The George Padmore Library: A Potential Attribution 

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

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