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Fake buildings and gray development in Nairobi

Constance Smith

In Nairobi, the speed of urban growth is producing a parallel threat of architectural failure: in a recent spate of tower block collapses, many have died. Nairobians describe collapsed tower blocks as “fake,” referring to ideas of the counterfeit, as well as anxieties about morally suspect economies. Simultaneously, state-led development is re-envisioning Nairobi as a “world-class” city of spectacular infrastructure and gleaming high-rises. Though seemingly disconnected processes, the two are deeply entangled. Building on Africanist debates about the power of the double and the relationship between the surface and the underneath, I explore this superficially sleek but materially fragile landscape through a lens of “gray development,” complicating standard distinctions between the informal and the formal to uncover the underneath of Nairobi’s world-class fantasies.

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Tower block "failures"? High-rise anthropology

Constance Smith and Saffron Woodcraft

Th e high-rise tower block is an ambiguous construction: a much-maligned architectural form yet a persistent symbol of modernity and aspiration. It is also a fulcrum for discourses about urban failure, broken communities, widening urban inequality, and insecurity. Recent tower block disasters, from the Grenfell Tower fire in London to high-rise collapses in Nairobi, have intensified such debates. In this introduction to the theme section, we explore “tower block failure” as both event and discourse. Engaging with scholarship on global urbanism, verticality, and failure as a generative force, we highlight the particular discursive, social, political, and material constellations of “failure” as it manifests in relation to tower blocks. We propose that exploring what failure sets in motion—following what failure does, rather than what it means—can help inform our understanding of urban transformation.