Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

African modernism

  • Comment

Some of the finest examples of 1960s and 1970s architecture were commissioned by newly independent Sub-Saharan nations

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, most countries of Sub-Saharan Africa gained their independence. Architecture became one of the principal means with which the young nations expressed their national identities. Parliament buildings, central banks, stadiums, conference centres, universities and independence memorials were constructed, often featuring heroic and daring designs. Modern and futuristic architecture mirrored the aspirations and forward-looking spirit that was dominant at that time.

Documenting these buildings helps shift the discourse that sees Africa predominantly as a place of lack, misery and violence

A coinciding economic boom made elaborate construction methods possible, while the climate allowed for an architecture that blended inside and outside, focusing on form and the expression of materiality. The architecture of Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya or Zambia represents some of the best examples of 1960s and 1970s architecture. Nevertheless it has received little attention and remains to be ‘rediscovered’.

At the same time, this architecture also shows the difficulties, contradictions and dilemmas that the countries experienced in their independence process: in most cases, the architects were not local but came from countries such as Poland, Yugoslavia, Scandinavia, Israel, or even from the former colonial powers. Could the formation of a new national identity through architecture therefore be described as a projection from the outside? Or does the international dimension rather represent the aspirations of the countries aiming for a cosmopolitan culture? To what extent are projects such as the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi, or the construction of Yamoussoukro as the new capital of Côte d’Ivoire Modernistic grand projects that propel a country forward or, instead, vanity projects initiated by authoritarian ‘Big Man’–policies?

Documenting these buildings allows us to see architecture at a fascinating nexus of design and politics and also helps shift the discourse that sees Africa predominantly as a place of lack, misery and violence. Instead of reinforcing this prejudice,, the research, exhibition and publication project Architecture of Independence – African Modernism showcases the incredible cultural wealth produced on the continent. The project was developed over the past three years, visiting and documenting more than 100 buildings in Sub-Saharan Africa, with commissioned photographs by Iwan Baan and Alexia Webster.

National Museum, Accra

The National Museum was opened in March of 1957 to coincide with the official declaration of the nation’s independence. The project was critically important to Kwame Nkrumah and had seen significant collaboration between his new government and the remaining colonial authorities involved in the handover of power. It was designed by British architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, in partnership with Lindsay Drake and Denys Lasdun, who had all been active in Ghana already during its colonial period.

School of Engineering, KNUST, Kumasi, Ghana

The School of Engineering is one of the masterpieces of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology campus. KNUST can be considered one of the most coherent and consistently Modernist university designs of West Africa and beyond. The university was founded with the aim of educating a new generation of leading scientists and technicians to support the development of the young nation. Its Modernist architecture gives testimony to this aspiration. Designed by British architect James Cubitt, it features an innovative (and beautiful) structural system for the roof that liberates the internal space from any columns while lighting it indirectly.

Hôtel Ivoire, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

The HÔtel Ivoire, probably the most glamorous hotel project of Western Africa, was initiated by president Houphouët-Boigny and built by Israeli investor Moshe Meyer with his architects Heinz Fenchel and Thomas Leitersdorf. It aimed – and succeeded – in creating a luxury hotel to match any comparable project in the West. The 300m-long swimming pool, aptly named ‘Le Lac’, is one of the largest in the world, and its glamorous restaurants and casinos attracted the jet set of Western Africa and beyond. It was stage, witness and even ‘actor’ of the major political events of Côte d’Ivoire. Falling into neglect during the crises of the 1990s and 2000s, it found itself being the base of various militias, and was the site of the shooting of several Ivoirians by French military in 2004. It was newly renovated and reopened in 2011. Having followed the ups and downs of Côte d’Ivoire so closely, it could be described as the country’s alter ego.

University of Zambia, Lusaka, Zambia

The University of Zambia (UNZA), located in the capital, Lusaka, was designed by Julian Eliott and Anthony Chitty. Its innovative masterplan, allowing for different growth scenarios over time, was widely influential in its time.

The commission for the construction of UNZA was given to an Israeli contractor. With the Yom Kippur War and the Oil Crisis of 1973, most African countries switched alliances, severing diplomatic relations with Israel and developing ties with Arab countries. Even though the Israeli construction company was in the midst of constructing the campus, the contractors stopped the project and left Zambia, taking the complete set of planning documents and construction drawings with them. Seemingly erratic flights of stairs that lead nowhere remained unfinished and had to be bricked up. These and other fragments of construction are visible on the campus today.

Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Lusaka, Zambia

The Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Cross, designed by Hope Reeler Morris, is one of Lusaka’s most prominent buildings. Why was such an elaborate (and expensive) building of highest architectural quality built just moments before independence? The cathedral can either be seen as a ‘gift’ from the British on the occasion of Zambia’s independence, or a less generous reading might see it as part of a last (and futile) attempt to woo over the population by constructing high-quality public institutions to convince them that the status quo and their alliance to Britain is of (greater) mutual benefit than sovereignty. Alternatively, it can also be seen as an attempt (produced out of frustration?) to imprint a lasting influence of British Anglican culture onto a soon-to-be independent nation.

  • Manuel Herz is an architect based in Basel, Switzerland. Architecture of Independence – African Modernism runs as an exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum Gallery, Weil am Rhein, Germany, until 31 May 2015. The book of the same title is published by Park Press, Zurich.
  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.