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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