Ganvié, also known as the “Venice of Africa,” is a village of around 20,000 people that stands on stilts in the middle of Lake Nokoué in the country of Benin.
About 500 years ago, the Tofinu people settled here and built their lake village to avoid being captured and sold into slavery to the Portuguese by Fon warriors, as the Fon were prohibited from entering the water for religious reasons.
Over the years, Ganvié has developed an intricate and prosperous culture within the constraints of life in the lake, becoming a self-sustaining community that survives on highly developed fishing techniques and tourism. The lake village is composed of buildings set on stilts, entirely built from wood and other plant derived materials, capable of resisting decades of decay. Lake Nokoué is quite shallow, with an average depth of 1.5 m, enabling the village to spread easily over time. The Ganvians travel almost exclusively by boat. The occasional small islands on the lake are used to graze their few domesticated land animals. Only Ganvié’s church, mosque, cemetery and school are built on solid ground. UNESCO listed the village as a world heritage site in 1996.
The lake lies in the densely populated coastal area of Benin—surrounded by the large cities of Cotonou and the capital Porto-Novo—with a total population of over one million. This leads to many problems with waste and pollution.
Unpurified sewage and waste from the urban settlement, plastics, pesticides, fertilizers and organic matter all lead to the constant deterioration of water quality in Lake Nokoué and threaten the village population. Poor hygienic conditions lead to diseases such as diarrhea, bilharzia and cholera, which kill many children under the age of five. In addition, legislation in the protected area cannot be controlled because of a lack of government funding.
Since Lake Nokoué is a main source of fish production in Benin, this level of pollution poses an existential threat not only to the people here and their health, but also to the environment and biodiversity.
Our studio will consider this threat by asking you to develop a waste collecting and repurposing center for the city. This center may incorporate ideas for general sanitation, energy production, community outreach and education, employee housing, etc., with the ultimate goal of setting in place the infrastructure for decontaminating and restoring Lake Nokoué to health. In addition, you will be limited to the materials and construction strategies available in the region.
In an era of extreme urbanization and rapid growth, informal settlements and slums are a global phenomenon. On the African continent alone, over half of the urban population live in slums, and by 2050, Africa’s urban dwellers are projected to have increased from 400 million to 1.2 billion. Despite the development of such densely populated areas being home to an enormous portion of humanity, they are too often left out of contemporary architectural discourse. This results in students of architecture spending little to no part of their education understanding this phenomenon as one of the largest urban design challenges existing today.
The studio’s aim is to challenge the very design strategies and architectural tropes that you have become familiar with in your architectural education to date. We hope to expand your understanding of who architecture can be for by highlighting the myopic vision most contemporary design has in regards to user, location, material, and process. The idea is to dismantle any notion of “norm” in architecture and thus open up space for the development of new paths of design thinking and a “new” kind of architecture.