Modernism in the bravest new world.
Written by Sean O’Toole
Not urbanism, but urbanity. The latter noun is often misunderstood to mean cityness when really what it refers to, in its fuller sense, is culture, civilisation and worldliness.
Adjaye’s response is worth quoting. It offers a way of better understanding German architect Manuel Herz’s exhibition and book project on International Style architecture produced in five sub-Saharan African states following decolonisation.
“I was born in a cosmopolitan condition amongst different groups of Africans, Indians and Chinese,” said Adjaye, who was born in 1966 to Ghanaian diplomats living in the Tanzanian port city of Dar es Salaam.
“That is my beginnings, and it was in metropolitan skylines. Of course, there is poverty and all these things, but at the same time there is this notion of the city and urbanity.”
The Dar es Salaam skyline Adjaye was recalling does not look the same today. NIC Investment House, a tan-coloured modernist block on Samora Avenue completed in 1970, has been redefined by a wave of new vertical architecture.
Described by one researcher as “a future mega city in the making,” key new landmarks include the glass-faced Millennium Tower (2014), 26-storey Uhuru Heights (2012) and paired PSPF towers (both 2014).
But for flair and ambition, you can do no better than visit Kariakoo Market, an audacious, brutalist marketplace designed by Tanzanian architect Beda Amuli and opened in 1975.
In 2013, a local newspaper reported that Dar’s architectural heritage was under threat.
“What the city has witnessed over the past 10 years resembles a sell-out of the city’s historical assets for the sake of short-term profit, while the public is left behind with an overstrained and semi-dysfunctional city centre comprised of high-rise buildings of often alarming poor quality,” Annika Seifert, a researcher from Technische Universität Berlin, was quoted in Tanzania's The Citizen newspaper.
Seifert’s analysis is open to debate, but it does usefully contextualise a growing interest among researchers and artists, some of them European, in the legacy of architectural modernism in Africa.
Herz’s two-part project is undeniably the most ambitious. Comprising both an exhibition (titled ‘The Architecture of Independence’ and shown at the Vitra Design Museum Gallery in southern Germany) and book, it draws attention to 50 or so buildings in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and Zambia that typify the courage and optimism that characterised the independence-era.
“The Zambian National Assembly in Lusaka, the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Nairobi, the US Embassy in Accra or the Hôtel Ivoire in Abidjan do not appear among the main references when thinking about Late Modernist buildings of the 1960s and 1970s,” writes Herz in his thoughtful introduction to African Modernism (2015).
“They should! They represent an architectural oeuvre of outstanding quality which has been forgotten and ignored, until today.”
Herz is not alone in his enthusiasm for raw concrete buildings with eccentric volumes dating to a period of pious European internationalism and newfound pan-African confidence.
In 2007, Mozambican-born artist Ângela Ferreira exhibited an installation recalling French architect and designer Jean Prouvé’s storied modular kit homes, known as maison tropicale (tropical house), in the Portuguese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Starting in the late 1940s Prouvé developed a system of prefabricated aluminium structures to solve the housing shortages in France’s colonial outpost.
Only three prototypes of Prouvé’s kit homes were ever built – two in Brazzaville, Congo, and a third in Niamey, Niger. Conceptually bold, their failure showed the folly of big-idea modernism.
In 2000, long after they were consigned to the dustbin of history, Parisian antiques dealer named Eric Touchaleaume, a man dubbed the “Indiana Jones of furniture collecting,” located Prouvé’s structures.
He subsequently purchased all three buildings, had them dismantled and shipped to France.
In 2007 of one of Prouvé’s refurbished tropical homes was auctioned for nearly $5 million at Christie’s in New York.
A year later Manthia Diawara, a New York-based writer, filmmaker and scholar originally from Mali, travelled to Niger to make a documentary film about the Prouvé house.
In Niamey, Diawara found only a concrete platform where Prouvé’s house had once stood. In a 2010 interview he likened the enclosed yard to a tomb, a grave with 'poetic' affect'.
By contrast, the Prouvé site in Brazzaville is located in what is now an urban slum.
Diawara’s film was commissioned as an extension of Ferreira’s Venice Biennale project. Titled “Maison Tropicale”, it includes an interview with Mireille Ngatsé, a Paris-educated woman who lived with her father in one of the Prouvé houses, surviving Congo’s civil war.
She believes the structure bought by Touchaleaume should be returned. It is unlikely any of the buildings documented in Herz’s book will be shipped-off elsewhere.
Dakar’s sprawling Foire Internationale de Dakar, an international trade centre featuring pavilions and exhibition halls with tent-like triangular concrete roof structures, is just too damn big.
If anything, these buildings' greatest enemy is a demolition crew.
Herz invited Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan to photograph buildings in Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Senegal and Zambia, and South African documentarian Alexia Webster to cover Ghana.
He is clear about the purpose of cataloguing and describing Africa’s independence-era architecture. “To document also means to preserve,” he writes in his book.
“We might be able to witness some of the buildings for several more years, but many are threatened by demolition or transformation beyond recognition.”
Herz, though, is not trafficking in nostalgia. His book includes numerous photographs of street life around, and human activity inside, the buildings catalogued.
Webster, who met Herz in Johannesburg shortly after he published From Camp to City (2012), an architectural enquiry into the refugee camps in the Algerian desert, spent two weeks photographing in Accra, Cape Coast and Kumasi.
“I had no architectural experience at all,” admits Webster. “But Manuel wanted something less structural and about life. The buildings are old and have taken on different purpose from what they were designed for. There is a very human relationship to the buildings.”
Much in the way Chinese, Portuguese and North Korean architects are updating urban Africa in the present, a host of architects from France, Norway, Poland and the UK stepped into the breach.
Among the buildings Webster photographed in Kumasi, where sub-Saharan Africa’s first school of architecture outside South Africa was established in 1957, was a small dome-shaped hall transplanted from the national fair in Accra.
The maverick architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller developed the self-cooling dome structure with students from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology during a visit to Kumasi in 1964.
“A lot of the architecture has this sci-fi Sixties feel,” says Webster.
African Modernism is available from park-books.com and amazon.com, US$75.