Development in post-colonial Africa races on mostly free of zoning and building codes, said South African architect and author Lesley Lokko during her March 23 talk, “Tropical Antics,” at the Graham Foundation, in Chicago. For example, the Miesian mudhouse Lokko built for herself 15 years ago in Accra, Ghana, joined a block of colonnaded McMansions and outlandish hybrid housing styles.
Her presentation was part of an ongoing series of events accompanying the foundation’s current exhibition, "African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence," which explores Africa’s often-overlooked modernist architecture and their haphazard origins. Between 1957 and 1966, 32 African nations declared their independence from European colonial powers. As elected governments painted a face of progress through public works that largely bypassed the notions of bush-and-village Africa, most of the Western world missed it.
Architecture was in many ways a government's key asset. The exhibition catalogues more than 100 unsung buildings that illustrate the raw and daring modernism of post-colonial Africa, extrapolating from a 640-page tome of the same name (Park Books, 2015), edited by Swiss-based architect and historian Manuel Herz, that details Sub-Saharan Africa’s most pregnant moment in architecture.
To create the book and exhibition, Herz visited each structure with either Dutch photographer Iwan Baan or South African photographer Alexia Webster in tow. The show gives each work the scrapbook treatment, arranging several 5-inch-by-7-inch photographs alongside a project summary in tidy shadowboxes.
The architecture on display hails from five countries—Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Kenya, and Zambia—and is organized by their former colonial overlord, England or France. These countries have had considerably different cultural and economic fortunes; however, they are all tropical and all possessed by a spirit of aspirational modernity. The first populist leaders in each country seized on an opportunity to channel this yearning into a national identity.
Civic and educational buildings began springing up in and around cities, often as direct extensions of presidential vision. Ceremonial spaces rich with symbolism, like Ghana’s Independence Square in Accra, supplanted colonial enclaves; state industry and central banks sometimes came with hives of workers’ housing; university campuses and trade fair sites embraced complex geometries and dizzying concrete landscapes; and urban resorts, like the Hotel Ivoire, in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, with their lagoon, bars, and restaurants, signified the economic miracles that would preface collapse.
Few would argue that independence and modernism are clear-cut states of being, or that they are necessarily mutually reinforcing. The process of de-colonization often takes years, if not decades, and vestiges of dependency—in corporate exploitation, military installations, and trade—can linger long after a declaration of independence. Modernism, meanwhile, is usually anti-local and was, as Herz writes, “one of the very motifs that the empires used to colonize Africa during the nineteenth century.” Asking architects to brush aside that history and approach modernism in a vacuum, as the governments did, took some gall.
As such, the architecture of this era in these countries purports to be fiercely modern and independent, but is thick with contradiction. Take Nairobi’s Kenyatta International Conference Centre, an exquisite mashup of skyscraper, auditorium, and plaza by Norwegian architect Karl Henrik Nøstvik. Originally planned as the headquarters of the then-ruling Kenya African National Union, the center—given an opportunity to host the 1973 World Bank annual summit—saw its building program changed, tower height tripled, and identity linked forever to global capitalism rather than national independence.
Meanwhile, the glazed high-rises, imports from Europe and North America, were ill-equipped to handle the equatorial sun. Concrete did better with shade and ventilation, particularly when louver panels were folded into façades, but Brutalist trappings were never far off.
Italian architect Rinaldo Oliveri responded by setting out to conquer the tyranny of the rectangle. His La Pyramide in Abidjan, completed in 1973 and a highlight of the show, is a 12-story mixed-use, concrete-and-steel pyramid taking cues from traditional market shelters. It seeks to re-create the liveliness of the African marketplace at its base, with tapering floors shaded by broad awnings. Bold, yes. Successful? No. The ratio of rentable space to circulation space was all wrong and the building sits mostly empty at the center of town.
But the nascent nations can hardly be faulted for commissioning foreign architects. Some design firms even kept a practice in the colonies as there wasn’t the professionalization of architecture at the time. Eventually African architects, like Ghana’s Samuel Opare Larbi, took the reins, coming up through new institutions of higher education and famed schools abroad such as the Architectural Association’s Department of Development and Tropical Studies (now the Development Planning Unit), in London.
While the chapter on the “architecture of independence” is closed for these five countries, its psychological and compositional influences bump against neo-classical tastes in the haphazard cities that remain today.
So the question remains: Can modernist architecture in Africa truly be considered African or is it more European?
It can be both, Lokko concluded in her lecture, as long as it has a given purpose and direction. “There’s so much experimentation for the sake of it,” she said. “I’m interested in a speculative, rigorous experimentation for the continent.”
"African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence" runs through April 16 at the Graham Foundation.