Issa Diabaté earned his master’s degree at Yale University, School of Architecture, New Haven, Connecticut in 1993. He is the managing director and co-founder Koffi & Diabaté Architects, founded in 2001 and based in the Ivory Coast. The focus of the practice is finding solutions to the issues of rapid population growth and its effect on building and urban planning. In 2012 the office shifted from being just an architect to an architect-as-developer to be part of every process that creates a built environment.
Diabaté, the member of Côte d’Ivoire’s Order of Architects (CNOA), presented his work at Senegal’s DAK’ART Contemporary Art Biennale (1998 laureate), and most recently at the exhibitions ABIDJANOW (ARCHIBAT Event – Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire) and DESIGN INDABA (Cape Town, South Africa). Issa Diabaté has been appointed Knight of the Order of Cultural Merit in Côte d’Ivoire.
Last week Issa Diabaté had a lecture at the German University in Cairo, discussing reinventing architecture in sub-Saharan Africa. We had the pleasure of talking to him about topics of mobility, social factors affecting urban approaches and the constraints faced him in his career.
Here’s what he got to say
Nouran Ashraf: Studying architecture always provides the chance to experiment and try new ideas and approaches, how do you see the possibility of such a thing in the real world considering all the constraints on designers?
Issa Diabaté: I think when you are in school you need to explore, be wild and experimental. But it also does not have to be about doing something that is totally utopian. I think it can deal with very basic and direct issues. Of course, we all look at the next tower on arch daily and think which one is going to be taller and more beautiful, disregarding what it should bring to humanity.
If in school we have to be bold, then let us be bold that way. As much as we should be concerned about strong technological structures, let us be also concerned with how to recreate an urban environment. Redesign a city for instance, not only relying on the basic principles of building a city, of roads and streets but also thinking totally out of the box of new approaches. An issue like education, for example, needs reconsidering, maybe it does not have to be done in classrooms with blackboards, we should always think boldly of other alternatives.
About changing the firm’s role from only architecture projects to development as well Diabaté said:
These are all the reasons we felt we needed to oversee broader issues and control the process from the beginning to the end. Maybe if we had known that coming out of school, we had designed our practice totally differently. Development is in a way experimental but formal at the same time, we experiment differently, we push people to live in different settings than what they are used to. Maybe we if we had done that twenty years back, we would have tackled many different issues. However, I believe we learned a lot in the process, being regular architects.
“Today, when we think of gated communities we think of protecting ourselves from the outside world.”
NA: Most of the new urban development’s going on nowadays are targeting certain sectors. We see a lot of gated communities designed for the upper classes. What’s your opinion on that?
ID: I guess the gated communities become a problem when it is sort of linked to a class issue. Why don’t we remove the “gate” from the gated community? I believe it is good to live in a community. Today, when we think of gated communities we think of protecting ourselves from the outside world.
There is this neighborhood in “Abidjan” I usually talk about that was designed in the 60s. It’s probably one of the most desirable residential areas in “Abidjan” right now. It was designed in a way suitable for everybody, with all types of housing in different sizes to include different types of communities cohabitating on just one area, human-scaled neighborhood, without the gate.
“Belonging to this neighborhood does not mean belonging to a certain class”, he added. “It’s the sense of belonging that goes through classes. I really think this is the way we should be developing new urban areas. The areas that are more problematic are the ones that came later, when class became an issue, income became an issue, people felt that want to live with people who looked like them.”
NA: People are such an important factor that determines the success or failure of a certain approach. How do you think we should deal with that?
ID: Most of the time developers do not think about the people factor. Developers are business people, they are designing a product to attract people enough to buy it. Most of the time they are not too worried about how people will live in it. If people want gated communities, then let’s design gated communities if that’s what will sell. I believe that’s why architects should get involved in developing themselves. Afterall architects know the real effect of the problem.
Architects and developers should not ignore sociology problems. What really dictated our approach are the sociology factors, mobility for example. We should care to make livable urban areas. We see people are currently investing their money in projects that are not yet finished. After some time, you see that the created city is not livable. Developers do not really care about that, they just want to sell.
NA: In the past years we’ve seen a lot of urban approaches focusing on encouraging walkability. How do you see the applicability of such an approach and when can people be convinced to shift from cars?
ID: It is a matter of time that we see this shift in mobility tools. I believe it’s one of those concepts that people need to experiment first. They must feel the impact of walking on their lives and how they can reclaim more personal time that could have been wasted in the traffic. The realization that using the car is not always that comfortable. After all, you must be concerned with its maintenance, its parking and so on. Only then those who felt the benefit would change their minds. This is a case that would probably happen in a small environment and then spread. More and more people would be convinced and then we can witness the real change. This possibility is actually not so far away, it’s much closer than what we might think.
Our role as architects is to always experiment new approaches, observe people’s behavior and direct them somehow. There are many aspects related to mobility, such as public transportation for example and how it has been linked to the class issue. Those topics should always be up for observation and experimenting. Sometimes social experimenting comes before an architectural one.
NA: Finally, what are the projects that you are excited to work on?
ID: The next development project we are currently working on is quite exciting. It is not so far from “Abidjan”. The most interesting thing is getting to balance between topics of housing, activities, also tourism, sustainability, and the environment. So, we’ll be dealing with lots of issues, and that’s exciting. Currently, we are in the first stage of talking with the villagers. This all comes under the pleasure of design. We’re always following our main goal, that is to make a developing model for other places to follow.
Some of Koffi & Diabaté Group Projects:
Les Residences Chocolat, 2013
Project to build a luxury housing complex, consisting of 14 townhouses and 18 apartments, Riviéra Golf IV, Abidjan