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The Exhibition Africa Big Change Big Chance has recently opened in La Triennale in Milan curated by Benno Albrecht

Africa Big Change Big Chance is an overview of the architecture and transformations in progress in Africa. The changes affect the control of large numbers, they show huge shifts of people, pressure caused by urbanization, the inappropriate use of natural resources and territories. The transformation – the Big Change – and the opportunity – the Big Chance – reflect the order of prospects available today for a better and sustainable future in Africa. The continent will be the theatre of a new modernity, where a different global and cosmopolitan culture may be developed.

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Jacopo Galli curated the section of the exhibition regarding the Architectures of Modernity presenting 90 projects developed in Africa from 1945 to 2015. TAG member Iain Jackson and Ola Uduku contributed to the exhibition.

The possibility of change is personified by the key players on the African architectural scenario, from the end of World War II to the present. The spotlight turns to the figures involved in design projects committed to proposing a new modernity. Projects are fielded to remedy extreme situations that show the technical horizons of architecture related to passive environmental control. The exceptional nature of these experiments suggests that Africa was – and is – a training ground for a challenging concept of modernity.

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A catalogue has been published by Editrice Compositori both in italian as well as in English and it’s available at this link

Three Buildings by the Architects’ Co-Partnership

Iain’s last post mentioned Leo De Syllas, one of the founders of the Architects’ Co-Operative Partnership (ACP) created in London in 1939. The practice originally consisted of 11 members recently graduated from the Architectural Association who wished to work without office hierarchies and on projects of a predominantly social character. They were strongly influenced in their methods by Berthold Lubetkin’s Tecton. The original members other then De Syllas were: Kenneth Capon, Peter Cocke, Michael Cooke-Yarborough, Anthony Cox, Michael Grice, A. W. Nicol, Anthony Pott, Michael Powers, Greville Rhodes and John Wheeler.

De Syllas was the African mastermind of the firm that set up a studio in Lagos in the early 50’s. Their contribution to Tropical Architecture has never been fully studied and is greatly underestimated. De Syllas was one of the most important figures of the second generation of tropical modernists alongside other designers such as James Cubbitt, John Godwin and Gillian Hopwood. Works from Architects Co-Partnership are largely displayed in Fry and Drew’s masterpiece, Tropical Architecture in the Dry and Humid Tropics in 1964. This shows how Tropical Architecture was intended as an innovative design system used by a small group of designers willing to disseminate their design ideas, in an article on Architectural Design in 1959 De Syllas stated: the work shown on the following pages is a record of the adaptation of the principle of tropical architecture to various requirements and some of the lessons learned in the process may be universally useful. 

Architects CoP - Ansarur Deen School - Lagos - Nigeria

I would like to present three buildings by the Architects Co-Partnership that show their highly experimental attitude. I believe that the appliance of scientific principles and climatic design tools such as solar diagrams and wind charts is highly sophisticated and a perfect example of the tropical design approach. The first building (above) is the Ansar-Ud-Deen School in Lagos, it is a simple design with a concrete structure common to many of the school buildings built in those years. The interesting part of the design is the usage of a single device, simple but yet highly effective. It consist of an horizontally pivoted timber framed shutter that can change position in the different time of the day and become a shading device while assuring cross-ventilation.

Architects CoP - House - Kano - Nigeria

The second building is a private house in Kano, in northern Nigeria. I see this building as the direct architectural result of the appliance a periodic heat flow diagram. The materials used, the type of openings and the general concept are all chosen in order to control the diurnal variation of temperature inside the building. The first floor, where the daily life takes place, has 60cm thick stone walls and small openings while the first floor with the bedrooms is a light timber structure with floor-to-ceiling openings. This structure, alongside the use of the double height internal patio, allows to reduce the time lag period in the diagram assuring a longer comfort period. In this case we can assume the whole building as a single climatic device acting towards a specific purpose.

Architects CoP - Department of Marketing exports - Ibadan - Nigeria

The last building is the Department of Marketing Exports in Ibadan, a t-shaped building with facades facing all four of the cardinal points. A different device was used in each facade: in the east and west facades we find vertical pivoted shades, in the south facade fixed overhead shades and a system of openings assuring cross-ventilation and in the north pivoting storm shutters. The facades reach highly sophisticated solution dealing at the same time with sun-protection, air flow and protection from occasional rainstorms. In the north and south facade in particular we can see the usage of mixed devices: shutters, shades, venetian blinds both movable or steady. The highly experimental will of this building is demonstrated by the fact that it was first built on two floors and then after experiments were made on the function of the different devices increased to three floors.

I’m currently conducting a deeper investigation and a re-drawing of many other Architect Co-Partnership buildings and I would love to be able to get in contact with someone who works or worked in the firm. Have you worked in the office? Have you got any information on this African designs? I’d love to hear from you, feel free to contact me!

Mad dogs and Englishmen

Following up Yemi’s post on the RWAFF, I noticed the uniforms of the African soldiers and reflected on how this apparently insignificant peculiarity has been a sign of the different methods with which Europeans confronted with Africa. The uniforms of colonial military force in Africa are a clear sign of the development of climate-adaptive sensibility, they played a major role in the history of Tropical Medicine that I see as the cultural base of Tropical Architecture. Noël Coward in 1931, while travelling from Hanoi to Saigon, wrote the famous lyrics “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun“. It’s amazing to see how the idea that tropical climate was unhealthy and dangerous was so deeply rooted in the European culture to even generate popular folk songs.

The solar topee (shown below) that “the simple creatures hope he will impale on a tree” was the most famous symbol of how scientific knowledge could help the Western man cope with the dangerous tropical climate. Yet we must avoid tracing the history of Tropical Medicine as the simple linear progression of reason over superstition. Even if significant progress were made, they did not sweep away the suspicion that climate itself was a biological harm for Europeans. In 1930s Nigeria one cadet refused to wear the hat until he got a letter from the government saying that if he become ill from not wearing the hat he would have to go back home and end is career. It is easy to imagine how the whole life of colonialists in early decades of XXth century were influenced by the concerns on tropical climate. The idea that black and whites needed different treatments opened up to the idea that they were biologically different which easily ended up in racial theories.

Towards a genealogy of tropical architecture: Historical fragmen

However the systemic approach to climate that many studies of Tropical Medicine show, one for all the monumental work by Aldo Castellani and Albert Chalmers, posed the basis for the development of studies on climate that were strongly influential on Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew’s work. It is perhaps possible to trace a history of the relation with climate that links together solar topees, military barracks and bungalows all the way to the tropical modernism. A history that will be able to recognize the debt that Fry and Drew had with previous experiences in Africa even in disciplines not immediately linked to architecture.