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Liberating Constructions

A new exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil Am Rhein, Germany, explores the boom in modernist architecture in Africa following independence in the 1950s and 1960s.


The transition to independence in Central and Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1950s and 1960s coincided with a particularly strong period of Modernist and forward-thinking architecture in the region, with many young nations exploring and asserting their identities through the built environment. From school-building projects to five-star hotels, from new capital cities to international conference centres and fairgrounds, the post-independence period was an extraordinarily energetic time for architecture on the continent. Presenting documentation relating to over 50 buildings from the period, Architecture of Independence in the Vitra Design Museum Gallery is one of the first exhibitions to throw light not just on the architects and the buildings involved in the projects but also the political context through which they emerged and which they continue to shape and reflect. As curator Manuel Herz comments: “architecture can be used as a witness and testament to the hugely complex and ambiguous decolonisation process.”

Presenting photographs including many by the photographer Iwan Baan, the exhibition focuses on the specific architecture and politics of five countries in Sub-Saharan Africa: Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya and Zambia. By narrowing the field in this way, the exhibition is able to explore in more depth the differences between each country’s approach to architecture and consequently a narrative develops in relation to each country of their different paths in the period following independence. As Herz makes clear, the architectural approaches of each individual nation varied dramatically depending on non-political factors such as climate. Kenya, for example, features buildings with many more external details and features than Senegal, for example, due to the different prevailing wind and weather conditions.

The differences in architectural character are even more strikingly revealing when it comes to political factors, where the design of buildings says much about the character of the government being forged following independence. In Senegal, for example, the first President Léopold Sédar Senghor could be seen as using architecture as part of a wider cultural expression of his country’s independence by attempting to foster a culture of design and aesthetics. An intellectual with a profound grasp of aesthetics, Senghor co-founded the intellectual movement Négritude along with the poet-politicians Aimé Césaire and Léon Damas. The movement asserted distinctly African values and qualities in art and culture in an effort to reclaim cultural authority from former colonial powers. The types of building project undertaken in Senegal to a certain extent reflect this vision of a distinctly African identity being promoted to the world. The Dakar International Fair Grounds are one example where the project reflects the history and tradition of Senegalese architecture in a strikingly modern and outward-looking way.

The sorts of building projects undertaken in the period reveal not only the priorities of the new governments in relation to internal politics but also how they saw themselves in relation to other countries on the international stage. One of the difficulties in a straightforward narrative of countries of Central and Sub-Saharan Africa expressing their new-found nationhood through architecture is the fact that the majority of the architects involved in building projects came from foreign countries. In certain cases, the architects came from former colonial powers. This can be interpreted as them attempting to exert neo-colonial influence over the economic and political development of the countries post-independence. In the 1950s, for example, the Architectural Association in London ran a post-professional masters degree in Tropical Architecture, with the specific intention of teaching architects, either from Britain or the Commonwealth, to build in the countries of the Commonwealth in order to reclaim some architectural influence even after the loss of colonial authority. By attempting to become experts in the specific challenges facing architects in the climates of the former colonies, it was hoped that British and Commonwealth architects would still be able to secure building contracts within the newly independent countries. The intention may have been to assist former colonies to develop suitable architecture; indeed, there was a fruitful exchange of ideas and students between the Architectural Association in London and the newly formed School of Architecture at Kumasi in Ghana. The effect, in some cases, was one of maintaining the influence of Britain in the region; however, in many cases, there was no cause for cynicism or criticism. Many architects devoted a great deal of time and energy to projects in Africa, such as the Frenchman Henri Chomette, who consciously tried to encourage and develop architecture at a local level in the region.

In Ghana, a former British colony that gained independence in 1957, the extensive trips to Ghana and, in particular, he found design inspiration in the traditional Wa Na houses of the northern region of the country. Characterised by tapering buttresses supporting a horizontal mud and brick structure, Weese in effect inverted this format by situating an elevated main floor on concrete columns surrounded by further columns which taper to the top of the embassy building on the outside. It is a successful realisation of an architect adapting their style to incorporate the traditions and forms of Ghana. Neither was the climate overlooked, since the overhanging roof was intended to provide shade. These factors have meant that the building was very popular among the local people and with the government of Ghana.

For obvious reasons, many project commissioners preferred to avoid former colonial powers when employing architects and opted for designers from countries perceived as untainted by history, such as the Scandinavian number of countries vying for influence in the region following its formation as the Republic of Ghana can be evidenced from the diversity of buildings in its capital, Accra, from domestic properties to the futuristic Independence Arch. The National Museum of Ghana, for example, was designed by the British firm Fry, Drew, Drake and Lasdun and intended to express the national identity of the country through its collections. However, its unveiling right on the cusp of the country’s independence celebrations and the fact that the architects were from the existing colonial power complicate the building’s significance. Another modernist building of note in Accra is the US Embassy, which was designed by an American architect. The majority of building projects in the post-independence era were undertaken by European or Israeli architects.

However, Harry Weese’s embassy building is also one of the most exquisite examples of architecture in Ghana. His research for the building involved extensive trips to Ghana and, in particular, he found design inspiration in the traditional Wa Na houses of the northern region of the country. Characterised by tapering buttresses supporting a horizontal mud and brick structure, Weese in effect inverted this format by situating an elevated main floor on concrete columns surrounded by further columns which taper to the top of the embassy building on the outside. It is a successful realisation of an architect adapting their style to incorporate the traditions and forms of Ghana. Neither was the climate overlooked, since the overhanging roof was intended to provide shade.

These factors have meant that the building was very popular among the local people and with the government of Ghana.
For obvious reasons, many project commissioners preferred to avoid former colonial powers when employing architects and opted for designers from countries perceived as untainted by history, such as the Scandinavian countries, Israel and nations of the non-aligned movement such as Serbia. However, Herz comments: “No matter where the architects came from, if they came from foreign countries, there was always a political dimension. The political did not always overshadow other influences, but it was always a factor.”

The turn towards Scandinavian architects can be seen for example in the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi, designed by the Norwegian Karl Henrik Nøstvik. A striking tower which is regarded by many Kenyans as a powerful symbol of the country’s independence and international outlook, the Conference Centre was the tallest edifice in Nairobi when built and remains one of the most iconic and imposing structures on the cityscape. Nøstvik incorporated many of the recognisable features of Scandinavian modern design but he did so in a way that also adapted his style to the society and climate in which he was building. A light terracotta on the external façade is an expression of traditional Kenyan architectural style, while the use of geometric shapes could be seen as coming straight from his Scandinavian roots. Cylinders, cones and cuboids are intricately interwoven to create a sense of a country building its future. In terms of the climate, Karl Henrik Nøstvik ensured the building incorporated both inside and outside space, featuring a courtyard with pools, fountains, gardens and a statue of Jomo Kenyatta, the first President of Kenya, whose influence was key to the building of the centre and indeed to Kenyan post-independence identity.

The Côte d’Ivoire also offers a particularly interesting example of a country where the personality and vision of the President influenced the sort of architecture that was commissioned. The most striking example of Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s architectural ambition is the development of the new capital Yamoussoukro at the site of the small agricultural town in which the President was born. Transformed into a city, its architecture expresses grandness but is also problematic, with an enormous urban grid punctuated with edifices such as ministries, hotels and a huge basilica entirely out of sync with their surrounding environment. However, Herz cautions against seeing this solely as the grandiose project of the President because there was at its heart a genuine vision of creating a thriving community for Ivorians.

However, while Yamoussoukro is problematic, it is in the economic centre of Côte d’Ivoire, Abidjan, where Houphouët-Boigny’s vision reaches its fullest expression and where the link between the building and the country’s history is clearest. Herz points in particular to the Hotel Ivoire as a building that has been both a symbol and a testament to the different stages the country has been through since independence. The hotel was designed by the architects Heinz Fenchel and Thomas Leitersdorf in the 1960s. It was funded and developed by the Israeli businessman Moshe Mayer with backing from the then-President, who had visions for the country to become the African Riviera. When first built, it was self-consciously and successfully luxurious and glamorous, including among its amenities cinemas, coffee shops, an ice skating rink and a casino. An important and ambitious building project, the hotel became a focal point for the country’s rapid post-independence economic boom, when international visitors, including Elvis Presley, visited. The hotel has also been a witness to less celebrated events. In the first decades of independence, it hosted major international political congresses in its impressive facilities. However, it would become central to one of the most difficult periods for the country since gaining its independence when political tensions in the country descended to a state of civil unrest in the early 2000s. French troops were deployed in 2004, when it became a military base from which snipers fired into crowds of Ivorians below, killing 20 individuals and marking the darkest hour in the establishment’s history. Perhaps in testament to the renewed peace in the Côte d’Ivoire, it has once again reopened in recent years as a luxury destination.

The Hotel Ivoire is not the only building that can be seen as encapsulating the political history of its country through its architecture. Another example is UNZA, the University of Zambia, which was designed by the South African architect Julian Elliott and largely built by an Israeli construction company, with work beginning shortly after independence in 1966. The campus is designed in a distinctive brutalist style and was intended as a centre of academic excellence for the region. However, in 1973 there was a political conflict with Israel, and Zambia’s government decided to throw Israeli construction companies out of the country. The company constructing the university campus left, taking with them the plans for the completion of the building. To this day, elements of the campus remain unfinished.

Just as much a work in progress is the understanding, appreciation and study of the modernist architecture of post-independence Sub-Saharan and Central Africa. However, in highlighting over 50 buildings from Zambia, Ghana, Senegal, Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire, Architecture of Independence has provided a blueprint for further study. The exhibition also encourages a view of architecture as something that illuminates not just the built cityscapes of these countries but their political and economic histories too.

Architecture of Independence is at the Vitra Design Museum Gallery Weil am Rhein, Germany, from 20 February – 31 May. www.design-museum.de.

Colin Herd