Roméo Mivekannin is a young Beninese architect from Cotonou, Africa, where his family still lives. He has just finished his studies at the Distinguished National School of Architecture in Toulouse (ENSA). As a student, he followed an unusual path of study. This, coupled with his fierce desire to succeed, helped him to make his longtime creative dreams a reality. Very much abreast of the problems linked to the architecture of the future, Mivekannin discussed with us his impressions, analysis, and vision of the profession.
Q: For what reasons did you choose to become an architect?
A: Because architecture is a powerful political act: to be an architect is to give to others. One of my first preoccupations was working on prison architecture. I had the opportunity to have a life-changing meeting with Jean-Marc Rouillan. To build is to resist. It is an act of citizenship.
Q: What was your educational path?
A: After going through carpentry and cabinet-making training in Benin, I came to France to pursue my studies at Luchon’s Professional High School for Woodworking Professions. Next, after a brief period of studying art history, I entered the Distinguished National School of Architecture in Toulouse. Within the school, I rubbed shoulders with architects like Daniel Estevez and Christophe Hutin, as well as very politically-active people. I even had the opportunity to participate in a “learning workshop” in Johannesburg, alongside South African architect Carin Smuts. In this type of workshop, design comes into existence through action. The entire logic is based on emancipation. What is done is discussed, disputed, shared, and thought about.
Q: What overarching principles make up your philosophy?
A: Liberty, curiosity, and modesty.
Q: Over the course of your studies and training, did you look up to any architects as your role models, or did you meet certain people who helped you find your path or influenced the choices you make today?
A: The meeting that influenced me the most was that with the Japanese architect Kinya Maruyama. He is a smiling man, who always carries a little notebook filled with collages of plants. You might even find a portrait of a cat! It is essentially a book of curiosity that retraces his discoveries and meetings with people. He has a particular connection with nature, always observing the seasons and natural phenomenon that take place.
Q: What are your favorite cities in Benin?
A: Cotonou, because is is the city where I grew up, and, more precisely, Ahouansori (part of Cotonou), because it is the place that held my spirit, my creativity, and favorite personal encounters at the end of my time as a student.
Q: As a specialist, what do you think of the development choices made in your hometowns?
A: You know, African cities were constructed with the colonial model. After independence, we continued with the same politics. Today, I think that it is time to reinvent our cities, which have their own special characteristics.
Q: Do you think that it is important to include citizens in the development decisions made for the well-being of cities? Is this the case in Benin?
A: We construct for the people, so I find it important to include those for whom we construct in our decisions. That seems to me to be the minimum.
Q: Between respecting its heritage (and traditional architecture) and the desire to renovate (modernization), the current architectural models in Benin are evolving. Research into new types of accommodations lead one to question the best choices and attitudes to adopt. What could you tell us about this debate?
A: Beninese society is evolving; we don’t live today as we did 50 years ago. There is more and more individualism, even if the notion of communitarianism lives on. We are living, more and more often, in individual apartments. Furthermore, we have been experiencing a population growth, indicating that we must think rapidly of new modes of accommodation.
Q: Faced with population growth, with the resulting growth in housing needs, one imagines that changes are likely in the works or will soon be in the works for Beninese cities. Does this transformation respond to the aspirations and ambitions of the population?
A: In any case, when faced with a rising population and massive rural exodus, it is necessary to densify the city. This, of course, while preserving the quality of public facilities. Today, urban planning requires reworking our models for living, based not only on modernity and the State’s projects, but on individuals. This is to say that all should spring from social dynamics and strategies that will benefit cities’ inhabitants.
Q: Speaking of real estate promotion in Benin, certain people denounce the fact that nice housing options are accessible to those with medium-sized incomes. They believe that only the wealthy should be able to pay for this privilege. Is this state of things admissible, given the minimum wage in Benin?
A: We are not going to leave things as they are now. The elites and African politicians must change. In Benin, we are in the midst of a demographic explosion and, taking into account the rural exodus, there is a huge market for real estate developers. It is the Beninese government’s job to supervise this activity so as to not reproduce the errors that were committed in Europe.
Q: In France, people value eco-friendly constructions made of soil. It has been proven today that this type of material offers thermic and climate-friendly advantages. Furthermore, soil is found everywhere and is available to all. But, paradoxically, it is not very often used, at least not yet, in Beninese cities. Why do you think this is so?
A: We see soil as a bit archaic here in Benin. We are crazy about anything that comes from the West, and concrete seems to be the evidence of this. Here, one must use concrete at all costs; the thirst to resemble the western modern is responsible for the peak usage of this material. Vertical constructions, the idealized European model, flourish here, along with their multitude of air conditioners, those little inoffensive tumors we no longer pay attention to. However, Africa should not copy the West as it currently does, but use what she already possesses: soil, people, and enthusiasm (to quote Francis Kéré). Yet the logic of dominant/dominated and the dialectics of master/slave still find their clearest illustrations here. It is difficult to associate the idea of a continent that is so poor in many aspects with successfully implementing the occidental model.
In this way, the soil on which we work, on which we were born, and on which we construct, is not a symbol of durability and wealth. It is understandable when one comes from a modest origin, as we do, to want to climb to a symbolic, “durable” form of success. Those who dominate (from western cultures) are seated on something durable— for it is from the top of skyscrapers that things are decided.
Q: In your opinion, what is the alternative to sheet metal in your country, Benin?
A: I wouldn’t say “the alternative” to sheet metal, but rather “the alternatives.” You know, last year, I was walking along Lake Nokoué in the company of a fisherman. We were talking about flooding, all while observing fishermen who were paddling about in rafts, on which they had affixed sails to serve as roofs! We spoke with them. They didn’t have any problems with these “constructions," that seemed to us a bit flimsy. Sometimes, solutions are closer than you expect. In the past, we constructed buildings with lumps of hay. But there is also concrete. It exists; it is real; and it can be made using local labor. Plus, we cannot deny that it is currently the favorite material of the "eco-baba-chic" style that comes, from the Western world, so long-ago elected king.
Q: What is your position with regards to the environmental preoccupation of construction projects?
A: I find that it is important to respect the natural world on which we construct, because we are simply renters of this Earth. As we say where I’m from, the earth does not belong to anyone, but one must not fall into ecological fascism. It is unlikely that recycling will find the public’s attentive ear if the political structures do not first develop the infrastructure for it.
Q: Are you a member of any associations? And how, in your opinion, can architecture contribute to the well-being of the population?
A: Today, no, but tomorrow, why not? Because activism, of whatever type, must be undertaken with patience and conviction. I do not believe that architecture can change people’s lives; however, I deeply believe that it can improve them.
Q: In your daily role as an architect, what are your commitments to your country?
A: I believe that the role of a contemporary architect is to be an agitator of the everyday, as I do not believe that we can work in this profession as in the past, in a conventional way. And in Africa, a continent that is rapidly changing, the profession needs to evolve in terms of how it is practiced. Architecture can no longer continue to be reserved for the rich.
What I like most in this profession, it is the multiplicity with which it can be practiced. You go to meet people, starting out with nothing besides a problem and constraints from which to construct an idea.
Q: Benin is in the process of rewriting the pages of its future. Have you already participated in any debates, round tables, conferences, or symposiums on the role of architecture in the development of your country? If yes, what were your impressions from these events?
A: You know, grand discussions are not really my thing. However, concrete action, yes, I’m into that. I’m completely aware of the fact that in telling you that, I came across as a bit abrupt. It goes without saying that one must know how to sit across the table from different people in dialogue (whether social, professional, political, or economic) so as to effect concrete, efficient action. It is this same taste for efficient results that leads me to sometimes respond impulsively.
Q: What are your relationships like with other Beninese architects? Do any of them serve as role models for you?
A: I maintain cordial relationships with them, but if we are talking about role models, I would speak, without hesitation, of architect Francis Kéré. He is a very generous man. An architect trained in Germany, he succeeded to transpose the rationalism taught at the Technical University of Berlin to the local conditions of Gando (in Burkina Faso). He is a true architectural lesson for me. Successfully reconciling sustainable construction with people in terrible housing situations— it needs to be done more often!
Q: What do you think of this web-magazine’s goal to promote African architects, bringing them together with the diaspora to promote business?
A: I think that it is an important platform for all of Africa, not only because it represents visibility for contemporary African architecture on the international scene, but at the same time because this magazine promotes all of the diaspora’s actions. It is a pleasure to know that a press outlet is seeking to bring us together and help us construct the future. Good luck, and courage to you, Archicaine!
Do you, like Roméo Mivekannin, think that architecture is a political act? Why or why not? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.
Original article, originally published in French, here.
Credits: Images by Shubert Ciencia, Anne, J.B. Dodane, Guillaume Colin, Pauline Penot, photornw.org, Erik Kleves Kristensen, and AfricaRice. Data linked to sources.