Concrete creativity: The forgotten masterpieces of Afro Modernism

When a wave of independence swept across sub-Saharan Africa in the late 1950s and early 1960s, youthful nations looked to architecture as a means of expressing their newly-earned identity. Stadiums, parliament buildings, central banks, universities, conference centres and independence memorials were hastily constructed, typically built to bold and futuristic design. Modern, Utopian architecture paralleled the aspirations of countries determined to shape themselves in their own progressive, positive image… even if the architects were not local (they usually hailed from countries such as Poland, Yugoslavia and Israel, or even the old colonial powers).

Bold, independence-saluting constructions in countries like Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and Zambia still represent some of the most striking and outstanding examples of 60s and 70s architecture anywhere in the world. But Swiss architect Manuel Herz, author of a new book on African modernism, thinks that the architecture “received little attention and still remains to be ‘rediscovered’”.

“There was an intense flowering of experimental and futuristic architecture in the 1960s and 70s, which the young African countries used to express their national identities,” says Herz, who has curated an exhibition of more than 80 buildings from sub-Saharan Africa, to coincide with the release of his book. “But we simply don’t know about it. When people think of Africa, they think of poverty, misery and violence, while architects fetishise informality and focus on slum-upgrading. But we wanted to show this incredible cultural wealth that also exists.”

So, let us remember them.

University of Zambia, Lusaka

Arranged along an axial spine, the University of Zambia’s faculty buildings feature exposed staircases, built-in kiosks and informal seating areas that evoke the mood of a bustling street.

Despite being designed by South African architect Julian Elliott, the University of Zambia was built by Israeli contractors. In need of new allies at the UN council, Israel were natural postcolonial partners for fledgling African states, participating in many major projects of the sub-Sahara’s modernist boom.

But the Afro-Israeli architectural partnership came to an abrupt end in the early 1970s. The Yom Kippur war and 1973 oil crisis made African countries switch allegiance to Arab nations and the Palestinan struggle, forcing Israeli companies out of the continent and leaving many projects unfinished. This disconnected history can be experienced visually at the UoZ; through the bricked-up doorways, unfinished walkways and destinationless-staircases that litter the campus.

Kenyatta Conference Centre, Nairobi

In the above photo, you can see the lily-bud shaped auditorium of the Kenyatta International Conference Centre. The complex features both plenary and amphitheatre, as well as a towering round pavilion that opens up to the sky with an array of conically arranged wood and metal panels.

The main 32-storey tower was tripled in height after the World Bank agreed to host its annual meeting at the centre in 1973.

Independence Arch, Accra

Somewhat ironically, the square featuring Independence Arch was commissioned by the figurehead of the Ghanian independence movement, Kwame Nkrumah, to honour the visit of none other than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. ‘Black Star Square’, as it is known, still hosts Ghana’s annual Independence Day parades, as well as national festivals and mass public gatherings.

While still revered by most Ghanians, and certainly not as unappreciated as other masterpieces in this list, the site is patrolled by armed guards that stop tourists and civilians alike getting close enough to experience the true awe of this elegant structure.

FIDAK Exhibition Centre

The FIDAK Exhibition Centre, as the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright elegantly puts it, “looks like what might have happened if the Mayans had discovered reinforced concrete.” It is a structure endowed with enigma. Facades are decorated with coloured pebbles and tiled mosaics, while psychedelic sand art murals connect the building with Dakar’s extreme natural surroundings at the rugged and westernmost tip of Africa.

The Foire Internationale De Dakar, to give it its unabridged name, was built in 1975 to host the country’s biennial international trade fair. Designed by little-known French architects Jean Francois Lamoureux and Jean-Louis Marin, the sprawling exhibition centre was also supposed to trumpet the new nationstate’s arrival on the global stage.

But outside of Senegal, this astounding building remains almost entirely unknown.

La Pyramide

Of all the maverick buildings in this profile, La Pyramide suffered the most ignominious fate. A bold attempt to reinvent the covered market of Côte d’Ivoire’s economic powerhouse, Abidjan, the building now stands disconsolate, abandoned; a temple to its own grand ambitions.

Astronomical maintenance costs and an inefficient ratio of rentable space to circulation meant La Pyramide was doomed to fail. Save the presence of a few determined squatters, the gutted construction has been left empty since the 1980s economic crash. Like many of the buildings in Herz’s exhibition, the fate of this stupendous masterpiece remains precarious.

Pictures via Flickr (cc) and Iwan Baan/Park Books

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