A Startling Portrait of African Cities—And How China is Building Them

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If a continent’s infrastructure is its’ bones, then Africa is growing up quickly. From 2000 to 2010, six of the ten fastest growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa, and the region had to accrue new housing, highways, skyscrapers, factories—much of it financed or constructed by China. Who better to build Africa’s new economy? Continent-sized China just had its own growth spurt, one that began thirty five years ago in a few special economic zones (SEZs) and now promises to make Beijing a new megacity five times the size of New York City— a home to 130 million people boasting industries from technology to textiles. China’s economy-building industries—construction, real estate financing, urban planning—have found a new home in the African continent. But is Africa filling a Chinese mold? Or is it growing into something entirely different? Portrait of Chinese construction site manager for a new light-rail line system in Addis Ababa. [Photo courtesy of Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen] [Photo courtesy of Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen] That question sits at the core of Facing East: Chinese Urbanism in Africa , an exhibition currently on display at New York City’s Storefront for Art and Architecture . The exhibit was curated by journalist Michiel Hulshof and architect Daan Roggeveen , both Dutch, who have extensively explored Chinese urbanism in their ongoing Go West Project . For Facing East , the pair travelled to six major African cities—Nairobi, Kigali, Lagos, Addis Ababa, Accra, Dar Es Salaam—over the past three years to photograph, interview and investigate. The exhibition’s walls of photographs, along with captions and a short essay, provide a condensed portrait of their experiences. So, what’s the verdict? Is Africa, in the words of one Kenyan small-business owner, truly “facing East to our new friends, the Chinese?” Installation view. [Facing East: Chinese Urbanism in Africa, 2015. Curated by Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggevan. Storefront for Art and Architecture. Photo by Qi Lin.] Africans now have a choice between Western and Eastern-driven development and aid. [Facing East: Chinese Urbanism in Africa, 2015. Curated by Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggevan. Storefront for Art and Architecture. Photo by Qi Lin.] The show catalogs the broad conditions and consequences of Africa’s developing cities. [Facing East: Chinese Urbanism in Africa, 2015. Curated by Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggevan. Storefront for Art and Architecture. Photo by Qi Lin.] Facing East does not explore any projects in detail but articulates the broad tensions that are shaping the design and construction of Africa’s new infrastructure and cities. While development aid from the West aimed to reduce poverty and improve quality-of-life, China’s efforts are purely for-profit ventures. There’s no guarantee that rising waters of growth will lift all boats equally. This may be best exemplified by the massive slums that grow around Africa’s cities, a product of economic growth—jobs are the in cities—combined with a lack of government planning or services. Hulshof and Roggeveen cite a figure that three quarters of urban Africans live in such slums. This points to the second tension underscored by Facing East : unlike China, Africa is a diverse collection of cultures, governments, religions, and economies. Aerial view of Kilamba New City. [Photo courtesy of Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen] Kilamba New City, a housing development for 500, 000 located outside the Angolan capital of Luanda, could have easily been lifted straight from Shanghai or Chongqing. [Photo courtesy of Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen] View of the Kenya Commercial Bank Headquarters construction site in Nairobi. [Photo courtesy of Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen] View of Thika Superhighway, built by Chinese contractors in Nairobi. [Photo courtesy of Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen] Chinese managers oversee Ethiopian workers in this shoe factory in the Eastern Industry Zone—a a Special Economic Zone modeled after Shenzhen. [Photo courtesy of Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen] For example, Kilamba New City, a housing development for 500, 000 located outside the Angolan capital of Luanda, could’ve been lifted from Shanghai or Chongqing. But will its inhabitants finds the same industrial jobs that drive China’s growth? Will global economics and a host of supporting infrastructure—governmental, physical, and human—make it prosperous? These are difficult questions that only time will answer. Nevertheless, Facing East  presents two very different portraits that help give visual substance to that question. The first is physical: sprawling grids of roads, fields of cruciform housing towers, sinuous curves of highways and hardtop, and thick webs of scaffolding. These scenes could’ve been captured anywhere in China, today or ten years ago, but the second portrait records Africans caught in that growth. It’s a Chinese stage but the actors are all-new. Facing East: Chinese Urbanism in Africa is on view at Storefront for Art and Architecture through August 1st.

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A Startling Portrait of African Cities—And How China is Building Them

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