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 Flexible and embracing enough to accommodate diverse interests and aims, unpublished personal letters, diaries, and autobiographies provide captivating details to any enthusiast – for instance, Fry’s diary was only made accessible in 2021.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?
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.
The George Padmore Library: A Potential Attribution
Text by Dr Ewan Harrison
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.
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.
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,’ 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.’ 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.
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.
 J, Max Bond Jnr and the Approproation of Modernism in a Library Design in Ghana
 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
A fascinating article by Peter Halliday on Tropical Modernism in West Africa – including some previously unseen photographs taken by his father, and site architect at Ibadan University, Anthony Halliday.
Peter Halliday is a writer, photographer and member of the Modernist Society. He’s written several publications and produced a photographic documentary How Grey Was My Valley of the disappearing architectural post-war environment in Wales, recently featured in the Guardian. You should follow this brilliant writer and photographer on IG if you don’t already!
In this fascinating article, Peter transports us back to the 1950s when his Dad worked under Maxwell Fry and Jane Dew at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. But how does tropical modernism, a decade earlier, tie in with the plateglass universities? Read on..
PH: Plenty has been written about the University of Ibadan and its architecture.
Established in the late 1940s as Africa’s first university, it has been variously described as an ‘emblem of modernity’, the ‘crown in the career’ of one of our most influential modernist architects, and wholly inappropriate ‘constructions of whiteness’.