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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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Longform's Picks of the Week

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Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

Rodolfo Walsh and the Struggle for Argentina, Stephen Phelan, Boston Review

In today's Argentina, Rodolfo Walsh, a journalist and activist who was killed during the country's right wing ascent, has become a symbol for a movement that fell far short of what it promised.

When I started a course on "new journalism," I assigned all the big names who made an art of narrative reporting in the 1960s: Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote. The native Spanish speakers in the class were quick to remind me that Walsh's Operación Masacre had been the first great "nonfiction novel," written in 1957, almost ten years before Capote coined that term for his own true crime story In Cold Blood.

I had heard this claim made before in local literary circles, with the same defensive note of national pride that tinged the more common and less credible assertion that Argentina invented soccer, or that Buenos Aires had the world's first public buses. But I hadn't read Walsh's book myself, because my Spanish still wasn't good enough, and I'd never seen a copy in English. As it turns out, there had never been one before the brand-new translation published in September in the United States by Seven Stories Press.

Operation Massacre, to use its essentially unchanged English title, recounts a half-botched atrocity committed by Buenos Aires police under an earlier military government. On the night of June 9, 1956-in the midst of a short-lived uprising by soldiers and citizens loyal to the recently deposed president Juan Perón-a group of friends and neighbors were rounded up from a house in the working-class barrio of Florida, where they had gathered to listen to a boxing match on the radio.

DANIEL GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images

The Penitent Warlord: Atoning for 20,000 War Crimes, by Jonathan Stock, Der Spiegel

Joshua Milton Blahyi, better known as General Butt Naked, was one of Liberia's most feared warlords. Then he became a pastor.

Blahyi had a reputation for being more brutal than other military leaders. Everyone knows his nom de guerre, which he says he will never lose: General Butt Naked. He was a cannibal who preferred to sacrifice babies, because he believed that their death promised the greatest amount of protection. He went into battle naked, wearing only sneakers and carrying a machete, because he believed that it made him invulnerable -- and he was in fact never hit by a bullet. His soldiers would make bets on whether a pregnant woman was carrying a boy or a girl, and then they would slit open her belly to see who was right.

Blahyi is now a priest who goes to chess club on Saturdays.

When asked about his victims, he turned his head to the side and wiped his neck. He had only learned to speak English a few years earlier, and he chose his words carefully. He had shaved his cheeks and his massive head, and sweat was running down his forehead. In the end, he said: "I don't know the entire... the entire... the entire number... but if I... if I... were to calculate it... everything I have done... it would be... it shouldn't be fewer than 20,000."

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A Culture of Bidding: Forging an Art Market in China, by David Barboza, Graham Bowley, and Amanda Cox, the New York Times

In China's growing art market, outsize auction results often overshadow false sales data and forged art.

Fraud is certainly no stranger to the international art world, but experts warn that the market here is particularly vulnerable because, like many industries in China, it has expanded too fast for regulators to keep pace.

In fact, few areas of business offer as revealing a view of this socialist society's lurch toward capitalism as the art market. Like many luxury businesses in China, the explosion of buyers for art here has been fueled by the pent-up consumerism of the newly rich. The demand is so great that last year, in a country that barely had an art market two decades ago, reported auction revenues were up 900 percent over 2003 - to $8.9 billion. (The United States auction market for 2012 was $8.1 billion.)

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

Afghanistan United, by May Jeong, Roads and Kingdoms

A dispatch from the first soccer match between Afghanistan and Pakistan in 37 years.

The story of soccer in Afghanistan is the story of holding on to small articles of faith, despite circumstances. In 1922-just three years after independence-one of the first actions of the autonomous Afghan state was the creation of a football federation. That year, King Amanullah, the country's great modernizer, built the Ghazi stadium. The first soccer club was founded in 1934, and the country's first international match was with Iran in 1941. Afghanistan joined FIFA in 1948, and that year, participated in the London Olympics. The sport continued to grow popular through the 60s and 70s, but under the Soviet occupation and in the civil war that followed, everything was reduced to rubble. The Taliban never had a fatwa, but Mullah Omar forbade public matches during prayer time, and the spirit of the game gradually died.

In the past few years, soccer has been making a comeback in Afghanistan. Today, much of the country is cleaved along lines of club loyalty. Are you a Real Madrid or an FC Barcelona? My Dari language tutor keeps me updated on bets he makes with his friends. The loser pays his debts with watermelon.

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

So Crazy It Just Might Work, by Elias Groll, Foreign Policy

Swashbuckling journalist Robert Young Pelton is crowdfunding a mission to hunt down Joseph Kony. Is it genius or folly?

The United States has deployed Special Forces troops to the region with the ostensible purpose of helping to capture Kony, and while those troops have in recent weeks intensified their effort to find the warlord, he remains conspicuously at large. But their failure, Pelton says, should come as no surprise. The real reason for the presence of U.S. troops, he says, has as much to do with the rise of Islamic extremism in the region as it does Kony. Deploying Special Forces to capture Kony is merely an effective cover story. As for Invisible Children, the group behind Kony 2012, it remains based in Uganda, a country Kony has long left behind. Hopelessly limited by geographic boundaries, the group has become limited by its own infrastructure and its simplistic argument that Kony's capture will suddenly solve all Uganda's serious problems, critics say. (Nevermind the fact that the group has raised millions of dollars off Kony's back for an organization with deep ties to anti-gay, creationist groups and was co-founded by a man whose celebrity took on a life of its own after he suffered a breakdown and paraded naked through the streets of San Diego.)

Pelton's message to these groups is that it's time to put up or shut up -- and by finding Kony he's aiming to point out the essential phoniness of those who have so far failed to locate him. For a similar reason, Pelton is crowdfunding the trip. (You can find his IndieGogo page here.) "The reason I'm using crowdfunding is to see whether the world gives a shit. Do you really want to get rid of Kony? Give me five bucks," Pelton says. "So it's almost like a very Shakespearean play, you know. We are going to see who's more evil -- the people who want to get rid of Kony and do nothing about it or Kony himself."

Courtesy of Robert Young Pelton