The hidden history of African modernism

Between 1957 and 1966, almost two-thirds of all African nations declared independence from their colonial rulers, ready to cast off nearly a century of imperial hierarchy by forging new social structures and self-determined economies. And they did so with modern architecture.

Modern design for a modern continent

For postcolonial African leaders, modern architecture signified independence and freedom: an entire continent proudly demanding to be accepted as an equal. They built their most vital institutions in the bracing new forms that people around the world were using to advertise technical proficiency and progressive thought.

KNUST Development Office, Stadium at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, external view

Stadium at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), 1964–67, Kumasi, Ghana. Architect: KNUST Development Office

Across the continent you can find projects that emulate a warm wood-grained Scandinavian Alvar Aalto sensibility, tropical Félix Candela–esque swoops and parabolas, and minimalist boxes on pilotis, à la Mies van der Rohe. The style was seen as a unifier, encouraging Africans to embrace nationalism while showing the rest of the world that the continent was eager and ready to participate in contemporary culture.

A neglected legacy

But this history has largely been forgotten. When Brazil’s contributions to modern architecture are celebrated the world over, why have so few books and exhibitions examined the African version?

For architect Manuel Herz, who has spent years exploring the topic, it’s partially because most Westerners have grown up with a one-dimensional narrative about the continent. “When we think of Africa, we think of misery, we think of a [lack of things],” he told me. “We don’t think of cultural production. And therefore we ignore it.”

La Pyramide, Abidjan, external view from street

La Pyramide, 1973, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Architect: Rinaldo Olivieri

The greatest shame about this missing chapter of design history is not the lack of attention paid to the buildings (incredible as many of them are) but rather the world’s failure to recognize how uniquely attuned midcentury Africa was to the modernist agenda. From the Bauhaus masters on, modernism was seen as a way to reform society from the ground up. And what society is more ready to forge a radically new path than one leaving colonial rule behind?

Tracing history through design

So Herz’s exhibit Architecture of Independence: African Modernism (and accompanying book) is uncomfortably overdue — and likely to become the bedrock of many more explorations of its topic. Now on display at Chicago’s Graham Foundation, whose mission is to “to foster the development and exchange of diverse and challenging ideas about architecture and its role in the arts, culture, and society,” the show features almost 80 modern buildings from five sub-Saharan nations: Ghana, Senegal, Zambia, Kenya, and Ivory Coast.

Henri Chomette and Roland Depret, Hotel Independence, Dakar, Senegal

Hotel Independence, 1973–78, Dakar, Senegal. Architects: Henri Chomette and Roland Depret

The exhibition and book highlight the aura of ambiguity surrounding modernism’s legacy in Africa. A movement that spoke to ideals of self-determination, it was also an imported design language executed mostly by foreigners. (Outside of South Africa, there were no schools of architecture in sub-Saharan Africa until 1957.)

The research points out that the advent of modern architecture in Africa is not so much evidence of a clean break with the past as it is a signpost in an ongoing process of decolonization. New buildings or no, Africans were still living with social structures and economies that interlopers imposed for their own benefit. As such, one of Herz’s toughest tasks was to delineate where modernism was working as a tool of colonialism, where it reflected genuine attempts at national self-expression, and where the motivations lay elsewhere.

Kenyatta International Conference Centre, 1967–73, Nairobi, Kenya. Architect: Karl Henrik Nostvik

“It’s used as a vehicle to represent independence, it’s used as a vehicle to push the country forward, to develop it,” he said. “But we also know of so many cases where modernism is used as an excuse for colonial adventures. By looking at this architecture more closely, we can work backward and uncover the complexities and contradictions of gaining sovereignty.”

In today’s globalized design profession, these kinds of insights into the history of cross-border commissions and collaborations may help designers and clients alike develop better solutions for their own projects.

Building by building

The exhibit highlights five buildings that are emblematic of each nation’s drive to define itself through modernism. Inexorably tied to their countries’ economic, political, and cultural evolution, the buildings offer rich insight into postcolonial African nationhood.

Mfantsipim School, 1958, Cape Coast, Ghana. Architects: Fry, Drew and Partners

Although global modernism has been co-opted by a great many cynical influences over the years, Herz still senses a spirit of liberation in these buildings. “If I’m an idealist,” he says, “and I hope I am, then modernism still embodies this promise of emancipation.”

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International Fairgrounds, 1974, Dakar, Senegal. Architects: Lamoureux, Marin and Bonamy

Built for the city’s biennial trade fair, the International Fairgrounds literally signify the nation’s political structure and natural resources. In addition to large exhibition halls, the campus includes a low-slung village of seven pavilions representing the country’s provinces. Each pavilion consists of concrete aggregate decorated with richly textured minerals found in the relevant region (e.g., marble, basalt), with the triangular theme uniting the entire site via a network of breezy sawtooth ceilings and celestial skylights. Simple and ingenious climate-control solutions such as screens made of horizontal tubes allow cool breezes in but keep sunlight out.

International Fairgrounds

The fairgrounds’ form points explicitly to “asymmetrical parallelism,” a political, cultural, and design philosophy that Senegal’s first president, a poet, used to articulate “the nuanced and contradictory nature of the country’s relationship to its past and the problematic hybrid of French and African influences in literature and the visual arts,” according to Herz’s book. Embedded within the larger concept of negritude (a Pan-African celebration of history and culture), these design ideas gave Senegalese architecture a distinct character that set itself apart from the traditional modernist canon.

Léopold Sedar Senghor, the first president of Senegal

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Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), circa 1960s, Kumasi, Ghana. Architect: James Cubitt

Established in the interior of the country to decentralize power away from the coastal capital, the university was meant to educate the future West African elite in a rigorously modern setting. Herz calls it “one of the most coherent and consistently modernist university designs of West Africa and beyond.” Its strict rectilinearity and skylit factory-style roofs call to mind another provincial temple of modernist scholarship near the Graham’s home in Chicago: Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology. The campus also features a building presumed to be designed by Buckminster Fuller and a Miesian staff clubhouse by John Owusu Addo, one of a few native African architects practicing at the time.

Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, KNUST, Ghana

School of Engineering at KNUST

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Hotel Ivoire, 1963–70, Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Architects: Heinz Fenchel, Thomas Leitersdorf, and William Pereira

One of the most luxurious hotels in all of sub-Saharan Africa, the 25-story hotel and conference center is lithe, graceful, and brilliantly white, with subtle terraced massing that hints at art deco. It wouldn’t be out of place on Miami Beach. But instead, it was built as an icon of Ivory Coast’s new independence and economic success, despite the fact that much of its focus was on attracting people from outside of the new nation via tourism and international conferences.

The hotel has become so intertwined with Ivory Coast’s political history that controlling it has been a military priority worth dying for. In 2004, loyalists supporting embattled president Laurent Gbagbo massed outside the hotel, protesting the presence of troops from their old colonizer, France, who were there as part of a UN Peacekeeping force. The irony of troops from the former colonial master setting up shop in the nation’s premier symbol of independence was not lost on the demonstrators. When they crossed a police barricade, French troops opened fire, killing up to 20. Newsreel footage shows protestors lying prone on the ground as bullets kick up whiffs of dust.

Hotel Ivoire, Abidjan

Hotel Ivoire

The French weren’t the only armed group to take up residence in the declining Hotel Ivoire. The first years of the 21st century saw a series of coups and abortive elections in Ivory Coast that reaffirmed sub-Saharan Africa’s worst stereotypes, and the hotel housed paramilitary forces for a time.

As the political situation improved, it was purchased by Sofitel and renovated in 2011.

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Kenyatta International Conference Center, 1966–73, Nairobi, Kenya. Architect: Karl Henrik Nostvik

This circular 32-story hotel and conference center was built for the 1973 World Bank annual meeting, the first such gathering held on the continent. At the time it was the tallest building in East Africa. Its shaded semi-outdoor terraces boast lush greenery and cascading waterfalls. The muscular exposed concrete and labyrinthine staircases call to mind John Portman’s 1970s luxury hotels in America — a species of late modernist brutalism poised for a comeback today.

Kenyatta International Conference Centre

Kenyatta International Conference Centre

Appropriately, then, Kenyatta served as a warm invitation for Western-style capitalism to take root in East Africa. The venue allowed Kenya to welcome the world in with pride; newspaper clippings from the time reveal exalted roars of boosterism. The building would be the “most sophisticated conference hall in free Africa.” “Talk will turn into big money,” blared one headline. One story was careful to assure readers that “a local firm recently bought a fleet of Mercedes cars to provide swift and convenient means of transportation for conference officials.”

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University of Zambia, 1965–68, Lusaka, Zambia. Architects: Julian Elliott and Anthony Chitty

Unlike Ivory Coast and Kenya, Zambia didn’t orient its modern architecture toward attracting tourism dollars with iconic spectacle. Instead, it aimed to maintain political and cultural control over its national narrative amid economic calamity and shifting international alliances.

Zambia’s economy was a regional titan in the early post-colonial era, buoyed by exports of copper. But when copper prices crashed in the 1970s, the GDP fell by more than half.

University of Zambia interior

University of Zambia

The Israeli contractors Zambia hired to build its national university in the ’60s left after the nation sided with Arab states during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, taking the building plans with them. Teachers and students were forced to move into an incomplete school with bricked-up stairways to nowhere.

The clear axial plan and terraced massing still shines through today, but attempts to finish the project have faltered. A 2010 parliamentary inquiry devolved into farce when officials realized that they didn’t know how much of the campus had been completed, how much money it would take to finish, or who had the documents needed to answer these questions.

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Architecture of Independence: African Modernism is on display through April 16 at Chicago’s Graham Foundation.

 

Questions or comments for Zach Mortice? Contact zachmortice@gmail.com.

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