• Eminence of Space: Cities as more feminine entities

Jotham Njoroge studied Architecture at the University of Nairobi. He also holds a degree and a Masters in Philosophy from the University of the Holy Cross in Rome, and now lectures Philosophy at Strathmore University.

Carlos Goni's book Lo Femenino (EUNSA, 2008) points out the difference between men and women when it comes to clothing. For men, clothes are meant to cover their nakedness. Their value is purely functional. For women however, clothes are an expression of their personality. What she chooses to wear on a particular day is a woman's way of saying who she is; her values, personality, and what she wants other people to think of her.

Now, if we consider cities from this perspective, some are certainly more feminine than others. I'm not denying women's ability to be practical, nor men's ability to express themselves by the way they dress. Rather, I'm using this generalisation to make a point about where that dial on our architectural scale of values lies, and what approach public authorities have when planning and installing urban furniture.

I will clarify the point with an example. Take something like grass or any other urban greenery. A masculine approach to dressing our cities dictates that grass is meant to cover up the bare naked ground. And if we could find another way of covering it up, say, with a material that needs less maintenance or that can be used for advertising (think of how many trees have been replaced with billboards) then we would come out quite well, and with some extra money in the pocket. These would be judged as very practical solutions, straight to the point. And with the same mentality, every empty space should be turned into a parking lot, and any piece of construction over 20-metres tall that is not a building must either be a lamp-post or a telephone mast.

Another example is paint. A masculine approach says that paint is meant for covering up the bare nakedness of concrete and plaster. And if we could find something to replace this tiresome material, that easily tarnishes under rain and sun, with something more practical (like alucobond and all the range of self-cleaning external finishes) then we would certainly be better off.

A more feminine approach however, would see grass and trees not as functional cover-ups, but as a clear statement of our city’s commitment to be a healthy environment. They express our appreciation for freshness and natural beauty. Street furniture like sculptures and obelisks would not just be landmarks that serve the purpose of orientation. They would turn our streets into open museums full of reminders of our culture and heritage. And as for painting facades and using natural finishes like stone or brick, such an approach to dressing up our cities would make us do more than just covering up the bare walls behind (or the bare behinds of walls).

But wouldn't this cost more? Doesn’t the installation and maintenance of artistic monuments, greenery and external finishes only serve to send the costs of running the city literally off the roof? Such questions reveal that the general public, and especially those with the power to build, have a too much of a materialistic mentality and too little of an aesthetic one. They are masculine dressers, not feminine ones. The value of beauty, even economically, has been overshadowed by the price-per-square-metre doctrine. The quantity of space you can sell is more important than the quality of space you can offer. Real estate developers cash-in more on square metres of built space than on "nice views" which are considered, at best, as sentimental incentives.

There is some truth to the materialist approach. Square metres do fetch a good price. However, my argument is that Quality of Space sells even more. If we are going to argue about initial costs, there is no doubt that beauty is expensive. But there's equally no doubt that in the long run, people are willing to spend on buildings and spaces whose value grows with time.

A functional approach will provide spaces whose lifespan is dependent on the practical use of that space. As soon as the function changes, the space becomes dead, and one is at pains to find new clients who have that specific need to fit into that specific place. This doesn’t happen to intrinsically beautiful spaces; those places that were designed with beauty in mind, a beauty that guided the functional aspects during the design stage. Such spaces always lend their beauty to whatever new function they serve.

Take the case of the building that is famously called “The Old PC (Provincial Commissioner’s) Building” at the corner of Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi. It was designed with the beauty of classical architecture as the main feature and this beauty transcended its function as a public servant’s office. Now, it is a museum and does the job just as well in one time as in another. Sadly, this is not the case with the string of buildings at the start of Mpaka Rd Westlands, opposite the famous Mc Frys restaurant. (Their name has long since been forgotten.) Its design was from the very beginning, purely functional. The practical demands of shopping spaces shoved aside the beauty that would have made the space still relevant today. Unfortunately, its only tenants are now a few bats, lizards and cockroaches, amid a pile of dust and slime-coated debris.

Beauty transcends functionality. Many contrasting examples as the ones above can be found easily after a half-an-hour walk across the Nairobi CBD. The repercussions are felt at a city scale, since cities are made up of individual buildings and the spaces in-between. A masculine-practical approach of dressing them will leave behind a string of cadavered buildings. Real estate that cannot adapt itself to new functions, since it was designed with only one type of practical function in mind. A feminine-aesthetic approach, however, will ensure that even when a building or a public space’s function has long ended, people will still hold it as valuable and find some new use for it.

It costs a lot to put up artistic monuments in prime city spaces, but the returns are much more than just aesthetic. Dressing up a city, and not just covering up its nakedness, is expensive. But there's an added value that surpasses what purely practical installations and infrastructure can do. Public art can be used to make a statement about who we are as a city, and serve as an icon for the nation. It’s a city's way of saying who she is; her values, personality, and what she wants other people to think of. It is no wonder that in almost all European languages, the word that means “city” is always in the feminine: ciudad (Spanish), città (Italian), cidade (Portuguese), ville (French)... and the cities of these same countries are most certainly beautiful. Anyone who has travelled to any of them will see just how filled they are with century-old sculptures, out in the open streets and squares, inbetween beautiful ancient buildings that now serve very modern purposes despite centuries of existence and very different uses for which they were first built.

Think of the Eiffel tower, the Millennium wheel, the Statue of Liberty, the world’s largest statue of Christ, and you immediately think of Paris, London, New York and Rio de Janeiro respectively. These monuments are made for beauty. They are more aesthetic than functional. However, their aesthetic value also brings with it the functionality of giving a city its iconic identity. It, just like feminine dress, tells us something about the city’s personality, values and demeanor. They do a lot more for their cities than a good number of purely functional elements. Our cities must become more feminine!

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