Liberia Lacks Architecture Culture


By Elijah Karnley, M.PM, B.Arch, BS/CCRP

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
June 15, 2007


We hope that Liberia can strengthen its Architectural culture by institutionalizing the profession through an organized body and system that would appropriate the level of professionalism and the true meaning of architecture.

After a few years of being away, a recent trip back home strikes an urge to increase the level of participation in the national reconstruction process, and the hope to find the appropriate platform to do so.

Reviewing the Liberian pre-war and post –war development initiatives, I am obliged to make a few observations. One of the major problems hindering Liberia’s infrastructural development is that it lacks true architecture culture. I will explain what I mean by “architecture culture” in this context, without reference to any specific Government tenure or organization:

1. When a Government and people understand that every infrastructure must go through a planning process, and part of that process means that every building constructed, must go through an architect, then it becomes a value and a culture.

2. Said architecture should reflect regionalism, or be established within the context of the Liberian cultural heritage as a modern architecture.

3. The codification of every aspect of the design-build environment, enforceable requirements and ordinances as well as the perceptive projection of the profession to the people have to be in place.

Its understood that some of these problems could be attributed to other underlying factors such as poverty, displacement, and education. However, such have always existed, yet under our best economic conditions, there was no change. We could continue to make excuses forever, but that does not negate the fact that we lack an architecture culture. Evidently, such mediocrity would only cultivate more slums, diseases, disorganized shacks and communities, as well as irreversible urban sprawls, more congestion and societal decay. Consequently, we will begin to dislike our cities, and admire cities of other nations - that’s when dreams of building a new capital spring up among intellectuals as if this would solve any planning or socio-economic problem (Ever heard the remark, “if only Abidjan was Monrovia” ?). To digress a little, it would be a mistake to think of building a new capital prior to the completion of the next fifteen years of post war reconstruction. As a planner, I will give three reasons:

1. A city depends on goods and services (commercial activities) - people locate where there are goods and services.

2. Liberia lacks the magnitude of decentralized commercial activities as well as the type of population to make this happen.

3. The “type of population” means human resources, within a population as low as 3 million, not the least optimum.

4. A fifteen year development plan with major diversion could raise other economic constraints given current vulnerabilities.

5. The only reason for building a new city would be for political reason, which is rather unnecessary at this point.

Having said these, we’ll need to fix what we already have through short, medium, and long range planning and implementation, and for now “weed and infill” the severely devastated urban fabric based on a comprehensive plan. The biggest question is how do we plan or practice an architecture culture given the poverty, displacement, and education situation? First, there has to be a master plan, then codes and ordinances must be established. When this is done, every community must fall within the framework of the master plan, and ordinances, whether it is a shack that is being built or not, and enforced by a community planner (trained).

Government can then produce several low income design and temporary prototypes for all shacks so that slums are at least organized and healthy, as in the case of the new community located at the back of the unfinished ministry of defense in Congo town.

I will end this with a few major recommendations to the Government and people:

1. A comprehensive Planning program (master plan) must be developed and instituted immediately and headed by a trained Architect and City planner (have you ever been asked to give your address at the airport and find yourself unable to answer? Because there aren’t any addresses).

2. Introduce a three years plan for “weeding-out the existing inner city condition as part of the comprehensive plan.

3. That every building whether it’s a shack or not, should go through the planning process and handled by an Architect.

4. Prototypical designs need to be established for such shacks or prospective low- income-home owners and ensure that it still falls within the master plan, of course, with Government subsidy.

5. Government must recognized and promote professionalism. This means that each architect must possessed certified educational credentials and training, from accredited institutions, to design, and submit certain level of projects for submittal to the ministry of public works, as there is a difference between an Architect and a Draftsman, just as much the same difference between a Doctor and a PA or nurse, or a lawyer and a paralegal.

6. That the bidding process respects such levels of professionalism for maximum results.

With the above said and followed, major improvement and pride in our cities would be realized: but it must begin with the development of said Architecture Culture. While there remain many other elements such as misappropriation, corruption, as well as other socio-economic factors which are responsible for the infrastructural drain, I write as an Architect and Planner, knowing that the mechanism for all forms of developmental growth is the infrastructure. The appropriation of land development and establishment of development zones and ordinances, public utilities and public sewers mapping, inter-modal transportation system, housing, and a lot more can then be manifested, all of those attract investment and influence sectoral growth. A strong architecture culture produces great economic platform, healthy environment, and a cherished community. There are nations that are poorer neighborhoods than Liberia, but with sound architecture culture, their cities and buildings have definitions. Architects must frequently make building design and planning decisions that affect the safety and well being of the general public. The education of an Architect goes far beyond a vocational high school or an associate degree in drafting. Architects are required to obtain specialized education and documented work experience to practice architecture, similar to the requirements for other professionals, with requirements for practice varying from place to place. My respect goes to a few great architects like Aaron Milton, the late Winston Richards, Appleton, Caesar, Wallace, Bright, and others, whose commitments have earned Liberia a few decent infrastructures. We believe that the Liberian Chamber of Architects, as it used to be called, would develop further than it is now, under a more structured forum.

We will be moving back to Monrovia, in a couple of Months, with a few designs and construction projects on hand, during which time we would submit in-depth studies and proposals for this nation of ours.

About the author: Elijah Karnley is CEO of Amalb Systems, Inc. in Norcross, Georgia

© 2007 by The Perspective

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