The Twentieth Century Society

Review: African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence

ed. Manuel Herz with Ingrid Schröder, Hans Focketyn and Julia Jamrozik (Park Books, 638pp, £55)

Reviewed by Ian McInnes

This beautifully produced large-format paperback takes five countries in East and West Africa and sets out to illustrate and describe the architecture built around the time of independence from British or French colonial rule. The former is represented by Ghana (the first country in Africa to gain independence, in 1957), Kenya (1963) and Zambia (1964). Francophone Africa is represented by Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire (both 1960).

While France maintained strong trade links and influence after independence, the British adopted a more laissez-faire approach. These were – and still are – five very different countries. Some have been run almost continuously by dictators, others by strong elected leaders. Some have become economic basket-cases, others are thriving. The one common thread, corruption, is hardly touched on, and there is no mention of the newest colonial influence, the huge presence of the Chinese, particularly in Zambia, and now also in Kenya.

Each country section begins with an introduction, a scene-setting page and a useful time-line covering politics, demography, the economy and cultural highlights from independence through to 2012. Then follows a ‘photographic portrait’ for each country, from 18 to 28 pages of scene-setting photographs, usually featuring the city’s inhabitants at work or play, which really do capture the colour, vitality and disorganisation of African cities.

For each country there is then a quite lengthy ‘building documentation’ section: a selection of projects with further colour photographs, small plans and short descriptions. For Côte d’Ivoire there are 24 buildings, Senegal and Ghana 22, Zambia 21 and Kenya 14. Nearly all of these are in the capitals or second cities: Accra and Kumasi in Ghana, Abidjan and Yamoussoukro in Côte d’Ivoire, Lusaka and Ndola in Zambia, while Senegal has Dakar and Kenya only Nairobi.

In between the country sections are chapters with more general themes, such as ‘Architecture after independence’, while ‘Africa as a terrain of architectural freedom’ is a monograph on Henri Chomette, who practised in the Francophone countries. ‘Project of a Nation: The African Riviera and the Hotel Ivoire’ tells the story of that grandiose but failed scheme in Côte d’Ivoire, while ‘Proxy Colonialism’ describes Israel’s huge, but little-known and short-lived, influence in some parts of Africa in the late 1960s which was ended by the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The final chapters discuss ‘Land and Social Order in Africa’ and the African pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal.

The buildings illustrated give a good idea of the legacy left by the colonialists. The book concentrates on public, commercial and educational buildings: parliament buildings, central banks, stadiums, convention centres, universities; very few private houses are covered. What comes through is the genuine (if sometimes perhaps misguided) attempt by the architects of tropical modernism – such as Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew – to provide a style of architecture appropriate to the location and the climate. Money has always been short in Africa, and maintenance an unfamiliar concept, so buildings have to be strong to survive. Brutalism works here, the bright sunshine giving the deep shadows that show off bold concrete forms at their best. Regrettably, with few exceptions, these skills have been lost today. Air conditioning has made climate-focused design less necessary and current building in most of the major African cities is indistinguishable from elsewhere.

This is an expensive book for the general reader, while for the scholar it is probably not detailed enough, as there are few plans and sections, and the architectural thinking behind the buildings is not really discussed. The fine photographs, by the Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan and the South African documentary photographer Alexia Webster, commissioned specially for the book, show the buildings as they are now, rather than in their original pristine condition. If that means it is to some extent a coffee-table book, a social history with architectural overtones, it nevertheless has some great pictures.