Coloniality of Infrastructure - Kenny Cupers - Editorial


Kenny Cupers

Atlantropa, by Herman Sörgel, 1932. Source: Exhibition poster, TU Munich Museum.

Coloniality of Infrastructure
September 2021

Coloniality of Infrastructure is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture, Critical Urbanisms at the University of Basel, and the African Centre for Cities of the University of Cape Town, featuring contributions by Emilio Distretti, Megan Eardley, Samia Henni, Achille Mbembe, Sarah Nuttall, Irene Peano, Zandi Sherman, Huda Tayob, and Sophie Toupin.

Imagine that a giant, thirty-five-kilometer-wide dam were to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. Then imagine a similar dam at the Dardanelles, the much narrower strait that divides the Aegean Sea from the Sea of Marmara and ultimately the Black Sea. These two feats of engineering would allow the Mediterranean Sea to be hydrologically closed off. With the Mediterranean water basin no longer supplied with fresh water and continually evaporating, its water level would gradually fall. If the dams closed for approximately 100 years, the Mediterranean would sink by 100 meters. Vast, fertile tracts of land, formerly covered with ocean, could now be cultivated, and port towns would be transformed into continental cities. Modern transportation and communication lines could connect Spain with Morocco and Sicily with Tunisia, as Africa and Europe form a single continent.

This vision of continental merger is what Herman Sörgel spent most of his life working toward. From 1927 until his death in 1952, the German architect worked tirelessly to design and promote the project he called “Atlantropa,” so named to suggest the founding of a single continent along the Atlantic Ocean.1

The Mediterranean has not evaporated, but over the course of the twentieth century, continental relations between Europe and Africa changed in ways that make Atlantropa look more like premonition than racist fantasy. In the international press at the time, Sörgel’s project was rarely described as a lunatic’s dream, for it truthfully represented Europe’s prevailing ideologies. Following the destruction wrought by World War I, European elites feared civilizational decline, especially with growing American and Russian hegemony. To ensure European dominance in this rapidly changing world, they claimed, Europe and Africa had to become “integrated.” This actual project of “integration” became known as Eurafrica, and aimed to entrench European colonial power in Africa.

Eurafrica was a more advanced, coordinated form of African colonialism, which European powers begun to coordinate only with the Berlin conference of 1884-85. Even though it is almost entirely written out of official histories of the European Union, the project of Eurafrica was central to the history of European integration.2 During the 1950s, leading European politicians still espoused the idea that “it is in Africa that Europe will be made.”3 Uniting Europe around infrastructural governance (demonstrated by the European Coal and Steel Community) would finally allow it to achieve its so-called “civilizing mission” in Africa. Reframing colonialism as development, Eurafrica folded older structures of racial capitalism into a new economy of dependency shaped by global Cold War competition. Eurafrican colonization turned vast swaths of the continent, including the Sahara, into resource hinterlands.

World map by Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi. Source: Paneuropa (Vienna: Pan-Europa-Verlag, 1923).


Despite the end of formal colonial rule, Eurafrican infrastructures continue to shape the present. And even as Africa enters a new age of global financial investment and development, this infrastructure attests to the specific colonial power relations that built it. Pipes in the Mediterranean Sea continue to bring African gas to Europe, and many private extraction industries that were born under colonialism are still nurtured by former colonial powers and live on today. The national economies of these former colonial powers continue to rely on mineral extraction from Africa, now for supposedly “cleaner” electronic products and energy systems. The infrastructure that connects Africa with Europe and the rest of the world still facilitates the mobility of things and people for the benefit of the Global North, while continuing to restrict African mobility and regionalization. Once facilitating European settlers moving southward, infrastructure is now built to contain unwanted mobility northward. European infrastructure and development aid for Africa increasingly aspires to counter the movements of “undesired” migrant populations without touching the global extraction industries and economies that have their roots in colonial rule.

Since the Mediterranean migrant crisis of 2015, such so-called “migration management”—but more aptly called the “death of asylum” by infrastructural means—has risen to the top of the EU policy agenda.4 Europe has been waging an exceptionally lethal war against migration, facilitating a growing range of infrastructures including border walls and databases, drones and ships, reception centers and deportation hubs. This infrastructural complex has shifted from what was initially an emergency measure into a permanent exception, such as the Greek “hotspots,” some of which have already transformed into de facto concentration camps. These hotspots are only the most visible elements of an imperial, global border apparatus. Outsourcing and externalizing its border work to African and Middle Eastern states, the EU’s infrastructural power far exceeds its territorial jurisdiction.

The EU hotspots as European infrastructure. Photo by Thomas Schirmer, 2019.

What does it mean to speak about the coloniality of infrastructure in this context, and from which position? It is obvious that current networks and systems of transportation, communication, and energy have roots in colonialism. Railways, ports, and telegraph lines have long been studied as so-called “tools of empire,” facilitating the extraction and movement of things for imperial centers while curtailing the freedom and mobility of colonized peoples on an unprecedented scale. Yet colonial relations of power exist as a constitutive part of the global modernity we are living today, and the coloniality of infrastructure is more than just a matter of colonial ruins. The accelerated forms of colonialism and the consequent “becoming black” of our world today, as Achille Mbembe suggests, call on us to understand the persistent promise of infrastructure—to deliver progress, modernization, and development—as entangled with colonial ways of doing, knowing, and being.5

Infrastructure shapes territories and governs the movements and processes within and across them. But infrastructure excludes, contains, and subjugates as much as it includes, moves, or liberates. The effects of infrastructure, therefore, are often multiple, paradoxical, or inconsistent. Infrastructure has been targeted in anti-colonial struggles, but it has also played a key role in struggles for independence. During the 1950s, dams, highways, and electricity networks became the unquestioned material basis of post-liberation nation-building and development on the African continent. Sometimes they even mobilized projects of Panafrican integration and international solidarity, where infrastructure would, finally, connect Africa with itself, spurring inter-African economic and social development, as well as the formation of a new African collectivity. Despite the decolonial rhetorics of Pan-African development, the project for a Trans-African highway network in the late 1960s and early 1970s was shaped by a web of governmental and corporate initiatives that reproduced late-colonial norms and ideas.6

Map of the Trans-African Highway project from the late 1970s. Source: Rolf Hofmeier, “Die Transafrikastraßen: Stand der Planung und Realisierung,” Africa Spectrum 14, no. 1 (1979): 31–51, 35.

Attending to the coloniality of infrastructure allows us to decenter a governing rationality based on calculation and foreground other practices of world-making. Infrastructure is inherited from the past—not only through material artifacts and physical configurations but also through spatial imaginaries, affective relations, and shared memories.7 Such inheritances may be immaterial, as in the way a colonial railway conveys romantic memories of travel for some or resilience against the traumas of subjugation for others. They may be projective, fueling individual aspirations of prosperity, mobility, or belonging. Or they may signify “roads not taken,” propelling dreams of another, radically different future. Inheritance can also be forged from material artifacts. As new, monumental infrastructures of postcolonial nation-building have risen, colonial-era infrastructures have crumbled.

Africa is now experiencing another infrastructure boom, shaped by a new financial and political constellation increasingly dominated by China’s global presence. As African countries are attempting to learn lessons from East Asia and become middle-income economies, however, they do not just fall into political or economic strategies that can be understood through a European imperial lens. Even though many low-income countries have little bargaining power in today’s global financial environment, their infrastructure projects speak of an African future. To gauge the possibility that new infrastructure projects make good on their promises, we need to account for what people do with and through infrastructure—not only in the livelihoods they forge, but also in the lives they project by means of its promises. It is in this way that we may see the spatial imaginations and political struggles at work in infrastructure, that we may understand their effects on mobility and belonging in ways that challenge not only the purview of nation-states but also the established categories of “Europe” and “Africa.” The effects of infrastructure are not only circumscribed by, but may also transform, colonial hierarchies of power.


See Wolfgang Voigt, Atlantropa: Weltenbauen am Mittelmeer, Ein Architektentraum der Moderne (Munich: Dölling und Galitz, 1998); Alexander Gall, Das Atlantropa-Projekt: die Geschichte einer gescheiterten Vision. Herman Sörgel und die Absenkung des Mittelmeers (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 1998).


Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson, Eurafrica: The Untold History of European Integration and Colonialism (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 13.


Jean-Michel de Lattre, “Les grands ensembles africains,” Politique étrangère 20, no. 5 (1955): 543.


Alison Mountz, The Death of Asylum: Hidden Geographies of the Enforcement Archipelago (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020).


Achille Mbembe, Brutalisme (Paris: La Découverte, 2020).


Such large-scale infrastructure required technical expertise and development aid, which in effect further entrenched Africa’s unequal relationship to the Global North. See Kenny Cupers and Prita Meier, “Infrastructure Between Statehood and Subjecthood: The Trans-African Highway,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 79, no. 1 (2020): 61–81.


Saidiya Hartman’s work on inheritance can inspire us to explore how multiple inheritances shape infrastructural lifeworlds and connections.

Coloniality of Infrastructure is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture, Critical Urbanisms at the University of Basel, and the African Centre for Cities of the University of Cape Town.

Colonialism & Imperialism, Land & territory
Infrastructure, Africa, Mediterranean, Editorial, Postcolonialism
Return to Coloniality of Infrastructure

Kenny Cupers is Professor of Architectural History and Urban Studies at the University of Basel, where he is Head of Urban Studies and Head of the Department of Social Sciences.


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