Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Wakanda - My Solarpunk Dream City

Or another reason to love Black Panther

At the time of writing Black Panther has been out at the cinemas for a good few weeks. It’s understandably got a lot of attention and most of it deservedly positive. Chances are, if you are reading this you have seen the film.

However this is not a Black Panther Review as such. This is me focussing on a very narrow aspect of the Black Panther themes and aesthetic. Because as well as the awesome representations, amazing female characters and strong ethical and moral themes, the entire design and concept of Wakanda was incredibly exciting especially to somebody who is a solarpunk and architecture nerd.

Screen-shot from Black Panther. the image shows a futuristic city from above surrounded by mountains. there are a number of skyscrapers of varying shapes and designs. The central tower has a large circular building spiralling around it.

About Solarpunk and Afro-Futurism

So to begin, let me just explain a little about solarpunk. Solarpunk is a movement, aesthetic and literary genre that embraces eco friendly, eco-integrated technology in a futuristic setting. It generally envisions a utopia or at least a functioning balanced society rather than a dystopia. At its most basic it is a style and aesthetic involving natural elements like plants, water, wind and sun alongside slick futuristic technology and building. More in depth it is an entire movement and way of thinking that people aspire to and is a goal to work towards not just in terms of technology but socio-politically envisioning a low impact society that provides opportunities and equality for all citizens.

Solarpunk is also closely tied to Afro-Futurism. Afro-Futurism is again simultaneously an aesthetic, a literary genre and a social movement. In brief it grew out of a desire to re-centre sci-fi away from white European style and social constructs. Authors from Africa were creating bold and beautiful sci-fi novels based on their own experiences and cultures and ignoring the “tradition” of sci-fi (and fantasy) being largely dominated by the white Western world which was heavily influenced by historic Europe. Additionally it seeks to draw on current and emerging technology and architecture from African countries. In doing so it challenges the narrative of “Africa” often seen in Western countries that tends to homogenise the entire continent and skim over the modern, functioning and often socially forward cities and countries in Africa focussing instead on wildlife, famine and seemingly less developed tribes.

Afro-futurism by its nature often encapsulates solarpunk ideals and aesthetics focusing on new technologies that work with or make use of natural resources in a sensitive and sustainable manner whilst respecting the cultures and needs of citizens.

So then to Black Panther or more specifically, Wakanda. If you have seen the film or to be honest just seen pro-mo pictures then you may by now have an inkling of why Wakanda and Solarpunk are related. The design of Black Panther’s Wakanda is down to Hannah Beachler, the head production designer for the film. As an aside, Beachler was strongly influenced by award winning architect Zaha Hadid and her iconic modernist designs who I happen to be a fan of. Beachler was also inspired by the Afro-futurist movement as well as the incredible real life modern and traditional architecture of a variety of African countries.

It’s worth noting that, while it’s generally not a good idea to refer to Africa in such a way as to imply one giant monolithic homogenous culture, in the case of Wakanda and Afro-futurism, it makes sense. Afro-futurism positions itself as thematically different to European sci-fi and is a pan-African phonemonon not restricted to any one country plus it deals in fictional creations. Additionally Wakanda itself being a fictional state which exists outside of colonialism and some may argue, represents a “heart” of Africa that brings together a number of different cultures and traditions. Essentially there is no single country to reference when talking about these subjects.

Seen through this context then it’s clear why the Wakanda on screen was a dream come true for an aficionado of Solarpunk or Afro-futurism. But it’s not just because it looks pretty, though it certainly does. The real excitement, for me at least, was the variety and thoughtfulness of the design.

Considering your environment

Solarpunk art often falls into the trap of envisioning the same soaring towers of class and metal alloys covered in plants, solar cells and wind turbines. Accasionally you get some divergence to stucco covered Gaudi like organic structures that sweep and curve around a city. This is a trap because it is missing some of the core ideals of solarpunk design and ethos – that people should live a live which is both in harmony with the world around us as well as living in a sustainable and equal society. The thing is, every environment, country, ecosystem and area is going to have very different needs when it comes to living that solarpunk life. At its most simple we can see this in everyday housing design. Most people in Queensland, Australia for example have houses built to maximise ventilation and minimise glare from the sun. Many houses don’t have any real sort of heating system because it’s simply not needed and insulation would not only be a waste of money but could lead to dangerous overheating. Put that house design in the UK and you are going to have cold, damp unhappy residents. Here we need buildings with thick walls, plenty of insulation, large south facing windows to maximise light and smaller north facing windows to stop us getting chilly – though we do share the need for ventilation to prevent endless damp.

Futuristic architecture and sci-fi technology doesn’t do away with this need to be cognizant of our surroundings and in solarpunk I would say the need is even greater if we want to achieve the near utopian levels of harmony the genre aspires to. But while this is where some solarpunk falls down, it’s where Beachler’s design excels. By drawing on existing architecture and emerging African technologies for her design, she created a Wakanda that works well and integrates into its environment with harmony.

The Importance of Traditional Buildings

Traditional architecture is generally a good place to start to look for simple architectural techniques that make the most of the environment, and this is no different in Africa. In Wakanda this is most obviously seen in the village of the Border Tribe who mostly live and work out of what would be recognised as “traditional” houses made of mud and wattle with thatched roofs. The buildings are cylindrical with conical roofs – similar to those found in Rwanda, Lesotho, Kenya and many other areas - and small windows. They keep the daytime heat out and keep you warm at night. But traditional design isn’t restricted to the “simple living” of the Border Tribe[1], its influence is in the central city as well.


Still from Black Panther. Image shows a bustling street view looking down a wide road. There is a futuristic road-train in he centre, the buildings are varied in size and material.
There are a number of buildings in the city that would appear to be made out of mud or clay walls albeit finished with more modern or technologically advance roofing. In other areas of Africa, for example Ghana and Mali, a number of traditional buildings are made from sweepings curves with mound shaped columns supporting the walls and roofs. They are incredible and beautiful structures, made of ingenious shapes that make the most of natural resources. Tin some cases these walls and towers are strengthened by horizontal beams and rods that project through the outer surface making them bristle like a hedgehog. Again these basic shapes and materials make their way into the fantastic and solarpunk Wakanda on screen.

A close up photo of an ancient mosque in Ghana. The building as tall mound shaped pillars with wooden spurs protruding through the clay.

This integration of traditional techniques, using local materials and building methods that are sympathetic to the local environment in order to reduce overall impact is an essential part of solarpunk design and one that is often over looked.

Modern Architecture is Complex

All that being said, Africa isn’t a continent made up solely of traditional buildings and basic living. Like any other continent on Earth it has its share of modern cities and busy urban spaces. Here we need to consider the general history of Africa and how it fits in to modern institutional racism and what that means for solarpunk. Large parts of Africa were invaded and colonised by European countries. Many of the borders we recognise today were not “naturally occurring” (if any can be said to be) but the result of colonial intervention and war. Additionally architectural styles from the 19thC onwards have been heavily influenced by European settlers as well as mass globalisation and the spread of capitalism. European settlers had specific ideas about what houses and buildings looked like, and though their usual stone and brick wasn’t available they strove to recreate this facsimile of European architecture in the land they had colonised. This wasn’t always successful; as noted these building designs aren’t always suitable for the local conditions.

However it wasn’t all a disaster and fairly quickly European building design was adopted. The rapid increase in global markets and the post-colonial atmosphere of the mid 20th Century accelerated building and development of cities. What was peculiar was the flourishing architectural style of many African cities was still dominated by white European or Israeli[2] architects. Rapidly developing African countries where the perfect setting for radical brutalist and modernist designs of the 50s and 60s. While this undoubtedly fit in with the psyche and mood of the time it does mean that a lot of the modern African architecture that is held in high esteem has a complex history in which it is the product of post colonial colonialism. Indeed for a period there was a lack of non-white “modern architects” as opposed to merely people who build buildings, who originated from African countries as those subjects weren’t taught widely outside of European universities and/or there was segregation acting as a barrier.

Photo by Iwan Baan of La Pyramide in Abadjan, Ivory Coast. The photo shows a large modern building made of concrete and shaped like half a pyramid attached to a tall rectangular tower. The building shows signs of disrepair.

Why do I bring this up in so lengthy a manner? Well it’s because of the values and ethics that are a part of solarpunk. Most people who are into solarpunk would agree that solarpunk societies are diverse and equal, free of prejudice and, not uncommonly, free of Western neo-capitalist ideals. That means that when designing and creating a solarpunk city, especially one that is not located in a European country, it is essential to examine the influences and origins of your design. If your design relies heavily on that of white Europeans for a city in central Africa then not only is it likely that it would be ill-suited stylistically and functionally but you would be ignoring the issue of colonialism and systemic racism. This is the case whether you are envisaging a potential real world future or creating new fictional spaces, because even fictional spaces are influenced by the real world.

In the case of Wakanda and Black Panther there is a thread running throughout the film (and I promise this is not a spoiler) that questions globalisation and colonialism and their impact on non-white, non-European countries. That the architectural design reflects this is a beautiful thing. It shows a level of awareness and consideration that is often neglected in solarpunk and sci-fi design (though I would bet good money on it rarely being left out of afro-futurism).

The modern, futuristic and high tech design of Wakanda does draw on the influence of non-African architects that’s for sure: as noted at the beginning there, Zaha Hadid was stated as a major influence and she was Israeli. But those designs have been chosen with consideration of the real world source material and what including those designs implies for a solarpunk dream city. In the cases where European designed buildings have been referenced they are those which have been embraced by current societies and have integrated themselves into modern cities and are still functional. To many of the 20thC brutalist structures were never completed or were abandoned when they proved unsuitable for their environment. Instead it is more recent architecture, both by African and non-African architects that has been referenced as modern African architecture is far closer to solarpunk ideals than its predecessors. It’s in African cities that you will see some of the most cutting edge uses of materials, inspiring design and forward thinking sustainable and eco-friendly building. Not only is that a part of the solarpunk ethos, it is the way of life of Wakanda.

Photo of the Leo Surgical Centre Designed by Francis Kere an architect from Burkina Faso. The image shows a wide walkway between rows of adjoining buildings the buildings have open roofs and wide overhangs.
That Bechler managed to integrate the traditional features and techniques with cutting edge design and modern and sci-fi technology is to be applauded. This is how Sci-fi and solarpunk cities should work. I wouldn't say it's how they should look because if there is anything you take away from this it's that solarpunk cities should be defined by their locale. But it is how they should be formed: seamlessly blending traditional and simple with new and high tech. Creating a city that is free of structural inequality and reflects the idealised social structure of your solarpunk world. In Wakanda the streets between the clay and vibrinium walls are wide and easy to pass through, there are no cars but plentiful public transport systems. there are places to sit and buildings can be entered into easily. The space is built for the people who live there and works with the environment around it to remove any social barriers whether they be from outside influence or physical ability. It is harmonious not just in society but in it's very structure. 

And that, is why Black Panther was an exciting film to watch for any solarpunk, architecture or afro-punk enthusiast. Ecologically smart, location sensitive novel design.

Still from Black Panther showing the mountain headquarters of the Jabari Tribe jutting out of the mountainside.
Included because it was my favourite piece of design.


[1] The simple living of farming war rhinos and defending the border.
[2] In the mid 20th Century several African nations had strong diplomatic relations with Israel which supported various anti-colonial and independence movements. The agreements were damaged in the 1970s due to the Arab-Israeli war, limiting foreign investment and development.
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