Agro Commune

Challenging neo-colonial exploitation with utopian realism

By Stephanie Kyuyoung Lee, Office of Human Resources

Stephanie Kyuyoung Lee is a spatial practitioner and researcher based in New York where she is a wageworker at Carlo Ratti Associati. She holds a Master of Architecture from Rice University and a Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Anthropology and Studio Art from Wesleyan University. She has previously collaborated with offices in Tokyo, Beijing, Myanmar, and Seoul. Stephanie currently directs the Office of Human Resources (OHR), a design practice that often explores the intersection of post-colonial anxiety and labour systems in the built/non-built environment.

Agro Commune is a para-fictional investigation where architecture is utilised as a lens to expose and respond to current geopolitical conditions. It began with the belief that architectural realities rarely start from a tabula rasa state. Rather, existing systems act as catalysts for new imaginaries by disrupting and reconfiguring the present. Through an investigation of large-scale farming structures and production processes, this project conceptualises a future of co-ownership in industrial farming as an alternative to the current status quo with global corporations thriving on the extraction of labour, capital and the lands of others.

In sub-Saharan Africa, foreign corporations are vigorously irrigating vast rural areas for agro-industrial purposes, displacing local smallholders from their land to secure stable supplies for the rest of the world. Since the global food crisis of 2007-08, there has been an exponential growth in large-scale land acquisition in Africa. Foreign “land grabs” are redrawing the global map of farmland ownership as foreign direct investments continue the legacy of colonisation. Western, Chinese, and Middle Eastern companies are leading a twenty-first century land rush in African farmland where more than forty million hectares are now under 99-year leases. Greenhouse colonies have become one of many architectural representations of unequal exchanges fostered by global capitalism.

The production system of Kenyan floriculture, for example, forms a complex web of biological, mechanical and socioeconomic relationships. Heavily monopolised by Dutch corporations, this multimillion-dollar industry in the former British colony accounts for thirty-five percent of all flower sales in the European Union.1 The sheer scale of mechanised floriculture in the country has shifted the identity of an individual farmer to that of a “factory worker”. Since ninety percent of flower farm operations are foreign-owned, the commodification of cut flowers in Kenya represents a capitalist process of neo-colonial exploitation.

Agro Commune

Lake Naivasha site plan. Image: Office of Human Resources

The project Agro Commune is a model for collective infrastructure. Expressed as a five-part mural, it narrates a regional network of flower farm cooperatives around Lake Naivasha, a hotspot for Kenyan cut flower operations. Each frame details phases of a potential co-operative infrastructure based on existing territorial conditions: Rural, Safari Park, Industrial, Lake Shore, and Global. As a system, the project combines loose regional planning (civic centres) with a tight network of smallholder farmers (prototype). Theories of social farming and relational trade are implemented to form a regional infrastructure as an alternative to extractive models of industrial agriculture. A kit of parts maps out the system of crop production and materiality of labour tools.

Agro Commune

Fieldwork: Hveragerði Greenhouse Village. Image: Stephanie Kyuyoung Lee

The computer network pioneer Paul Baran stated that operation systems vary in strength when certain nodes have a concentration of power.2 Therefore, if current industrial planning models were to oscillate between monocentric and polycentric organisation, Kenya’s local agro-technology could form the foundation for a distributed cooperative farm network to create a direct link between producer and consumer. By using existing flower farms on site, the farm prototype is designed to mutate and test the boundaries of the standard industrial greenhouse grid. The production chain of the cut flower industry (i.e. growing, grading and packing) is formalised along with housing and guided civic facilities. Additionally, four types of regional civic centres work simultaneously to serve as mediators between different stakeholders in the region. These civic centres form a network of semi‑monumental structures that assist a local co‑operative economy and correspond with each specific territorial condition. 

Agro Commune
Agro Commune
Agro Commune
Agro Commune
Agro Commune

Five-part mural where each frame details phases of a potential co-operative infrastructure based on existing territorial conditions: Rural, Safari Park, Industrial, Lake Shore, and Global. Images: Office of Human Resources

1 Milena Veselinovic,
“Got Roses This Valentine’s Day? They Probably Came From Kenya”, cnn, March 15, 2015, CNN, cnn.com/2015/03/16/africa/kenya-flower-industry (accessed April 28, 2020).
2 Paul Baran, On Distributed Communications Networks, memorandum RM-3420-PR for The Rand Corporation, August 1964.

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