Africa’s leading female environmentalist held lessons for us all, says John McAslan
The passing last week at the age of 71 of the Nobel Peace Prize winning environmental activist and human rights campaigner, Wangari Maathai, must give all architects pause for thought. Maathai, who founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya in 1977, was responsible for initiating the UN-backed Billion Tree Campaign, which has so far planted some 12 billion trees around the globe.
Maathai was born in Kenya where, after studies in the US and Germany, she became not only the first woman professor at the University of Nairobi but, in 1971, the first woman in East and Central Africa to receive a doctorate.
In 1976, she became involved with the National Council of Women of Kenya and introduced the concept of community-based tree planting, which was to become the Greenbelt Movement. Under Maathai’s direction, this initiative has empowered communities worldwide to protect and manage the environment but also mobilised women across Africa to challenge corruption, support human rights and lobby for democratic change.
As the Greenbelt Movement gathered momentum, Maathai became internationally recognised for her persistent struggle, and continued her work despite the continual threat of jail and assassination. In December 2002, she was finally elected to Kenya’s parliament with an overwhelming 98% of the vote, and served as assistant minister for environment and natural resources before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, the first time this had been awarded to an African woman.
Having got to know Maathai as a friend over the last five years, I found that the most resonant quality of this vividly engaging and articulate scientist was her ability to inspire those around her into action. Her death begs questions about the architectural profession’s ability to motivate itself on environmental issues. What is it about the words “environmental” and “ecological” that seems so urgent, and yet so difficult to face? Why, when architects talk about environmental measures, do we tend to default to technological solutions? Environmental performance technology often seems laboured in comparison to Maathai’s effective action.
Most of the world’s 6 billion-plus people spend at least three quarters of their lives in, or near, buildings. Buildings are as much a part of our sense — and physical experience, of the environment as trees, water — land and sky. And yet, most architects tend to think of the building-environment relationship as a series of technical issues to be solved. There must be something missing from our approach to environmental design — something deeper and more fundamentally challenging. If we can “solve” techno-environmental issues in projects, does that mean we feel a profound responsibility for the furtherance of our environments? Or has that responsibility been corporatised?
The Bauhaus movement raised the idea of architecture as both a symbol and a formal action that could produce buildings that would bring distinct improvement in living and working environments — even if projects such as Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus for Algiers were a warning of the reverse: formal virtuosity as environmental destroyer.
I wonder if the profession’s approach to environmental design is trapped between admirable aims and architectural ambition and expedience. Like many practices, we always try to design to achieve the very best environmental ratings. However, compared to Maathai’s ability to mobilise and educate people to deal personally and directly with environmental conditions, these “gongs” seem ever so incidental.