Letter from Kenya (six)

It seems that every school child knows how to say “How are you?” It is a chant they do. A mzungu (white person, literally translated to “wanderer”) is on the street and all the school children immediately begin the chant “ouryou?” and repeat.

Yes, endearing at first, and perhaps I even responded, fine and you? when I first arrived. But now, I dismiss them, knowing that it is a rote response. But there are those children that actually engage – or attempt to – in conversation; the ones that smile coily, that are actually curious and looking for some type of interaction. I smile back at them, wave, sometimes shake their hands.

Often the school children follow you, especially in less populated areas. Are they protecting you? Probably just interested in the wanderers. Makes me wonder how I must appear to them. The westerner I am, “diversity” is something that I don’t really notice until it isn’t there. Furthermore, I was always taught “not to stare” or to ignore those that were significantly “different”. Here they stare, call out to you (yes, “OBAMA” has even been shouted to me, though I don’t think it was because they suspected that I was American).

The most charming account of this that I can share was on the bus. As I was sitting in the aisle near the middle of the bus, I made a point to check out all of my fellow passengers going by. Almost immediately after a mother with a baby wrapped in a kanga and another daughter by hand passed by, I felt a tug at the back of my head. I looked behind me, but all I saw were backs. The ride was uneventful, but at Kenyatta

Hospital (near the end of my trip and a very busy stop), I again watched the other passengers as they left. The mother passed by and at the same time I felt a tug. Promptly I turned to see the culprit: the oldest of the woman’s two daughters, no more than 7 or 8. I smiled at her. She bashfully looked away, and scrambled to catch up with her mother and younger sister.

Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

Letter from Kenya (four)

*Esther washes all the clothes on Saturdays. “I don’t have help come in, so Saturday is the only day that I can wash everything.” Almost immediately she retracks the “everything” and explains that the heavy clothes are washed on Saturdays, but the other clothes, the “light clothing”, is washed during the week – “a bit every day”.

Assuming that she does not have a washing machine (I have yet to see a machine in even the middle-class homes), I try to calculate in my mind how long it must take her to wash the clothes and bedding for a family of three, by hand.

Everything is scrubbed with brushes, and many of the women who come in as housekeepers scrub too hard and ruin the clothes; this is why she prefers to wash everything herself. Esther has a 23 year-old daughter and shows me a photo of her on her smart phone. She tells me that she is finishing her studies, but she requires her to wash her own clothes. The loads are getting lighter, but I am still having a hard time calculating the hours it must take.

When I arrive at her house for the first time, it is a Sunday evening – after church. We enter the metal main door of the building and make our way up the dimly lit concrete stairs. Turning left at the first landing, I am greeted with, at least, one woman per doorway scrubbing and dunking, scrubbing and dunking, scrubbing and dunking. Clothes are hung on thin rope strung between walkways. A lulling chatter fills the hallway, accompanying the scrub-dunk rhythm kept by the same busy ladies.

The socialization built into the lives of Nairobians keeps me bewildered. I have been conditioned to segregate, categorize, and compartmentalize, making time for everything through strategic decision.

*Name changed for privacy.


Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Nairobi, Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

official website • Nicole’ blogfollow her project on Facebook

Letter from Kenya (three)

In Nairobi, you can make time stand still. I’m contemplating the stationary second hand on the watch of the woman next to me. She quietly stares at the people who are not frozen; the men with wide gaits moving swiftly, and the women passing us less hurriedly in pairs or groups of three unassumingly chatting in their dress suits and heels. They will all most certainly get to their homes before we do, but our existence has been suspended on the #40 Citi Hoppa bus to Ngumo.

I am surprised that I don’t hear Hot 105 pumping through the speakers promoting “1 second can win you 1,000 bob” (Kenyan slang for Kenyan schilling). Instead my attention is shaken from the motionless second hand by the jangle of coins in the conductor’s hand. I look up and he tells me, “40 bob” in little more than a whisper. Despite the cosmopolitan hustle and bustle, the capital city can be quite taciturn using gesture to communicate. He collects our fares and passes me 2 tickets separated by a perforation.

As I hand her her ticket, I steal a glance at my neighbor’s watch, but the second hand is stubborn; the bus driver turns off the engine and activates the parking break. The woman across the aisle sighs as she turns the page in her book about the habits of being efficient. The man in front of her relaxes further into his seat as a breeze cuts through the bus bringing with it the exhaust from the other cars and buses in the parking lot that is sometimes Valley Road.

I close my eyes so as to attune my ears to the murmur of a conversation behind me, hoping to glean a detail or two about their lives.


Nicole Rademacher is a currently in Nairobi, Kenya until the beginning of May doing research and documentation for her current project investigating domestic ritual (made possible by the North Carolina Arts Council, USA and many private donars/patrons).

official website • Nicole’ blog • follow her project on Facebook

Cities of desire and anxiety: urban impressions from Japan

Part 1. Exoticism and the city

Travel can be a strange and inexplicable thing. Every time I return to Japan, I’m constantly intrigued by how fascinatingly different it is as a place on most spheres of life; i.e. culturally, socially, economically and architecturally. As an unashamed tourist armed with my brochures, maps and pamphlets, I’m inevitably drawn to Japan through an exotic eye and it is this exoticism and the idea of what that means for the architecture of cities that I’m most interested in illustrating throughout the following parts.

Part 2. Gardens

As a city, Kyoto is well contained within its semi-enclosed basin topography. The street grid and buildings are located mostly (if not all) on the flat and for this reason one can immediately gain an appreciation for how the tree-covered hills frame the city and add legibility to the north, east and west. I was told that the belt of greenery is more or less a reflection of the municipal government’s intention to preserve the surrounding hills for cultural and historic reasons – in some cases dedicated temple grounds. Most of the temples and its gardens inhabit areas of sanctuary to the north, east and west – between the wooded hills and city proper: a no-man’s land for spiritual connection, but close enough to the city to sense its physicality. In each axial direction, subway lines work in tandem with the seamlessly efficient bus system infrastructure to provide connections to the various tourist experiences. At first instance, Kyoto seems like a virtual city of gardens: a ‘Tourist world-city’ where experience is seemingly specifically engineered for the enjoyment of its visitors. To my surprise, not far away from my mother’s apartment was the ‘Garden of Fine Arts’ designed by architect Tadao Ando and completed in 1994 (see fig. 1). It’s a curious enclave just off the main road in Kamigamo, consisting of a series concrete ramps that lead visitors through a journey of viewing large recreations of well known art works (apparently the recreation of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement is approximately the same size as the original in the Sistine Chapel), carefully reproduced on large porcelain panels: it claims to be the ‘world’s first outdoor art garden’ (see fig. 2).

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Julie Mehretu and exploring the syncretic

Julie Mehretu is an Ethiopian-born artist (from Addis Ababa -coincidental link to a quick post on Freerange on Mulatu Astatke also hailing from Addis Ababa), who advanced her studies in Fine Art in the US and now works and lives in New York (generally).

I am continually drawn to her work, which is not accidentally architectural: she speaks very well on the subject of her work as studies/cosmologies/maps of cities and other tectonic and cultural spaces/structures.  I danced with the idea (and still do, often) of using this work in my architectural research, but whether or not I weave this into an academic enquiry, it remains a formative series of works in my worldview of architecture, and the greater ‘expanded field’ of things/worldliness.

Palimpsest (Old Gods)(Please click to get the super-size-me size).

I’ve recently acquired a monograph ‘Black City’ which is the first to publish a substantial collection of her work, past and present, and it is simply amazing.  I’ve selected a few of my favourites here, but you can view some of her work here, at White Cube who represent her, and here is a video/interview with Mehretu in Berlin, where her latest exhibition ‘Grey Area’ was shown (at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin) which has now travelled to the Guggenheim New York if you’re there, go see it!

An interpretation that I dallied with for a while, and hope to re-animate in the future, is the notion of syncretism, which refers to an ‘attempt at reconciliation of two opposing or different principles, practices, or parties…’, in my reading and understanding (or at least the part that I enjoy about it) is the idea of an equilibrium which nontheless sustains its aspects of tension. This idea not surprisingly was something that I was reading in architecture schools –my subject of interest– how an academic is responsible for simultaneously critiquing a body of knowledge, whilst disseminating it, or how an architecture student grapples with the hypothetical studio project (with all its fantasy, experimentation, failure, risk etc etc), whilst knowingly attempting to replicate and learn principles of the real world.  They are contradictory objectives, but they have to be maintained.

This is clearly not an idea exclusive to architectural education or architecture or architects, which is why I mentioned my deep interest in this work as a framework or doorway into an expanded field of thinking and being.  The obvious subject of some works in particular address the City, and it is immediately obvious that these works are grappling with the coded, multi-layered, crumbling, ghosting, dynamic, etc etc, representation of the City.  They are both fragmented, but approach wholeness; they surround the void with speeding and violent (or beautiful) mass and lines and points; they are architectural, but never building; they are constructed, of deconstructions; they attempt new meaning by obfuscating prior meaning… and they are huge.  The Seven Acts of Mercy (pictured here) is over 6 metres long, and nearly 3m tall.

I think these works probably explain more about me than I have been able to explain them to you about architecture (or the City), but I still wanted to share.  I’d love to hear from anyone in NY who could make it along to her show, it’s open til October I think.