2002

The last quote brings back a point I made earlier here about the inappropriateness of the term “informal sector” to appeal to the way things actually work and make sense on the ground. What if informality has less to do with exclusion and exploitation, and more with voluntary strategic decisions? Thinkers from divergent ideological strands converge with this view. I will mention two: Patrick Chabal in Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling, and Informality: Exit and Exclusion, a World Bank 2007 report on Latin American informality.

Chabal insists that most ‘orthodox’ approaches to Africa box our understanding of it. In his previous book Africa Works (which actually challenges the “Africa Works” slogan, that implies Africa doesn’t work), Chabal insists that disorder, far from an irrational (pre-modern) behavior, is a political instrument that enables opportunities.

Paradoxically enough, the World Bank’s document explains that in Latin America there is a stronger movement into informality from formality than vice versa. The majority of Latin American informal workers assure they wouldn’t take a formal job if given the change to do so. Put short: informality is a trade-off.

So, what is really at stake in the decision to be informal? Does it immediately imply that wherever informality makes sense, these societies are bound to productivity lags and reduced innovation prospects? If one abandons the idea (which hasn’t really been proved) that informality is a reflection of underdevelopment, then one is bound to embrace an alternative explanation: informality reflects the irrelevance of the state, and the lack of trust of citizens on  its rules.

This line of thought leads to believe  that the working structures of trust might rely more heavily in tribal groupings than in formal institutions. How alive is ‘ubuntu‘ today? If it is, how likely will it remain alive  within younger generations? If one could say that ubuntu behaviors are the backbone of informality, why can’t Koolhaas be more right than wrong, finding in Lagos intelligent urban futures?

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