African Modernist Architecture

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[Image: Hotel President Yamoussoukro, (1973-9), Yamoussoukro, Cote d-Ivoire. Source: Wikimedia]

Decolonisation is not a simple subject and even its most basic points are a matter of fierce ideological debate. What is agreed is that independence is not a clear matter of binary opposites: a colonial possession does not become a fully autonomous state with the raising of a new flag. Independence is a process of negotiated detachment.

In a time when even the appearance of “cultural appropriation” sends ripples of guilt and moral opprobrium over alleged transgressors, it is good to be reminded of a period when cultural actors actively sought out foreign influences to solve practical problems. In the 1950s and 1960s a wave of African countries that had been the possessions of European states gained independence. Upper echelons of new independent governments wanted to make a clear break and to assert national confidence. Prominent public buildings of the new republics would be distinct not just from their colonial past but also from local traditional and vernacular idioms. New materials, new forms and new priorities would inspire the local population; they would also make a bold statement to foreign visitors. Late Modernist architecture would be the template for Africa just as it had been for developed nations worldwide.

With the spurs of new resources, international loans and nation pride, a building boom took place in African countries in the 50s, 60s and 70s. African leaders found Late Modernism provided a conveniently neutral style in states that were ethnically and religiously diverse. Indeed, the very heterogeneity of the states left the newly independent states with a need for neutral civic architecture to bind together groups with disparate traditions. African Modernism is a large book of over 600 pages that examines landmark examples of Modernist architecture in five Sub-Saharan countries that gained independence in the wave of decolonisation of the 1950s and 1960s, namely Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and Zambia. The book focuses on public buildings such as schools, universities, libraries, parliamentary buildings, markets, hotels, offices and flats.

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[Image: Kenyatta International Conference Centre KICC (1966-73), Nairobi, Kenya. Source: Wikimedia.]

The authors explain that relatively few black African architects had been trained by the early-independence period, so the primary architects of the period were European and Israeli. Israeli architects had experience of building in a hot sunny climate and were seen as fellow pioneers of independence from colonial power. Many of the architects came from the former colonial powers but there were also many Scandinavian architects. Even when European architects were commissioned, it was not a case of remote architects designing standardised buildings to be imposed upon African cities. Tropical Modernism was a branch of Late Modernism which was developed to respond to the challenge of construction in equatorial climates. Direct sunlight is limited by the use of brise-soleil, louvres and overhanging ledges that cast shade; intense heat is mitigated by open areas and perforations that allow air to circulate; large areas of glass are avoided. Concrete is the preferred material as it is resistant to rot and parasites. (In Zambia it is brick.)

It is too easy to dismiss the wave of building as vanity projects of dictators and generals. Some projects were undoubtedly unwise, hubristic or overbearing. There are photographs of ten-lane highways in Cote d’Ivoire entirely bereft of traffic, typical of the grandiose folly that is the country’s underpopulated capital. The country’s first president decreed that his rural home village would become the nation’s new capital and a lavish building programme turned Yamoussoukro into an outsize ghost-city full of landmark buildings.

Many of Africa’s new buildings did directly benefit ordinary people. New airports and hotels encouraged tourism and international trade; schools and universities provided advanced educational environments; infrastructure projects provided power and transport links that invigorated local economies. A number of these buildings were designed or built during the transitional phase, when colonial authorities prepared for independence by spending on civic infrastructure.

The book contains one section for each of the countries which includes a brief essay and a timeline discussing history and circumstances pertinent to the country. Buildings or complexes are given 2, 4, 6 or more pages each. Essays discuss different aspects of architecture in Africa. Specially commissioned photographs show buildings as they exist today – chosen in preference to photographs of the structures when they were pristine – and we see environments that are lived and worked in. Some of them are dilapidated and others are just in need of a coat of paint; a few are abandoned and close to ruin. The Pyramide Abidjan (1968-73) – a giant pyramid bisected by a Brutalist concrete block – is a dramatic and disastrous failure. Partly empty, poorly maintained and impractical, the building will no doubt be demolished. The temptation to use such failures as symbols of national decline is undercut by the examples of similar buildings in full use and cared for. The spectacular Hotel Ivoire, Abidjan (1963-70) (with its palm trees, swimming pool and wood-panelled lobby) looks like a lost fragment of 1970s jet-set glamour.

[Image: St. Paul’s Cathedral (1980-5), Abidjan, Senegal. Source: Wikimedia]

There is a melancholy aspect to some of the optimistic designs that have become anachronistic in the light of later poverty, strife and terrorism. The former American embassy in Accra (1965-9) is a model of welcoming openness, raised above the ground on tapered concrete pillars over an open-air seating area, surrounded by a lawn. Security considerations mean that embassies nowadays are fortified bunkers bounded by fencing and anti-traffic bollards. The buildings of Zambia bear witness to the burst of prosperity the populace enjoyed before a slump in copper prices impoverished the country and dispersed urban populations back to the country in search of work and food.

Senegal favoured a distinctly French form of Late Modernism, in line with its close affiliation with the mother country. President Senghor (in office 1960-80) had an aesthetic policy to promote a native Senegalese Modernism that would feature asymmetric parallelism, hence the abundance of triangular forms in Senegal’s architecture. Other unique developments include student accommodation inspired by mud-brick buildings of traditional villages. Photographs of an outdoor market in Nairobi show the stalls, vendors and buyers in riotous profusion. We see street vendors with their carts outside a ministry buildings, children playing football below apartment buildings, multi-coloured washing hanging from concrete balconies.

The variety of forms, materials and languages in these buildings epitomise Modernism that adapted to African resources, skills and traditions. This approach is now being superseded by less inventive contemporary architecture, which uses the brute force of expensive air-conditioning, standard designs and uniform materials in buildings which are increasingly homogenising skylines around the world. African Modernism is a unique record of a period when Internationalism meant optimism and when Africa played host to ingenious and elegant architectural solutions. It is a fascinating social record of African life of recent decades, as well as being a book full of beautiful and memorable images.

 

Manuel Herz (ed.), African Modernism, Park Books, 2015, flexi-cover, 640 pages, 909 colour and 54 b/w illustrations, 246 plans, €68, ISBN 978-3-906027-74-6

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Building the Communist Dream

“In revolutionary climates, literally anything seems possible. Not only can streets, cities and states be renamed, even the calendar can be reorganised. Everything can be engineered towards the goal of reforming and reformulating existence.

“The Bolshevik-led October Revolution ushered in a new era in what would become the USSR. Not only would political and economic systems be abolished and replaced by Communism, there would be a project to create ‘Soviet Man’, which would entail re-education of men and women previously shackled by the bourgeois capitalism that existed under Russia’s monarchical tyranny. The individual was no longer considered a private person with concealed (and potentially suspect) beliefs and selfish interests; Soviet Man would control the means of production and govern the state as part of a collective. But in return he must forgo his private self-interest.

“Architecture was to play a crucial role in the revolutionary intention to create Soviet Man. This is captured by Imagine Moscow, a new exhibition of art, textiles, posters and architectural plans at London’s Design Museum, which examines six Soviet architectural projects for Moscow, dating from the 1920s and 1930s….”

Read the full review at Spiked, 10 April 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/building-the-communist-dream/19638#.WOtgEs8rLIU

You can’t hide from history

“The Austrian government is taking steps to seize and destroy Hitler’s birthplace. The house where Hitler was born in 1889 is a terrace building in Braunau am Inn, Upper Austria. Recently, it has been a private residence and a care centre for the elderly. Since the centre closed, the Austrian central government has been negotiating with Frau Gerlinde Pommer, the owner, with the expressed intention of demolishing the building. As justification, the government has cited vague concerns about the building becoming a focus for neo-Nazi supporters. The demolition plans are opposed by historians, local residents and even spokesmen for minority groups.

The owner is unwilling to sell, and see a part of the historical fabric of the town destroyed, so the government is now seeking to pass a law allowing it to seize the property (with compensation). This is a draconian solution to an invented crisis…”

Read the full article online on Spiked, 13 December 2016 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/you-cant-hide-from-history-austria-hitler-birthplace/19100#.WFBZdvl_s5k

 

In Praise of Brutalism

“If you took a poll of the most unpopular – even hated – buildings in Britain, the likelihood is that it would include more Brutalist buildings than buildings in any other style. These giant, domineering structures in unpainted concrete have come to symbolise modernist architects’ arrogance and wrongheaded social housing. Their imposing presence has changed the face of British cities.

“Launching Brutal Utopias, a series of events to promote understanding of Brutalism, Joseph Watson, creative director of the National Trust, defines Brutalism as a distinct strand within modernism: ‘Brutalism took the principle of honesty in architecture further, arguing that buildings should have aesthetic and ethical integrity. Brutalism became particularly associated with a material, too: concrete.’ Brutalism adhered to the truth-to-materials principle of modernism. ‘Honest’ artists would not attempt to disguise the material components they used. Watson concedes that although concrete has dynamic sculptural potential, ‘it has never been much-loved by the public at large, which begins to explain the deeply divided reactions to this architecture’.

“Watson puts the case for Brutalism as the equivalent of modern sculpture…”

Read the whole article online on SPIKED, 28 September 2015, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/in-praise-of-brutalism/17483#.VglxU_ldU5k