Research Studio
Highway Africa: Infrastructure, Decolonization, and the City

Highway between Nairobi and Limuru, Kenya
Highway between Nairobi and Limuru, Kenya. © Manuel Herz

Taken in the first and third semesters, the research studio immerses students in collaborative, interdisciplinary research practice that combines humanities and social-scientific methods with visual and spatial analysis and representation. Jointly taught by core and affiliated faculty, with regular visits by external experts, the studio takes place in a dedicated studio space that acts as a laboratory in which small teams of students hailing from different disciplinary backgrounds can work closely together. Students work on a range of outputs, from essays to illustrated booklets, maps and diagrams, photographic projects, videos, and installations. This work will be assembled and edited for public presentation as the collective outcome of the research studio.

Highway Africa is a multiyear collaborative research and teaching project that explores the past, present, and future of trans-African infrastructure.

With the end of colonization in Africa came unprecedented ambitions of modernization. Key to such modernization was the development of new infrastructure. Ports, dams, highways, and new energy and communications networks would facilitate industrial production, growing commerce, and new forms of consumption—all of which were crucial to build a newly independent continent after centuries of colonial exploitation. For members of the elite, infrastructure development was first and foremost an economic measure, to facilitate the production and movement of goods and materials across Africa. At the same time, political actors saw in some of the projected infrastructure networks opportunities to forge a new era of pan-African cooperation and trans-continental development. For a fledgling African middle class, infrastructure conjured imaginaries of upward social mobility and for entire communities they opened up hopes of movement and prosperity unlike anything experienced before. Amongst African nations, Ghana was hailed as a unique experiment that could chart the course for African decolonization at large. In 2018-2019, the research studio focuses on Ghana’s transition to independence as a lens to understand more broadly the relationships between infrastructure, decolonization, and urbanism.

With the gigantic boom in foreign infrastructure investment across the continent today, infrastructure is pertinent to the future of urban and rural lifeworlds. Chinese developers, the African Development Bank, the European Union, and other international actors are planning railways, highways, ports, pipelines, and other forms of infrastructure that are radically transforming African urban centers and countrysides. But can such infrastructure make Africa rise from colonial oppression? Can infrastructure decolonize? Can what was once a key tool of colonialism—the railways built by European powers to extract resources—also be used to undo its results? How is infrastructure contested and what are the conflicting rationalities to which it gives rise? What are the stakes of the large-scale dreams of development which infrastructure building continues to carry? How does infrastructure shape the course of history and the horizon of our global future?

Focusing on the multiple dimensions of urban and regional development on the ground, this research studio questions dominant approaches to infrastructure and urbanization in and beyond Africa. When highways, dams, or railways figure in urban or Africa-focused research, they tend to appear as merely technical problems of development: either they are described as lacking, or they are treated as magical solutions to reduce poverty and conflict. The aim of the research studio is to contribute to new understandings about the relationship between material infrastructure and the everyday realities of urbanization, by taking account of its historical complexity, lived experience, and the multivalent dreams and projects it generates.

Highway Africa is a project founded by Kenny Cupers, Manuel Herz, Dominique Malaquais, and Prita Meier. The project brings research to the classroom, and structures the studio pedagogy of the Master in Critical Urbanisms.

Student work