Feature

Africa Rising?

The race to build the continent's tallest building is on … finally.

For thousands of years, African architecture was on top of the world -- literally. Up until the early 14th century, if you stood on top of Egypt's Great Pyramid of Giza, at its original 481 feet, you were standing on the tallest man-made structure in existence. It was a record held by the pyramid for nearly four millennia, before it was beat out by the spires on the Lincoln Cathedral in England, completed in 1311.

Since those ancient glory days, however, architectural superlatives have largely passed the continent by. If you're looking for the biggest, or the tallest, you're unlikely to find it in Africa (with one notable exception: the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca does feature the world's tallest minaret). Unlike much of the rest of world, which has been consumed by the high-stakes race to build more ultra-tall skyscrapers (like the Mile High Tower currently being mooted for construction in Saudi Arabia), Africa is not a continent obsessed with height. Ever since the fall of the pharaohs, a confluence of factors -- an abundance of land, a shortage of funds, and cultural preferences -- have led Africa to build out, not up.

Africa's tallest building -- the stout concrete monolith that is Johannesburg's Carlton Centre -- would barely register in the crowded skylines of Hong Kong or New York, measuring just 731 feet tall. The Empire State Building is double that. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building, is nearly four times as high. And yet, the Carlton has held onto its continental crown for 40 years, with no other building in Africa coming within 160 feet of its summit. (One caveat for architecture anoraks: a "building" needs to involve some form of human habitation, as opposed to a structure like a radio tower.) In addition to its diminutive stature, the Carlton has begun showing its age: Its exterior is threadbare; the carpets are fraying; the windows could do with a good scrub. "Visitors to the 'Top of Africa' have been known to feel a little let down," wrote the Guardian's David Smith last year.

For some architecture companies and developers, flush with cash from Africa's much-touted economic boom, the once-formidable Carlton has begun to look like something of an easy target. The competition to build the "tallest building in Africa" -- the most achievable superlative in the skyscraper business -- is starting to look like a real race.

Leading the pack is the Symbio-City complex in Centurion, South Africa, a satellite town of the capital Pretoria. The centerpiece of the project will be a monster 110-story building of offices, shops, apartments, and conference facilities, housed in a multilayered tower, which, at 1,466 feet, would make it a real player in the global skyscrapers game -- if it gets built. The complex has the support of the local municipality, which sees it as part of a broader program to regenerate the somewhat grungy Pretoria and its surroundings. But it still needs to secure planning permission (expected by 2015) and sign up tenants. Tellingly, its completion date has already been pushed back from the initial 2018 to 2022.

Not to be outdone, Ethiopia has also jumped into the running to knock the Carlton off its perch. The proposed project -- slated for the capital Addis Ababa -- will be a 99-story standalone tower that's meant to reach a cheeky 1,469 feet, just pipping the Symbio-City proposal. On completion, the Chinese-backed tower will be named the Meles Zenawi International Centre, honoring the late Ethiopian president -- if, that is, his currently lofty reputation hasn't been downgraded by the prevailing powers-that-be by the proposed 2017 completion date.

Ghana, too, has joined the race with the Hope City project, launched by President John Mahama in March. Hope City is supposed to be Africa's answer to Silicon Valley, a $10 billion technology hub just outside Accra, where budding entrepreneurs will be nurtured and start-ups launched. The design envisages six towers of different heights, the tallest being 75 stories and 902 feet tall, connected by a system of sky bridges. This is meant to evoke traditional Ghanaian compound houses, but the drawings actually bring the conical towers of Great Zimbabwe to mind.

Hope City is running into a few early difficulties, however. After settling on a town called Dunkuna as the location for the site, in May developers RLG Communications suddenly moved the project to a different town, Prampram, in the Greater Accra Region, citing difficulties in acquiring land but not going into much further detail. Ghana's Independent newspaper, however, chalked up the surprise switch to "the displeasure of the gods," claiming that Dunkuna residents weren't happy with RLG because they did not seek the blessing of traditional leaders.

This wouldn't be the first time that cultural considerations have kept Africa's architecture earthbound. In South Africa, for example, one Johannesburg architect told me that urban planners tend to avoid incorporating high-rises into their plans because they can be hard to sell. In one township south of Soweto, custom has it that people need to be able to touch the ground in order to stay close to their ancestors -- something impossible from anything other than the bottom floor. Multi-story apartment buildings remain the exception rather than the rule in South Africa and low-cost government housing projects are almost always single-story developments.

Indeed, Africa's great works of traditional architecture -- aside from the pyramids -- are generally set low: the ellipses and conical towers of Great Zimbabwe, for example, or the mud mosques in Mali, which appear as if carved from the surrounding desert, and are renewed each year in remarkable community rebuilding ceremonies. Even Africa's most recent high-profile entry into the annals of modern architecture -- Egypt's Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a recreation of the ancient Library of Alexandria -- at 105 feet doesn't seek to break through the clouds.

But it takes more than questions of cultural sensitivity to stop development -- and economics, too, has played a role in keeping the continent's buildings at a height that might be politely called "sensible" -- like your aunt's shoes. I spoke to Rodger Warren of Rodger Warren & Associates, the lead architect and developer on the Symbio-City project, who explained that Africa has long had more land available for development than it knows what to do with, making it always cheaper to go for a sprawling approach. Indeed, the sprawl of African cities like Johannesburg, Nairobi, and Lagos is legendary, rivaling the best that Los Angeles has to offer. This kind of development comes with its own problems, of course: Services get stretched too thin, efficient public transport becomes impossible, and an over-reliance on cars increases pollution.

South Africa, which might have led a skyscraper revolution in Africa a few decades ago, saw a mini building boom in the 1970s (which produced the Carlton, among others), but the timing was not to be: Anti-apartheid sanctions strangled the economy, leaving little money available for ambitious construction projects and stopping the boom in its tracks. But the South African economy has recovered since then, and the development of the Gautrain -- a high-speed commuter railway linking Johannesburg and Pretoria -- is a first glimmer that Africa may be moving toward a different urban development model. "This created the opportunity for high-density vertical cities, as many people are able to commute to work and back without being caught up in the congested access roads," said Warren. One speedy railway does not a real public transport system make, though: Even with the Gautrain, Warren's design has to incorporate a private shuttle service that will connect the building's inhabitants to the Gautrain station.

The African skyscraper boom feeds nicely into the "Africa Rising" narrative, and there's some truth to this: The towers, if and when they're built, will be concrete-and-glass symbols funded by private developers. Put another way, that means real companies are willing to sink real cash into these projects -- the Ethiopian, Ghanaian, and South African governments aren't planning to spend any of their own money (although all welcome the prestige they will generate).

They are also a symptom, however, of a malaise which African cities, by and large, have failed to treat. The rapid urbanization of the past decades has placed new pressures on land, resources, and infrastructure; building high-rises is a good first step, but none of these projects competing for the title of Africa's tallest building -- designed by and for elites -- begin to grapple with the larger questions about the future of urban Africa.

Whoever does grab the title, it's unlikely to be for long. The skyscraper bug has bitten Africa, and developers on the continent finally have enough money and know-how to get the blueprints off the drawing board. Let the race to the top begin.

EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

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