Africa

Architecture & Perceptions of Development

So a great brother of mine (shout outs to Nana Kwaku Ohene-Adu!), brought my attention to this project going on in Ghana, as part of his research work. Whilst I have no skills whatsoever in architecture, designing or any form of visual arts, I do take a great interest in the role architecture plays in shaping the perceptions of development.

Whilst projects such as these excite me, and I am an ardent David Adjaye fan, they always get me thinking – is there anything such as “authentic” African architecture? I use the word “authentic” to refer to buildings with a cultural thumbprint, that are made of “green materials” and are considered extremely sustainable and symbolic?

Being Ghanaian, I will have to draw on Ghanaian examples that you may or may not be familiar with.

So in Ghana for instance, some of my fellow countrymen will assert that Jubilee House, the seat of government, shaped like a Golden Stool, stands as an example of symbolically “authentic” Ghanaian architecture, whilst others will argue that it is hideous, and not stately enough as the home of the President. Some may find Ghana’s Black Star Square or Larabanga Mosque, to be representative of “authentic” African architecture, others will vehemently say this is not the case.

Either way you see it, I do not think it is a redundant question to ask whether such a thing as “authentic” African architecture exists.

I do believe it is important that we ask these questions if we do indeed want to pat ourselves on the back for having developed our nation in the next 10, 20, 50 or even 100 years! It is  important to ask how our buildings can dually embody culture and modernity? It is important because whether we like it or not, architecture shapes our outward impressions of development and may perhaps even be a good-enough indicator of success. I mean, a skyscraper that springs up in the heart of a burgeoning industrial city is surely a sign of development and progress , whereas the village mud-hut a few miles away is frowned upon as the embodiment of poverty, right?

In fact, I have often found it interesting how certain hotels and resorts in Ghana for instance, have ingeniously mimicked the architecture of “mud-houses” for their luxury chalets by the beach! This might seem a mundane observation but it has always piqued my interest.

I also think it is important to consider these things because it should not be our intention to construct edifices that should compete to become the world’s “eighth wonder” (lol!), or strictly adhere to having carbon copy buildings of Western/Eastern architecture.

Here is where I have qualms about a few countries that have made the mark for stellar architecture (eg: United Arab Emirates), and dare to say that, although these places boast fantastic architecture, one is often left with a feeling of being overwhelmed, of thinking things a little too extravagant or perceiving this architecture as deliberately competing to be another “wonder of the world”. These edifices often lack a story being attached to them, something of substance that makes them memorable or spectacular, the very thing that makes the Bastille, Notre-Dame, or all of Haussman’s  symbolic buildings in Paris. Then again, this is a purely simplistic first impression, so forgive me for all my political incorrectness.

I think I should end my rant here and just say, it is important for us to think about what we see (visually), and how that impacts our perceptions of development.

On a side note, I really do wish I was artistically endowed enough to be involved in such awesome, sustainable work. *Sigh*

Here’s a small gallery that should tell you why I love David Adjaye’s architecture and would love to see more innovation in young African architects. (You can also see http://www.adjaye.com)

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4 thoughts on “Architecture & Perceptions of Development

  1. Great brief piece. I often wonder, too, why our architects are yet to examine the traditional Ghanaian, Nigerian … architecture, which does exist; examine the materials used for construction like mud which is very cool or, in Nigeria, a type of wild palm which was used in my youth as roofing trusses but is no longer used. The palm is termite-proof.

    Just a few days ago, I read a profile of Sir Norman Foster, the English architect appeared in The Economist in which the legendary design icon gives an idea or two about the direction architecture for sustainable development should consider.

    This is a subject that Africans with training and experience – not just those like us with mainly interest – should bring to the front burner.

    TOLA ADENLE
    emotanafricana.com

  2. Interesting piece. I must first admit as an architect that Ghanaian Architects have done nothing or very little about developing an authentic Ghanaian Architectural Design Concepts. Incidentally, I’m planning to have a presentation to encourage more concepts from Ghana than the seemingly “International Style” that’s being promoted. However, we need to understand that in developing modern Ghanaian concept we will need to understand cultural symbolic contexts, texture, Colour, geometry, artifacts and spatial considerations.

    I’m amazed that foreign architects rather do more mimicking this than Local Architects do and that is a shame. Some public buildings that in my opinion were done properly which reflected these include the Kotoka International Airport Terminal, Flag Staff House, Villagio Vista, Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum and the new design for the Tamale International Airport. Out of all of these the only one designed by a local architect is the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum and the rest were done by foreign architects.

    We simply can do better than that.

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