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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have a look at https://www.design233.com/articles/from-buckman-to-turkson for my article on some lesser known Ghanaian architects, including John Buckman and Peter Nathaniel Kwegyir Turkson. I uncovered Turkson’s architecture thesis project in the University of Liverpool archives and discuss his plans for a new Parliament Assembly building in Accra.
Turkson wanted a design that was ‘classic in character and at the same time distinctly modern in feeling and detail…[exhibiting] the spirit of modern times’.
Turkson’s solution proposed using a ‘sandcrete’ (laterite soil mixed with cement) block wall along with a brise-soleil frame of fixed vertical and horizontal fins. Topping the structure and reflecting the chamber below was a reinforced concrete dome clad in copper, whilst some of the walls would be clad with faience finish. The plan was symmetrical forming two courtyards with a central drum for the debating chamber and library above.
Recent years have seen an upsurge of academic, curatorial and critical interest in postwar art in Britain and around the world. This has included addressing the question of how we define what “postwar” is and how expansively we might think about the period and its cultural significance. This series of Paul Mellon Centre research seminars will showcase new perspectives on the arts of postwar Britain as an interdisciplinary and transcultural terrain of research. Talks in the series engage with the issues of empire and worldmaking, with questions of migration, the environment and with the intersections of art, technology and new media.
A series of summer research seminars to be held on Wednesdays from May to July 2022
Paul Mellon Centre [online and in person]
Iain Jackson – Modern Architecture in West Africa: Schools, Sculptures and Magazines
This paper is concerned with modernist architecture in “British West Africa” produced in the aftermath of World War Two and the independence period of these countries.
These experimental and often provocative structures were designed for climatic comfort, as well as becoming didactic vehicles for ideas sharing ideas of a modern and liberated Africa.
The paper will discuss attempts at forming a “Bauhaus” Art School in Accra, followed by various commissions of libraries, community centres and museums that attempted to blend the most radical architectural designs with decoration, murals and sculptures. The West African context seemingly presented a “blank canvas” for newly qualified architects eager to “experiment” in ways that would be impossible in Britain. Whilst these buildings were often presented as symbols of an emerging nationalism and expectation of liberation, they also reveal the ongoing neo-colonial methods, with many relying on the patronage of multinationals such as the United Africa Company.
Finally, the paper will discuss how these projects were reported and shared, especially through the high-brow magazine Nigeria, which regularly featured extensive articles written by the architects on the latest designs.
The result was a diverse and extremely fertile context that reveals an often-overlooked set of important structures responding to a period of political flux and cultural exchange.
Rixt Woudstra – “A feeling of warmth”: Tropical Timber, Modern Interiors and the United Africa Company in Postwar Britain
In 1960, the new, modernist headquarters of the United Africa Company (UAC), one of the leading British trading businesses extracting palm oil, cocoa and other raw goods from West Africa since the late nineteenth century, opened near Blackfriars Bridge in central London. While the structure’s grey concrete and glass exterior appeared cold, inside the architects used a strikingly large variety of gleaming tropical timbers. The doors, floors and panelling, as well as most of the furniture, were made of honey-coloured idigbo, pinkish makore, fine-textured guarea, reddish-brown sapele and deep-brown African mahogany – all logged by one of the company’s subsidiaries, the African Timber and Plywood Company, in Nigeria and Ghana. Although an exceptional example, it was certainly not the only building containing exotic timbers in postwar Britain; tropical wood could be seen in and on the outside of university building, civic centres, housing estates, sport facilities and offices.
Scholars have explored how Jamaican and Honduran mahogany, sourced by enslaved workers, left an imprint on British domestic interiors and furniture design in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. Less well known, however, is that “empire timber” – and later, “world woods” – continued to permeate British design and interior architecture well into the twentieth century. This talk focuses on the commercial activities of the UAC in Nigeria and Ghana during the 1950s and ’60s and considers how tropical timber was deployed to soften or provide a decorative element to modernism, often perceived as cold and austere. Moreover, examining tropical timber and tracing where and by whom it was logged, how it was processed, sawn, shipped and sold, enables us to see how British postwar modernism was dependent on imperial and neo-imperial networks of extraction and colonial labour.