Investing in virtual projects has probably never been more timely, after all, we have been partially deprived of contact with the concrete world. Exploring the singularities of the present moment and the power of online engagement, a group of architects from Angola started an ambitious work: pursuing a new identity for Angolan architecture.
Formed by Yolana Lemos, Kátia Mendes, Mamona Duca, Elsimar de Freitas, and Gilson Menses, Grupo BANGA is responsible for the project Cabana de Arte (Art Hut), which combines the efforts of young architects and artists from Angola in virtual works that seek to bring visibility to emerging professionals and bring architecture closer to people's daily lives.
Romullo Baratto: Could you tell us a little about the motivations that led to the creation of Grupo BANGA and what inspired you to develop the project Cabana de Arte?
Grupo BANGA: The BANGA group is an initiative of young Angolan architects who, motivated by Angola's cultural richness, decided to join forces to create and contribute not only to national architecture but to the arts in general. We were determined to spread the word about Angolan art and architecture, to make our emerging artists and architects known throughout the professional community. Our focus will always be the praise of Angolan values, of what represents Angola.
Meanwhile, the project Cabana de Arte emerged as one of the base projects of the group, along with one of the main reasons for its formation: promoting young Angolan artists and architects. As Angolan architects, our concern with the future - and present - of national architecture is a general consensus. Angola's architectural identity has already been on the agenda for a long time within the community of architects and scholars. However, we feel that it is important not only to talk about the subject but to act with practical solutions, trusting that actions will change the world. To show strength, especially in the community of young Angolan architects, is only possible if we unite efforts and collaborate with one another, through sharing experiences.
What also impelled us to create this project was the fact that we understand that art cannot be separated from architecture, especially when we are seeking an identity. They must be allies, in order to lead the way. The group then decided that the virtual space would be an interesting tool to be explored and perhaps more effective in the dissemination and visualization of the exhibitions that bring together the works of these architects and artists. We want to take national art into people's homes in an easy, interactive, and quick way.
RB: The Cabana de Arte project is emblematic because it materializes visions in the virtual world that would encounter many struggles to be carried out in the concrete world. Do you consider the digital media to be a potential alternative to Angolan and, on a larger scale, African architectural production?
GB: The project was born in the middle of an unnatural global scenario in which the Covid-19 pandemic took everyone by surprise. Therefore, the virtual environment was not only an option but the only option available at the moment. It was also the most "affordable" option since the projects are built at "zero" cost, but still maintain the same professionalism and architectural, visual, and artistic quality that is expected when constructing a building. We also believe that the virtual world is an interesting way to visualize architecture or interact with the arts in general. We are aware that it doesn't replace the emotions of visiting and occupying a space, the memory of a touch, smells, perceptions... We know that these are things that the virtual world still doesn't provide. However, it is a tool that should be explored - essential in designing, promoting, and sharing the Angolan and African architecture.
It's exciting to imagine that with just a few clicks we can learn more about a place, idea, or artist. It is in this sense that we find these virtual exhibitions interesting so that, from anywhere in the world, we can discover the stories of Angolan artists and architects and learn about what they have to share. On the other hand, the interaction between architects and artists has been interesting yet challenging, because it is not easy to convey all the ideas in a virtual space. But, once we manage to overcome this barrier and understand that since it is not a real space subjected to the laws of physics, the exhibitions transcend to another level, where we can take risks and explore solutions. It's in the group's interest to move to reality, nevertheless, until there are means and resources to transform the projects into physical and habitable works, the digital world is a great way to promote architecture.
RB: But in this respect, how does the group see and address the issue of internet access?
GB: The issue of internet access is very relevant. We are aware that the majority of the population in Angola still has no quick and easy access to it. The activities, projects, and essays carried out by the group are conducted or disseminated through our website and social media, thus making it very difficult for the large Angolan masses to have access to the content. This is a barrier, considering the conditions of the country's general population. We believe that this can be overcome with time, because our intention is that the exhibitions move from the screen to real life, becoming accessible to all social layers in the country.
The plans for the group's future are centered on acting locally, through participative and inclusive projects with the population. One of the group's goals is to ensure that the content is available to all social groups, virtually or physically. The physical dimension is still under consideration for future projects. Until then, we have been working hard on dissemination, so that the exhibitions reach as many people as possible.
RB: We are familiar with the influence of modernism in the Angolan architecture of the 20th century and, in contrast, we observe the virtual architectural works that the group has been developing, which hint to vernacular heritage. In this sense, it seems that the identity - or the several identities - of the Angolan national architecture, that you are pursuing and discussing, embraces the vernacular. Could you talk a little about that?
GB: We need to understand that the vernacular architecture and the Modernist architecture built in the colonial period are both in the architectural heritage of Angola. For us, the search for an identity in contemporary Angolan architecture consists of joining the best of both worlds and learning from the past. The fact that, until now, most of the projects presented in the six exhibitions focus on vernacular architecture, shows us the willingness of national architects to value our traditional construction techniques as well as local materials.
The modernist projects developed in Angola in the mid-20th century were fundamental to address the country's intrinsic issues. One must acknowledge that these buildings have marked the history of architecture produced in Angola and the questions they raised are still relevant to this day and age.
The same can be said about the vernacular architecture, adding that the use of materials that are local, affordable, and accessible brings us even closer to an identity in architecture, striving for inclusion, relatability, and community engagement. The vernacular elements allow us to build a bridge between what is genuinely native of Angola and what will compose the contemporary Angolan architecture. So, we could say that the vernacular architecture is linked to the notion of "identity" that we seek, that is, architecture must be a result of the place, the people, and the history. But we know that this process is a long one and involves a great deal of research and work.
RB: The expected growth of African cities is astonishing and leaves no room for doubt: the future of the planet is urban and African. What do you foresee or expect for the future - which is already starting - of architecture in Angola?
GB: As Angolan architects, we continue to hope to be able to contribute and watch the development of national architecture on a large scale. Identity is an important factor for us, that's why we look to the past for guidelines for the future. Unfortunately, we can now see the growth of cities in Angola, particularly Luanda, strongly influenced by realities that do not belong to us. We are victims of globalization, corruption, and bad management of our resources. We believe that the architect has a fundamental role in the future of cities, but in an African context, we still haven't earned enough voice to bypass the shameless political interests. This is a barrier to overcome, not only in the field of architecture. So, it's very important that the community of architects not only debate what's going wrong but also slowly start to lead the way and open doors for the next generations to find references and identify themselves with the architecture built today in our country. This is not an easy job and it requires more initiative, investigation, research, and support.
We have a rich history and culture, the question is how do we take advantage of this heritage today? If we take a moment to reflect, we don't have many new references in the scope of the national contemporary - built - architecture nowadays. The references are still the modernist architecture of the 20th century, designed by the Portuguese in the colonial period, or the vernacular architecture - not to underestimate them, since they will always be references. We believe that this has a lot to say about the state of our architecture today.