The latest issue of Planning Perspectives investigates the role international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Red Cross played in the architecture discourse and the rise of ‘global experts’. The collection of articles, co-edited by Filippo De Dominicis and Ines Tolic, explores development plans and housing schemes, but also events related to dissemination or training implemented especially, but not exclusively, during the decolonisation phase in the 1950s and 1960s and the so called ‘development decades’.

In an article published in open access which I co-authored with Axel Fisher, Foreign aid for rural development: village design and planning in post-independence Morocco, we asked ourselves to what degree the work of architects and urban planners was influenced by the shifting and competing development agendas of the United Nations’ technical assistance, the FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Bank. We start from the analysis of architects’ involvement in three rather diverse rural development projects implemented in Morocco after the 1956 independence in which community development and infrastructure-driven approaches overlapped. In doing so, we question the architects’ capacity to translate the strategic objectives in functional programmes, and to make ‘spatialized politics’ most vividly palpable.

>>> https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02665433.2022.2116594

Inês Nunes is a PhD student at University of Coimbra, Portugal and is investigating, “The Social Within the Tropical: Jane Drew and Minnette de Silva designing an inclusive modernism in the tropics”. Here’s an update on a recent visit to the RIBA archive.

“My dearest, darling Jane”: unfolding Fry and Drew Papers

In a conversational tone, Maxwell Fry addresses Jane Drew from the ‘remote’ mid-1940s Accra. “Darling Max”, she replicates. Their correspondence, a lively itinerary from West Africa, India, Iran, or Mauritius, belongs to a treasure chest named Fry and Drew Papers. It is accessible, along with unrivaled archival material, in the RIBA Architecture Study Rooms of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London).

Love notes handwritten on hotel letterheads, diaries displaying candid reflections about life, and memoirs manuscripted on paper bags are entangled with professional-wise material. Included are lectures and articles revealing narratives about architecture, extraordinarily illustrated with colourful drawings or sharp pencil sketches. Both are complemented by miscellaneous data: postcards, press cuttings, administrative files, address books… The characters gain life in every opened box. Their voices echo through calligraphies, signatures, ideas.

In its uniqueness, Fry and Drew Papers are an overwhelming resource regarding the life and work of both architects and an efficient record of the dynamic of their global scope partnership. Even so, it excels. Flexible and embracing enough to accommodate diverse interests and aims, unpublished personal letters, diaries, and autobiographies provide captivating details to any enthusiast – for instance, Fry’s diary was only made accessible in 2021. Furthermore, the archive is a source of knowledge about British historiography and significant architectural thematics: the MARS Group, the Modern Movement, Tropical Architecture, and Chandigarh are noteworthy.

Overall, the research was a privilege and the expectations were exceeded. My deep gratitude to Dr. Shireen Mahdavi for supporting this endeavour. The wealth of these primary sources allows an experience that couldn’t have been more rewarding. By immersing in Fry and Drew’s universe, how inspiring becomes their lifetime of respect and companionship, the robustness of their practice, and the profound vow to “produce towns and housing that will be loved, lived in and cared for” (Drew, F&D/27/2).

Have a look at the latest article from Design233 on Community Centers in Ghana, including the Accra Community Centre (paid for by the UAC) and Tarkwa Community Center (paid for by the Manganese Mining Company) – both designed by Fry and Drew. In addition to these modernist works the more formal and classically inspired centre at Kyebi is discussed – this centre is more of a mystery… We know it was funded by the Consolidated African Selection Trust (CAST)- but who designed it, and why did CAST commission such a lavish project?

An annotated diary of my visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo: a brief stop in Kinshasa before flying to Kisangani and then, following the Congo River, a preliminary exploration of one the regions where the Huileries du Congo Belge – HCB had established its oil palm plantations.

This trip would have not been possible without the help of >>Istituto per la Bioeconomia – CNR and Forets (Formation et Recherche dans le Tshopo) – >>Cifor (Centre for International Forestry Research).



May 2022



Kinshasa — Me and Ottaviano landed in Kinshasa on a Monday morning. I had never crossed the Equator before.

Papa Victor is waiting for us outside on a white Toyota jeep with a EU flag on the door and dents and scratches on all sides. A description that would fit most of the vehicles I travelled in during this trip and, as I came to discover, a stereotype for Westerners in this country. Victor is a tall, pleasant man who talk and laugh quietly even when we plunge into the suffocating traffic of Kinshasa. The 25 kilometers between the airport and my hotel in Gombe are an endless sequence of taxis, yellow Wokswagen vans running with the doors open to bring some air to the passengers squeezed inside, a multitude of weva moto-taxis, and trucks covered in sticky black dust.

The two days in Kinshasa are chaotic. We meet with some people and don’t see much. I watch street scenes, buildings, and billboards passing by from the window of Victor’s car.

During the last night in the city, I meet my old friends and former colleagues Raphael, Paul, and Pietro – who became a real Kinois in the meanwhile. From the hall of my overpriced hotel Raphael, tells me with his usually sharp irony: “Il faut que tu sors de cette Leopoldville”. And so we drive away, leaving Gombe behind us. Paul, who has a thing for infrastructures, gives us a lecture from behind the wheel of his car while we cross the city. Boulevard du 30 Juin, which originally connected the two Stanley’s times settlements of Kintambo Ngaliema and Nshasha, and later became the first of the large avenues of the colonial capital [>>Kinshasa Then and Now]. Avenue des Huileries, pointing to the area formerly occupied by the Huileries du Congo Belge, now hosting its successor Marsavco.. And then, Matonge, the neighborhooud that everyone here calls the musical capital of the DRC. After having lived for years few hundred meters from Matonge (Brussels) – a product of Congolese diaspora in Belgium – I finally get to see its original counterpart.

It’s early in the morning when we leave again for the airport but the city is well awake.


Congo River — After landing in Kisangani we are brought directly to the dock on the Tshopo river. The beach, as docks are locally called borrowing the word from English, is just a sandy stretch where dugout canoes and boats come ashore. We get on board of the canot rapide that Cifor made available for us and, following the Tshopo and Lindi rivers, we finally reach the Congo. Few kilometres upriver, the Wagenia/Boyoma falls, a one-hundred kilometres long sequence of cataracts, make the river impossible to navigate. After the falls, the Congo begins its ‘quiet’ descent of the 1,700 navigable kilometers dividing the place where we are navigating now from Kinshasa’s Pool Malebo before rushing again, through impressive rapids, up to Matadi and to the Ocean.


From this moment on, this broad, magnificient river, with its banks covered in thick vegetation, becomes the silent protagonist of the travel.

Moving along the river coast, the canot go past busy docks where pirogues – simple boats built by carving a single tree trunk and manouvred by one or two rowers – carry large, white sacks of coal to sell. Apart from our boat and the infrequent barges, the river is populated by these small crafts and by the noisy baleinières (‘whaler’), a wooden boat used for goods transport. Besides being painfully slow, the two half-sunken relics I could spot along the way, testify the scarce reliabilty of these bizarrely named boats.

From the canot, on the right bank, flanked by colonial villas, I spot the prominent facade of the Yakusu hospital, a now run-down gem of the Baptist Missionary Society in the Belgian Congo and an important institution for the educational and medical history of the country [Nancy Rose Hunt,>>Colonial lexicon: of birth ritual, medicalization, and mobility in the Congo].


Further down the river, the Belgika, a private island owned by the heirs of a high-rank military chief under Mobutu dictatorship. Our boat speeds close to the coast; the waves agitate the fishermen’s pirogues moving under the branches of leaning trees. The shape of old buildings with porches facing the river vanishes rapidly behind the vegetation. >>During the colonial time, the island was a coffee and rubber plantation owned by the Comptoir Colonial Belgika. The company realised barracks for the workers and villas for the European technicians and now, half a century after it abrupty left the island, those buildings are occupied by the few hundred people still living on the island or are left in disrepair.


Yanonge — 50 kilometers downriver to Kisangani, we disembark in Yanonge, a small town built around a river dock and its market; a commercial gate to the river for the backland Opala territory and the Turumbu people. Up from the dock, over the steep river banks, I can read dates and names of European firms inscribed on the front of wharehouses now surrounded by the wooden stands of the weekly market. Along the riverfront, the traders’ villas and shops are almost untouched. Guélor, who shows me the place, lives in one of them with his family of five. The rest of the town is made of single-floor brick houses – the construction material coming from the local furnaces – and by simple clay, wood and straw houses. Outside the busy market area and the two main roads, people walk calmly in the shade of the many acacia and palm trees.

Since few years, Cifor established one of its bases in the town and carries our reforestation, agricultural and local development projects. Silvia, among the many other things, coordinates the construction of a small sawmill. A solar drying kiln is close to completion and an oddly sorted team of Congolese and Italians welds metal, cuts wood boards, make electrical and hydraulic connections, rushing to complete it before our departure. (My contribution to the works is barely symbolic). The aim is to prepare the way for a locally managed, and economically sustainable activity which, allowing to meet the quality standards required for exporting wood, would eventually offer a credible alternative to illegal logging [>>Forets]


During our days in Yanonge we stay at the local Catholic mission. Outside cities, missions often offers one of the few reasonably comfortable accommodations and in Yanonge, the Comboni community also gives the occasion for some peculiar encounters. Our early equatorial evenings are filled by the accounts of Father Vittorio, a truly remarkable character who spent 50 years in the Congolese rainforest, has unlimited energies, and a passion for >>improbable projects. When sitting in front of the usual plate of rice, pondu and tilapia, he starts talking and so I put my recorder on the table. I collect hours and hours of his improvised local history monologues in which he mixes personal memories with the accounts of the people among whom he have lived. “There weren’t many books in the places I have lived – he keeps saying, not without theatricality – but people love to talk to good listeners.”

Here, the buildings have stories to tell too. The religious mission was established in the early days of the Belgian Congo and abandoned for decades after the brutal incursion in the convent by the Simba rebels in 1964. The concrete lintel mounted on rounded jambs – a motive that many times I saw in Brussels – at the entrance of what was the mission’s carpentry school is marked with the date ‘1944’. Behind the art-deco facade, a large room covered with an overly complex wooden trusses system. The three wings with porches on both sides form a courtyard and are in ruin. Part of the high-pitched roofs – a large ventilated chamber was originally left on top of classrooms to protect them from the heat – had been replaced; the rest had crumbled. Kids are everywhere, playing among the teetering walls. Our not so credible recommendations to stay away from the crumbling structures are (quite understandably) ignored. The mostly disappeared wood worshop is now a favourite spot for discreet nocturnal encounters and Paolo says that the large wood cutting machine built in Belgium in the 1940s was still bolted to the floor until not so long ago.

Private archive Vittorio Farronato


Next to this complex, the church and the old convent – now used as a school. The convent has a familiar shape that I had never had the chance to look closely before. A single-floor building – despite what the view from the outside may suggest – with a central corridor cutting longitudinally, facade-to-facade, through the building and rooms on both sides. Seen in cross-section, the corridor with openings placed at the ceiling level was meant to extract the hot air through natural ventilation. Next to this group of buildings and most probably coeval, a structure carrying a sign MATERNITE’ and two groups of identical brick houses which once hosted the school’s teachers.

The few days I planned on staying in this small town became more than a week as I’m stuck in bed, ill. “The full tropical experience” Iain writes me from Liverpool.
I missed the boat for my next destination and I look for an alternative.

Yangambi — Sitting on the backseat of a motorbike running on a rutted dirt road, the lacking comfort is compensated by the view of riverine villages plunged in the luxuriant vegetation and by the glimpses of open horizon on the Congo river. When approaching the Yangambi reserve, the red brick walls of large villas appears on the side of the road, half concealed by the foliage of large ferns. The 250 villas built between 1933 and 1960 scattered across the reserve once housed the scientists and technicians of what was one of the largest ecological, biological, and agricultural research hubs in Africa, the >>Institut National pour les Etudes Agronomiques du Congo Belge – INEAC, later renamed INERA. The derelict storage tanks and the broken windows of the two large buildings facing the river port are the first visible signs of the now partly lost thriving life of this centre. But some sections of the research hub are >>still active.


During the few days I spend in Yangambi, Dorcas drive me from one section to the other of the reserve The library, inside the recently restored administrative building, has a large collection of magazines and publications dating back both to the colonial and Mobuto’s regimes as well as reports and correspondence documenting the exchanges that the institution had established with private companies such as the Huileries du Congo Belge and Lever Brothers. Even today, the centre carries out agronomic research and provide the germinated seeds of oil palm trees to smaller and larger >> Elaeis plantations in the country.
The number of houses, communal facilites, and buildings dedicated to the different research sectors that I could brielfy see from the car or from the photographic albums stored in the library would definetely deserve to be explored with more attention but I’ve run out of time. The boat is waiting.


Kisangani — I’m already on the way back to Kinshasa when, during a two days stop in Kisangani that allows for a quick visit to the city, I find a piece of wax print fabric depicting the destination of my next trip to the DRC. In a small shop, one of the last selling locally produced Congolese wax fabric, among the most bizarelly decorated pieces of cloths, one is dedicated to the >>Plantation et Huileries du Congo, the company owning three of the former HCB plantation. Over a green background, the same palm tree and red oil palm bunch is repeated over and over. At the bottom, a sketched and colourful representation of the Congo River and its green banks along with some particularly >>optimistic mottoes of the company.

I greet the country carrying with me this small trace of the persisting signs of British-Belgian colonial capitalism in Congo. Lokutu (Elisabetha), Bumba (Alberta), and Lusanga (Leverville), three of the five company towns built by the Huileries du Congo Belge will be the subject of my next fieldwork in the coming months.

Invented Modernisms: Getting to Grips with Modernity in Three African State Buildings
Kuukuwa ManfulInnocent Batsani-NcubeJulia Gallagher

Jubilee House, Accra, Ghana. Source: Julia Gallagher, March 2019

This article examines recent attempts to create specifically African forms of modernist political architecture that draw on ‘traditional’ or ‘pre-colonial’ aesthetic forms and ideas. Taking examples of three prestigious structures – the presidential palace in Ghana, the parliament in Malawi and the Northern Cape regional parliament in South Africa – the article shows how vernacular ideas have been incorporated into state-of-the-art political architecture, producing new or explicitly ‘African’ forms of modernism. It explores how such buildings, which draw on ‘invented traditions’, are used alongside conventional, monolithic representations of the state to produce ‘invented modernisms’ that both uphold and question the African state as a project of modernity.

Read the full article here: https://doi.org/10.1111/cura.12505

The George Padmore Library: A Potential Attribution 

Text by Dr Ewan Harrison

George Padmore Library in Accra ,Ghana

The George Padmore Library in Accra is a dynamic composition. Its principal block houses a fan-shaped reading room that extends from an apsidal end wall. This is raised up on pilotis, and is entered via a delicately wrought cantilevered staircase that itself springs from a fan-shaped expanse of terrazzo floating above a reflective pool. Externally, the facades are defined by horizontals of louvred glazing which allow for free air circulation, keeping the reading room at a comfortable temperature, and a strongly modelled canopy with sculpturally expressed rain water outflows. The building was established by the first president of the republic of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, in memory of the pan-Africanist writer, journalist and activist George Padmore. Padmore, who was born in Trinidiad, Nkrumah during the 5th Pan Africanist Conference, held in Manchester in 1945, and on Ghana’s independence, Padmore moved to Ghana to work for Nkrumah’s government as a diplomatic adviser. Sometime following Padmore’s death, Nkrumah’s government built the library in his memory, to house Padmore’s archive and a growing African studies library collection. The Library continues to function as Ghana’s primary deposit library to this day. 

Reflecting Pool and staircase of George Padmore Library

Before visiting, I had assumed that the building was likely designed by Nickson & Borys. Responsible for the design of both the Accra Central Library complex and the nearby Ghana National Archives building in the late 1950s, the practice might have seemed the natural fit for a commission to design a bespoke library in Accra at this date. However, on visiting the George Padmore Memorial Library, after having recently spent time in both of Nickson & Borys libraries in the city, the manifest differences in both spatial planning and design between those and the George Padmore Memorial Library became clear. Whilst both the Accra Central Library and the National Library are simple, cubic buildings, the architect of the George Padmore seems to have rejected the rectilinear in their handling of the main reading room. The Nickson & Borys buildings use brise-soliel and pierced concrete walls to dissolve the wall plane: creating lightweight buildings. In contrast, the George Padmore is a heavier, starker, more sculptural composition: much of its drama comes from strongly modelled canopies and sculptural concrete rainwater outflows, and its main facades feature long planes of unbroken concrete. 

Curved gable and reflecting pool of George Padmore Library

This points to another possible attribution, a design by Max Bond Jnr (1935-2009). The scion of a prominent African-American family, Bond studied architecture at the Harvard School of Design before working at Le Corbusier’s Paris atelier (1958-61) and the New York practice Pedersen and Tiley (1961-64). Bond believed that African-American culture should ‘hark back to Africa,’[1] and thus in 1963 wrote to Nkrumah asking for a job. By 1964 Bond was established in Accra as an employee of the Ghana National Contracting Corporation, the state’s contractor, working on designs for buildings at the government complex at Flagstaff House. Two of the precepts he outlined as central to his practice in Ghana were a ‘responsiveness to climate,’ and ‘modern buildings for new institutions.’[2] Bond’s most famous commission for the GNCC, the design of a public library at Bolgatanga, in the country’s arid northern region, strongly evidences these concerns. The Bolgatanga library project, which features four discrete volumes – two library reading rooms, a lecture hall and an administration block – under a free-standing roof designed to maximise cooling air circulation throughout the complex, is very different in its massing to the George Padmore Memorial Library. But there is something in Bond’s heavy roof at the Bolgatanga Library, in his handling of the oval wall of the Lecture Hall, and the sculptural treatment of the rainwater goods which show clear affinities with the George Padmore Memorial Library. And there are reasons beyond the stylistic to suggest Bond’s authorship of the building. Padmore’s intellectual project, and, it can be argued, much of Kwame Nkrumah’s political one, resolved around drawing attention to the shared heritage and struggles of Africans and the African diaspora throughout the Atlantic world. In this context, a design by an African-American architect, resident in Ghana, might have seemed especially suitable. 

Image of Bolgatanga Library: https://www.davisbrodybond.com/bolgatanga

Neither the Accra Town Planning archives, the papers of the Ghana Library Board or the archive of the Padmore Memorial Library itself shed much light on the building’s authorship, although a letter in the National Archives of Accra politely rebuffing an offer from Nickson & Borys to fund a memorial plaque to Padmore is certainly suggestive that the building’s patrons didn’t think a practice headed by European emigres a suitable one to design a memorial to a titan of Pan-Africanism (dated 1961, this letter makes no  mention of the project for the Library, suggesting that it predates the library’s construction). Questions remain, however. The Bolgatanga Library was extensively published, if the Padmore is by Bond, why wouldn’t he have seen that it too received attention in architectural publications? Why wouldn’t he accord it a central place in his Ghanian oeuvre? Was this perhaps a collaborative job, an awkward collaboration with one of the expatriate architectural practices that Nkrumah wished to side-line, practices like Nickson & Borys? Or with Eastern European or Yugoslavian architects employed by the GNCC? The last might be the most likely, given Ghana’s political culture in the early 1960s, and Padmore’s own long, if increasingly fractious, association with the Communist Party. Conclusive answer may well lie in the collections of the Avery Library at Columbia, which holds Max Bond Jnr’s archives, or in the private papers of Kwame Nkrumah. For now, a tentative attribution will have to suffice. 

George Padmore Library Interior: Photo Iain Jackson

[1] J, Max Bond Jnr and the Approproation of Modernism in a Library Design in Ghana 

[2] J, Max Bond Jnr and the Approproation of Modernism in a Library Design in Ghana

Returning to Accra after a 30 month break, I was expecting there to be changes, but not on the scale I witnessed. Three major projects have commenced – the new cathedral; the Marine Drive project; and the new fishing harbour. When completed they will have a drastic impact on the city and how it is experienced. Marine Drive, in particular, promises some spectacular changes to the much neglected and large sea front. For a port city Accra has never really utilised its enviable position overlooking the sea with its refreshing breeze, until now. The scale of the Marine Drive project is vast and incorporates the set design piece of Independence Square as its focal point.  

The project for Marine Drive initially commenced back in 1958 with Geoffrey Jellicoe as lead designer, and various other projects have been mooted since. Jellicoe’s proposal centred around the Community Centre, and also utilised the cricket stadium and polo pitch on the current site of Black Star Square, as well as a golf course and series of club houses.

1958 plan for Marine Drive: source PRAAD

After so many other false starts it looks like Marine Drive is finally going to happen this time, with Sir David Adjaye as the lead architect. Whereas Jellicoe’s design was mainly concerned with providing sport facilities to the Colonial residents, the new proposal includes provision for other leisure facilities including beach bars, shopping, a promenade, and a series of residential and commercial towers. Sir David’s practice is also designing the new Accra cathedral and initial ground works have also commenced, with the site hoarded off and clad with architectural renderings explaining the project’s concept.

A rendering of the new Marine Drive project: towers around Black Star Square.
Current view of Black Star Square

The fishing harbour project has resulted in an extension of the old breakwater wall along with some major engineering works linking the shore to the harbour, as shown above.

It’s impressive that the city is conducting works of this scale, ambition, and vision. We’ll continue to record the developments here and to document the changes.

We also revisited the classic modernist constellation of the law court, library, and community centre. Whilst the library is still in use the community centre is not, other than as a store. It’s looking particularly tired, and the building fabric is beginning to deteriorate. Its future is uncertain, and as it sits within the Marine Drive development area discussed above it isn’t clear what, if any, it’s role will be. Even the beautiful Ghana Club is potentially at risk from the new development. It’s been mooted that the club might have to be physically moved to a new site. It’s not an impossible solution as the upper level is a timber structure with louvred facades. It could be jacked up and rolled to a new location, but equally it’s also disappointing that these older structures were not incorporated and woven into the new plans. 

The 1951 victory for Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’sParty resulted in some major shifts in the procurement of new infrastructure and housing. For the electorate, housing was one of the most important issues and Nkrumah’s government was quick to recognize this potency. 

His plan, announced in 1952, was to build a new port city, complete with innovative and improved housing at the highest standards. Located only 18 miles from the centre of Accra, the new city of Tema would demonstrate Nkrumah’s commitment to industrial development and that Ghana was at the centre of a pan-African vision.  

Tema under construction: female labour force transporting blocks and cement

Tema was part of a wider industrialization project that included a new aluminum smelting plant and hydroelectric power station on the Volta River. It was a major project involving international financial backing and set out the major ambition Nkrumah had for the nation during the advent of independence.  For such a major project, very little is known about the first team of architects and planners responsible for the execution and delivery.

To read the full article go to https://www.design233.com/articles/pioneer-ghanaian-architects-theodore-shealtiel-clerk and more extraordinary images of Tema under construction in the 1950s.

ESALA Architectural History & Theory Seminar Series

INTERVIEWS ON METHOD encompasses a cycle of pre-recorded conversations with scholars of architecture and the built environment across the globe and at all career stages. The conversations span a diversity of methods, including environmental studies, economic history, filmmaking, heritage, the study of colonialism, history of the book, print history, oral history, and exhibition. The interviews were recorded during spring of 2021.

The discussions are centred on methods for the study of architecture and the built environment for a number of reasons. The Seminar Series has always showcased works-in-progress, but turning focus to methods presented an opportunity to scrutinise the mechanisms and techniques of that work. The result is a public and durable record of emergent and changing approaches to research and teaching on the history of architecture and the built environment during the current moment.

The interviewees include:

– Samia Henni (Cornell University)

– Iain Jackson (University of Liverpool)

– Heather Hyde Minor (University of Notre Dame) and Carolyn Yerkes(Princeton University)

– Laurajane Smith (Australian National University)

– Margaret Stewart (University of Edinburgh)

– Jason E. Nguyen (University of Toronto)

– Jessica Varner (University of Southern California)

– Ana María León (University of Michigan)

We hope that you will enjoy the conversations!

/Dr. Elizabeth Petcu & Dr. Moa Carlsson, 20/21 AH&T Seminar Series convenors

If you have a question about the ESALA Architectural History and Theory Seminar Series, or would like to join our mailing list, please contact Dr Moa Carlsson:   Moa.Carlsson@ed.ac.uk

Ola Uduku Writes: 24 hours in Lilongwe

Arriving in the dead of the night there was not much to see at Lilongwe Airport. The trip to the city was a long, quiet drive on a single lane road with not much to indicate what the city would deliver. Hotel check in suggested this might be a ghost destination in a ghost town with large edifices and pretensions of grandeur.

Later on at 7am in the morninig however,  the city began its reveal. My hotel room at the Umodzi-President hotel set in the grounds of the lush green Umodzi Park gave the perfect vantage point of the modernist icon the Malawi Reserve Bank building (c. 1964 but who designed it? – apparently an exact copy of a building in South Africa), and also a view out to the Mausoleum to Malawi’s first president Kamuzu Hastings Banda.  

The Malawi parliament Complex also got a detailed view from my Umodzi vantage point. More curious was the conference complex which forms part of the Umodzi Hotel – Park setting, and I suspect this might have been or is the setting for presidential and other political rallying in days gone by. Post-covid it seemed an empty stage set for a drama yet to unfold. 

The field research trip that brought me to the city began in earnest later on that morning, not before a after a hotel room battle with climate and media control as both remote devices had only Chinese ideographic character instructions to follow. The Umodzi Hotel Park and facilities had been built through a Chinese arrangement…

So the trip began in earnest, a visit to the first point of call meant a drive past the Malawi National stadium complex, a gift of the Chinese Government, certainly worthy of international architectural merit. Close by a gated community also developed during the stadium’s construction and now a high-end housing estate.

Villas in Lilongwe: High value housing

Lilongwe owes its masterplan to the dark days of apartheid and its layout is credited to South African planners who projected the segregation of residence by race and buffer zones to what had become Malawi’s capital city. The hard trace of this layout very much structures 21st century Lilongwe.  Poorer Malawian and increasingly trans-African communities live the farthest out to the city centre whilst former European only (now mainly elite African) residents and Asian communities live the closest to the city centre. 

Local housing in Lilongwe despite sharing distance issues from the CBD,  is certainly different from West Africa. ‘Formal’ housing uses much more burnt clay brick than in West Africa, locally made bricks are used for the majority of housing with ‘crittal hope’-style windows predominating glazing options. Corrugated Iron, and formed aluminium roofing as in West Africa predominate with an absence of asbestos or other cement fibre sheeting types. Building crafts and trades also seem particularly well established on the ground, might this be because as a landlocked country all importation is expensive and local labour is more valued. The other thought might be that the ‘grip’ of South Africa’s emphasis on non academic ‘technical/service’ education for non-whites has led to a better skilled and trained local technical workforce. 

Low Cost Housing

Transportation-wise also sustainable transport gurus might be in seventh heaven,  the humble bicycle seemed the main form of transportation in many neighbourhoods with a locally welded handlebar for passengers to use. A range of second-hand imports also could be seen gracing the streets. Faster and more efficient than cars and cheaper than motorbikes given the exhorbitant cost of fuel.

Great efforts were being made by Lilongwe local government and at national level to deliver services to all communities. Sanitation and water projects abounded. Contracts had interestingly been given to several international contractors including in a case we came across a water hydrant project for poorer neighbourhoods, run by a Chinese contracting firm.

Water Hydrant Installation.

This seems to be in keeping with the Chinese involvement in the development of the Lilongwe highways projects and future interchange. Not to be outdone there has also been investment by the Japanese in the Lilongwe International Airport upgrading and expansion project, with some interesting architectural results.

Viewing Lilongwe in a day was going to be a hard call, let’s say that it is certainly a green city and one that seemed genuinely peaceful and friendly. Its key problems seem to stem on a poor transportation system, predicated on the apartheid zoned settlement city which means that there remains very little interconnectivity to neighbourhoods and a non-existent prioritised public transport system to the city centre where unsurprisingly all the jobs remain located. 

Mosque in Lilongwe

Foreign investment in the infrastructure and buildings in Lilongwe is truly international it is quite clear to see. If this was a former British colonial city, the trappings thereof are rapidly disappearing. Aid seems to come in many forms and many directions, the ‘Global East’ certainly being emergent. This investment seems now to be getting ‘grounded’ in infrastructure projects including a housing estate for the Chinese in Lilongwe close to the Presidential palace and the Chinese Embassy, a symbol of Sino-African friendship.

But to end as I began, my last stop was again to view the Malawian investment bank, a night time shot didn’t fail to impress. 1970s African modernism at its best. 

Malawi Reserve Bank

Good night Lilongwe…