The global blockbuster Black Panther reveals an unexpected and uncredited star – Birnin Zana – the film’s fictional capital city of African nation, Wakanda. Organic and dense, the city of Birnin Zana exhibits a preference for street life flowing through a medley of architecture constituting a wondrous and energetic cityscape – an imaginary example of a “traditional city” (a term coined by urbanist Andrew Alexander Price in reference to urban development that emerges organically over a span of time “by people colonizing and building close together”).
The government of Wakanda does not wield technology, economics, architecture, or planning as a means of control. Nor does capitalism manifest as sterilizing culture. Instead, the capital of Black Panther is portrayed as a colorful and vibrant metropolis, one manifested in people with their own distinct music, language, fashion, dance, all surrounded by a dazzling polychromatic palette of patterns representing the numerous tribes unified under the singular banner of a country. Wakanda illustrates an ideal of technological supremacy, but not one antithetical to strong ties to ancient traditions and cultures.
Black Panther’s artists and designers undoubtedly looked to real world architecture like the Reunification Monument in Yaounde, Cameroon (top) and the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, (bottom) for real world inspiration for their imaginative depiction of Afro-futuristic urbanism. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 photos by Mark Fischer and Adam Fagen).
Cities are living beings; they consume, respire, and excrete. What makes each city unique is how culture and history manifest in their planning, open space, and architecture. But in modern times, cities now reflect a sterile landscapes devoid of the identifiable unique characteristics traditional cities exhibit – a reflection of the influences of imperialism, capitalism, and globalism erasing regional and human-scale developments. This is not a fault of cities, but instead express the eventuality of a Western notion shaped by mechanized culture and easily replicable architecture. The city of Black Panther diverges away from this notion noticeably.
As someone obsessed with exploring ideas about experiencing urban form, watching Black Panther inspired numerous thoughts related to design, urbanism, and culture. The following are reasons why Black Panther depicts an urban ideal worth aspiring toward:
Technology strengthens tradition: In typical depictions of the future, highly advanced technology coupled with trans-national economies results in a homogenized global culture, one where clothing, architecture, vehicles, and people adopt uniformity. Diversity in culture has given way to globalism and the ‘design’ of new technologies. Everything is sleek, colors are muted, and the city is building upon building, connected through flying cars, transport tubes, and transport pods. Machines, infrastructure, and technology are in the forefront of urban form, and life occurs inside. In Black Panther, Wakandan culture and tradition plays ever prominent. Coupled with the efficiency and power of technology is the expression of culture through color, pattern, and form.
Urban form targets human-scaled interaction: One critique of the modern city is it focuses architecture over its inhabitants. Modern cities have lost touch with human scale, trading in human interaction for mechanical and technological transactions. Commerce was once local, and life was centered on the street. One of most memorable scenes of the film unfolds within the capital city of Birnin Zana, on its streets, where people are shown in relation to the surrounding urban form. Even in technologically advanced Wakanda, the street remains the place for social interaction, shopping, dining, and play.
Culture expressed through architecture: Instead of a city of shiny glass towers, Wakanda’s architecture is shown spanning various ages with numerous traditional motifs applied across buildings. Old one-story buildings stand proudly next to 10-story buildings, with skyscrapers reminiscent of the real-life La Pyraminde in Abidjan or Kigali International Airport interspersed. This futuristic marriage between old and new architecture parallels the aforementioned merging of technology with tradition characterizing Wakanda as a nation and culture.
Respect of Nature and Organicism: Wakanda portrays an imbued respect for the natural environment. The city is shown embedded within a beautiful natural environment, and throughout the film, the power and awe of the surrounding vast and pristine natural landscape is alluded to. Here, the landscape is not merely a backdrop, but the actual stage on which the capital city sits.
The city is not a machine: Contemporary urbanism and planning tends to focus upon creating machines for living. Capitalism fed this notion as a form of public process and urban culture. Conversely, the traditionalist would say a city should serve the people, citing human interaction as the defining attribute of urbanism. Cultural nuance and variety physically expressed in urban architecture is important in establishing a city as purposefully human, and not a machine. Wakanda follows this standard.
This is only a quick list of observations and thoughts after watching Black Panther. Someday I’d love to dive deeper and explore the influence of urban form in shaping the landscape of the city and their effects upon urban behavior. For now, Wakanda can serve as an imaginative ideal, one melding culture, nature, and architecture.