Seminar on 13th July 2022 – Liquid Crystal Concrete: Postwar Colonialism

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.

The sixth and last in a series of summer research seminars on The Arts of Postwar Britain 1945–1965 with Iain Jackson and Rixt Woudstra. 13th July 2022, 6pm-7.30pm, Paul Mellon Centre

  • 25 May to 13 July 2022
  • 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.

The full programme details are here: https://www.paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk/whats-on/forthcoming/liquid-crystal-concrete/event-group and you may book tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/liquid-crystal-concrete-postwar-colonialism-tickets-333553967897

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