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British Colonial Architecture

Ewan Harrison writes:

Readers of the transnational architecture blog may already be familiar with the work of Nickson & Borys. The practice had a large presence in anglophone West Africa in the mid-20th century, especially in Accra, where it completed several high-profile public buildings, and in Lagos, where it designed numerous commercial buildings from the 1950s to the 1990s. Although much remains uncertain about the practice, their work in those two cities have received critical attention, with the practice’s central library complex in Accra, for example, justly celebrated in the Getty’s ‘Keeping it Modern‘ programme. Less well known is the practice’s work in Sierra Leone, despite the fact the practice operated an office in Freetown and designed numerous high-profile buildings there in the 1950s and 1960s.

Perspective Sketch of Lungi Airport, Freetown: by Nickson and Borys

Our trip to Sierra Leone in fact began with a Nickson & Borys building – Lungi International Airport was completed to designs by the practice in c1960 and, although built to slightly different designs to those illustrated, is little altered today. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the practice’s largest commission in the city – the Townhall and Municipal Offices. Completed for Freetown City Council on a suitably prominent site in the centre of the city’s historic grid of streets that run parallel to one another down a steep slope to the sea wall. This was laid out in the 1790s and the timber and stone houses and chapels built by the City’s Krio elite in the early years of its development can still be found dotted amongst later commercial and public buildings. A perspective view of Nickson & Borys’ offices for the municipality published in 1962 show an elegant tower and podium arrangement of blocks: the main tower had a slightly kinked façade with windows protected by vertical brise-soleil, whilst the podium block is enlivened with patterned concrete screens – here Nickson & Borys applied the quintessential features of tropical modernism to the office tower typology. Not a trace of this survives in the new Freetown City Council offices built in 2018 on the same site – a 14 storey tower designed by the South Korean Overseas Development Fund, with facades clad in chlorine-blue glass.

Better preserved, and also showing Nickson & Borys’ characteristic utilisation of brise-soliel and concrete screens, is the city’s former Barclays Branch. Barclays was the largest bank operating in British colonised Africa, its pillared and pedimented branches often stood in city centre sites adjacent to the government offices. Barclays greeted decolonisation by commissioning prominent new modernist branches, signalling its commitment to servicing (and profiting from) markets in newly independent countries. The Freetown Branch is perhaps the most architecturally accomplished of these. The building extends through the breadth of one city block on a central avenue in the historic grid, Siaka Stevens Street. Its long façade is broken by window embrasures protected by in-set concrete screens or applied lengths of brise-soleil, adding a geometric richness to an otherwise simple building. The practice’s lively approach to pattern-making, seen at the Accra Library Complex, is here shown to its fullest extent.

Former Barclays DCO Branch in Freetown, designed by Nickson and Borys

In 1965 Nickson & Borys unveiled plans to redevelop much of Freetown’s historic grid as a mega-structural development of new offices and hotel towers, rising from a podium of shopping facilities. Whilst this Plan Voisin for Freetown was destined to remain unexecuted, a flavour of what the practice proposed for the city is encapsulated in an executed large-scale development designed by the practice that stretches the length of steeply sloping Gloucester Street. Built for the Sierra Leone General Post Office, the complex included Freetown’s main public post office, the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank, a telephone exchange and a sorting office all of which are externally expressed. The slope in the site and the differing functions were utilised by the practice to form a highly sophisticated and very urban composition.

A similar impulse can be detected in the final Nickson & Borys commission we visited: the Sierra Leone Grammar School at Murray Town. Built as the new premises of a venerable Freetown institution – the first Grammar School was opened in the city by the Church Missionary Society in 1845 – the commission came to the practice through Borys’ role as the consultant architect to the Sierra Leone Ministry of Education in c1960 when the school had moved to a sloping greenfield site on the edge of the city. Here Nickson & Borys arranged the school accommodation in a dense composition of three staggered blocks linked to one another across the contour of the site’s ridgeline. Each of the blocks was given a differing façade treatment: the administration block was articulated with deeply set vertical brise-soleil; whilst the classroom blocks feature geometric pierced concrete screen walls. The three blocks were linked by external staircases and walkways, characteristically these are approached as another opportunity for rich pattern making with the staircase and balcony rails articulated into alternating blocks of solid and void. These open circulation spaces perhaps owe something to Fry and Drew’s famous schools in Ghana, but the compact – almost megastrucutral – arrangement of the blocks is far removed from Fry and Drew’s formal axial schemas. Similarly, the modelling of the concrete forms was rather heavier than was usual in Fry and Drew’s schools – perhaps testament to the care and skill of the school’s contractor, Taylor Woodrow Sierra Leone.

Towards the end of our visit to the Grammar School we were shown the assembly hall. A rather modest space internally, externally the assembly hall is vibrantly expressed through a fan-shaped extrusion that terminates in an expressively kinked end-wall, with heavily modelled vertical openings cast in concrete. Both the plan form and detailing was strongly reminiscent of the George Padmore Memorial Library in Accra – a fan-shaped block with kinked end walls that bore thickly moulded concrete rainwater goods. In my last post for the Transnational Architecture Blog I had thought Nickson & Borys were unlikely to be the George Padmore’s designers: now, having seen the practice’s treatment of the Sierra Leone Grammar School’s assembly hall, I am far less sure…

On an escarpment, 250m above the city of Freetown, is the small settlement of Hill Station. This was an exclusive resort built for the British colonial administrators and staff between 1902 and 1904. Modelled on the Indian hill stations (such as Simla) and the sanatorium at Aburi, Ghana, it aimed to provide cooler, more healthier abodes for the Colonists. Ronald Ross’s recent discoveries on mosquitoes and malaria also prompted the move away from the city, and the increasing desire for racially segregated housing and cordon sanitaires.

The houses were exported as kits from the UK ready to be assembled and clad on site. Hefty concrete bases are topped with steel frames that provide living accommodation at first floor level . Access is via a perpendicular staircase leading to a verandah. The raised bungalows catch the breeze and offer far reaching views over the forest, city, and ocean below. A club offered the only source of entertainment for the residents of this leafy, isolated, community.

How to access the Hill Station was solved by building a narrow gauge railway line from the city. It operated to suit the office hours of the government officials, and ran from 1904 until 1929 when it was replaced by road and bus service. Each day the officials would commute into town and return at the end of the day to their verandah’s and billiards at the Club House. It was an elaborate and hugely expensive experiment that benefited just a few dozen individuals. To build and maintain a railway through this challenging terrain was an immense task.

Today, just 12 of the original 24 two-storey houses survive, still occupied by civil servants and their families (and still without a piped water supply). Many of the houses are being modified and extended, and the large plots split-up and sold to facilitate new development.

As part of our project to research the architecture of the United Africa Company (UAC) we’re visiting Freetown in Sierra Leone.

We spent the first day looking around the commercial business area wrapped around the giant cotton tree. The city grid was set out by the Sierra Leone Company surveyors in the 1790s and its wide streets and blocks are largely intact. Interspersed among the commercial properties are churches, houses, and schools, some dating back to the 19th Century.

Adjacent to the Cotton Tree are the municipal offices, post office and former telephone exchange, and the major bank branches. Nickson and Borys designed a major branch for Barclays DCO and Ronald Ward for British Bank of West Africa (more on these by Ewan Harrison shortly). The Sierra Leone Central Bank is also located here – now refurbished and with its concrete mural sadly covered over with signage (designed by Ministry of Works in 1964).

Further downhill, towards the old railway station and harbour, are the major merchant stores and retailers.

We visited the old Kingsway Stores – now a bank – but still with its deco-inspired flourishes at each end of the facade. The CFAO is still clearly recognisable, and several other stores display strong characteristics of GB Ollivant and Leventis properties we’ve seen elsewhere in Western Africa.

Heading further eastwards beyond the older city grid is ‘PZ Roundabout’ named after trading company Patterson Zochonis. Here the formality of the central business area gives way to more lively street markets and less formal city planning.

Further along Fourah Bay Road is the old Fourah Bay College building. The College was founded in 1827 in association with Durham University and was the first western style educational establishment in West Africa. It was mainly focused on missionary training. The delicate front verandah is formed with steel members bolted together and the ruinous state of the building has further exposed the steel structure inside. The beams were made by Glengarnock Iron and Steel Co in Ayrshire, Scotland and shipped out to Sierra Leone during the construction of the college building in the 1840s.

The college is located just a short distance from the sea, and what is now the busy port of Cline Town. Here the major shipping company Elder Dempster had their offices. They commissioned James Cubitt to design their premises in 1958. Cubitt also designed the Elder Dempster tower in Lagos, Nigeria, but rather than a dramatic tower overlooking the marina, here there is a more restrained horizontal solution with projecting concrete brise soleil and a porte-cochère. Inside the booking hall is a dramatic spiral staircase that wraps around what resembles a ship’s funnel.
Warehouses and storage sheds dominate the area, including the former UAC stores opposite the National Railway Museum.

There’s an impressive collection of architecture in this historic port city. In the UAC archive there are extensive photographic albums from 1915 through the 1960s documenting many of the streets and buildings we visited. Our task now is to identify more of these structures, and to research the history that resulted in their commissioning, design, and wider significance.

Exciting news that The V&A is planning an exhibition with emphasis on the architecture of Tropical Modernism in West Africa and India.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a major scholarly publication and a wide variety of other events, and will probably tour internationally following its staging at the V&A.

There is a vacancy for a Project Curator to work on the exhibition – details here

The Project Curator will research and develop activities associated with the project, supporting the creative vision set out by the Lead Curator. They will generate content and contribute to the delivery of the exhibition and accompanying publication.

To apply for this dream job, please submit your application online by Tuesday 22 November 2022 at 23:59.

Ewan Harrison Writes:

Kingsway, Sekondi Advertisement Picture courtesy of Unilever Archives

Kingsway Stores was the most exclusive retail chain in colonial British West Africa. Established by a British import-export firm, Miller Brothers, the chain’s first two department stores opened in Accra and Kumasi in 1915-1920 and were explicitly modelled on Harrods and Selfridges. Named for the boulevard in London’s Holborn, where Millers was headquartered in a stodgily baroque office building, the Kingsway Stores sold imported food, clothing and home wear to a primarily British expatriate clientele. By 1929, a series of mergers and takeovers saw Miller Brothers absorbed into Unilever’s vast African subsidiary, the United Africa Company, which is currently the subject of a collaborative research project led by the University of Liverpool and Unilever Archives, and funded by the Leverhulme Trust. 

Kingsway Stores, Sekondi, 2022 Image: Iain Jackson

The Kingsway chain grew under the United Africa Co.’s ownership and by the early 1950s, Kingsway stores traded  in each of the British West African capitals, Accra, Lagos, Freetown, Banjul, and in many of the larger towns and cities across the region: Kumasi, Cape Coast, Sekondi, and Tamale in the Ghana, and in Jos and Kaduna in Nigeria. Like many of these stores, the Sekondi store was designed by the Unilever In-House Architects and Engineering Department, headed by James Lomax-Simpson.  A graduate of the University of Liverpool School of Architecture, Lomax-Simpson designed numerous buildings for Unilever, including housing at the famous company town, Port Sunlight. The designs that his team produced for United Africa Co. offices, warehouses and retail stores across West Africa tended towards the mildly moderne, with some slight modifications for local climatic conditions through the use of canopies and verandas to provide shading from the sun and allow for the higher loads of rainwater run-off required during the rainy season. The Sekondi Kingsway store is a paradigmatic example of this work. 

Party at Kingsway Store in Bathurst/Banjul, Gambia, held in 1953. Picture courtesy of Unilever Archives.

The growth of the Kingsway chain in the interwar years reflected the expansion of British expatriate technicians, civil servants and businessmen during a period known as ‘the second colonial occupation.’ Increased investment in development projects, ultimately designed to maximise the flow of cocoa and precious metals from West Africa and thus boost Britain’s dollar reserves, saw not only an increase in British expatriate staff working in late colonial West Africa, but also their increasing embourgeoisement. The growth of the chain also reflected, and, indeed, facilitated, changes in the gender balance of British communities in West Africa. British women were originally discouraged from settling in the region, but by the 1940s the availability of malaria prophylaxis and yellow fever vaccines saw increasing numbers of women taking positions within colonial administrations, and wives joining their husbands on tours of duty across the region. As Laura Ann Stoler notes, the presence of European women ‘accentuated the refinements of privilege and the etiquettes of racial difference… women put new demands on the white communities to tighten their ranks, clarify their boundaries and mark out their social space.’ Racially segregated bungalow reservations proliferated across ‘British’ West Africa in this period. Within these reservations, ‘Europeanness’ was performed through a constant round of dinner parties, drinks parties, tennis parties, through the consumption of imported tinned and preserved food, through patterns of dress and home decoration. Kingsway stores, which emphasised that ‘orders were delivered direct to bungalows,’ supplied all the goods required for this memetic of bourgeoise English life. 

Figure 4 Kingsway Stores, Ibadan. 1960. TP Bennett & Partners. Picture courtesy of Unilever Archives.

By the mid-1950s, as political decolonisation neared in West Africa and both civil services and expatriate companies increasingly ‘Africanised’ their staff, the Kingsway Stores faced the loss of its primary customer base. Perhaps paradoxically, the company management combatted this through a programme of expansion. Boldly modernist new stores, designed by the British commercial architectural firm TP Bennett & Partners, were opened in Accra, in the Lagos suburbs, in Ibadan and Port Harcourt in Nigeria. At the same time, didactic marketing campaigns – exhibitions, product demonstrations, fashion shows – were instrumentalised to sell a vision of modern, and, indeed, modernist, domesticity to an elite African clientele. An Ideal Homes Exhibition, sponsored by the British Design Council and held at the Lagos Kingsway Store in 1962, for example, offered advice on ‘such subjects as how to create harmony with simple furnishings and the tricks of entertaining which make a house-wife into a hostess.’ Kingsway at the end of empire therefore shrewdly manoeuvred itself away from selling ‘Europeanness,’ to selling ‘Modernity’ to the emerging, post-colonial, African elite, a shift in mode that sheds light on the entanglements between modernist architecture and design on the one hand, and colonial and neo-colonial profit extraction on the other. 

Fig 5: Kingsway Stores advertisement, c1960. Picture courtesy of Unilever Archives.

Originally published here https://c20society.org.uk/building-of-the-month/kingsway-stores-sekondi-ghana October 2022

Adefola Toye writes:

The first architectural journal in West Africa, The West African Builder and Architect (WABA) was published in 8 volumes between 1961 and 1968, and covered the field of architecture and building in the region. Nation-building programmes had started in newly independent West African nations by the early 1960s. These projects were centred on large-scale infrastructure projects for national development, which sparked a boom in design and construction. In contrast to earlier architecture journals on colonial Africa that were published for a metropolitan readership,i WABA was founded by and for professionals based in West African countries to share information on practice in the developing industry and encourage cooperation among practitioners. ii 

The journal began with an editorial panel of British architects: Kennett Scott in Ghana, and Anthony Halliday and Robin Atkinson of Fry & Drew and Partners in Nigeria.iii  Oluwole Olumuyiwa, one of the few Nigerian architects who studied abroad and established practices upon their return, was the only West African on the panel. Among the WABA’s target audience was the modest number of engineering and architecture students studying in West Africa. It aspired to equip them with valuable information regarding their future careers that were specific to their environment.  

Published articles included news on new projects finished in Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, and Sierra Leone as well as articles by skilled professionals discussing contemporary design and building methods in West Africa. Regular publication features included technical reviews of new products, updates on development work in the countries covered, and advertising placements.  

At that time, British practices operating since the 1940s dominated the architecture field in the region.  They completed late colonial buildings using tropical modernist designs. This group of foreign architectural firms, including James Cubitt & Partners, Kennett Scott Associates, Architects’ Co-Partnership, Fry,  Drew & Partners, etc.,  produced a significant number of the new structures published in the  WABA journal. The projects of the general contractor, Taylor Woodrow and the engineering consultant, Ove Arup & Partners were also listed. Buildings for government organisations, corporations, and residences, constituted the bulk of the reported projects. Facilities for telecommunications, transport and healthcare were also mentioned.  

The WABA journal served as a reference for the purchase and sale of building supplies and services through advert placements, advertisers index and buyers’ guides. Advertisements in volumes 1 and 2 of the journal reflect the state of the construction industry in the early 1960s independent West Africa. As the region’s manufacturing industry was in its cradle, building supplies and equipment were primarily imported and distributed by West African-based agents. Most of the distributors’ advertisements in the journal were from multinational corporations that were at the forefront of trade in colonial West Africa such as United Africa Company, GBO (G.B. Ollivant) and CFAO (Compagnie Française de l’Afrique Occidentale). GBO Building Department for example was a former subsidiary of British merchant GB Ollivant and had been operating in Nigeria since the late 19th century. Vivian, Younger & Bond Ltd and John Holt Technical were among more well-known suppliers with numerous locations throughout West Africa. 

By constructing new facilities and forming partnerships with public and private organisations, foreign manufacturers also expanded their presence in West Africa. In their various local factories, International Paints (West Africa) Ltd., Dorman Long (Ghana) Ltd., and Nigerite (in Nigeria) produced paint, steel, and asbestos sheets respectively. The headlines of these corporations’ advertisements in WABA highlighted the launch of new plants and their support of the local economy. Additionally, advertisements for locally produced goods included the clause “made in Ghana” or “made in Nigeria.”. There was a minimal presence of indigenous manufacturing companies. NIGERCEM-Nigeria’s first locally owned cement factory was the only producer to include this feat in its advertisement. 

Some organizations used their advertisements to highlight their importance and reputation in the sector. Advertisements for general contractors and subcontractors were designed to appear as portfolios of completed and continuing projects. The advertisement pages for the metal component company Henry Hope & Sons Ltd always showed an image of a brand-new building fitted with their curtainwalls and/or sun breakers.  This was displayed alongside a brief overview of the building including its location and architect’s name.  

The journal adverts reflected companies’ recognition of their role in nation-building. Multinational corporations boasted of their delight and pride in partaking in the “progress” and “growth” of the economy and the future of new countries. Was this marketing approach merely chosen to appeal to the development-oriented nature of the new market, or was it implemented to emulate previous advertisements by foreign businesses (like UAC) in response to criticism of neo-colonialism? iv  

Companies targeted their advertisements not only at professionals but also at citizens in West Africa. These advertisements directed at building occupants first appeared in the 1962 issues and frequently alluded to modernity. Adverts for flooring, sanitary fittings, and appliances included large texts with phrases like “gracefully modern” and “modern living.” This contrasted with building supplies adverts-directed at professionals-which hardly referenced modern living. The late colonial era’s ‘africanization’ programmes aided the growth of the middle class by giving priority to the education and employment of Africans by public and private sector organisations. Likewise, housing initiatives launched by government agencies like the Ghana Housing Corporation and the Nigerian LEDB (Lagos Executive Development Board) in the 1950s attracted this demographic. They were characterised by their higher economic and educational status, as well as a household lifestyle distinct from the traditional communal family structure.v Was the reference to a modern lifestyle a marketing strategy to attract the West African middle class who had adopted a western-oriented lifestyle? 

The WABA journal provides an account of the building sector’s development in independent West Africa. The journal advertising demonstrated how companies promoted their products to appeal to both individual and national ideals of growth while navigating the shifting socio-political landscape. 

i See Hannah le Roux and Ola Uduku, ‘The Media and the Modern Movement in Nigeria and the Gold Coast’, NKA (Brooklyn, N.Y.), 2004.19 (2004), 46–49.  

ii ‘Introduction’, The West African Builder and Architect, 1:1 (1961), 1. 

iii In 1961, the Nigerian office of Fry, Drew and Partners became Fry, Drew, Atkinson Architects Nigeria under the leadership of Robin Atkinson.  ‘Nigeria Developments’, The West African Builder and Architect, 1.4 (1961), 108.  

iv Bianca Murillo, ‘“The Devil We Know”: Gold Coast Consumers, Local Employees, and the United Africa Company, 1940–1960’, Enterprise & Society, 12.2 (2011), 317–55  

v Daniel Immerwahr, ‘The Politics of Architecture and Urbanism in Postcolonial Lagos, 1960-1986’, Journal of African Cultural Studies, 19.2 (2007), 165–86 (p.175) 

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?

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.

1958 plan for Marine Drive: source PRAAD

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.

A rendering of the new Marine Drive project: towers around Black Star Square.
Current view of Black Star Square

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 under construction: female labour force transporting blocks and cement

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.

To read the full article go to https://www.design233.com/articles/pioneer-ghanaian-architects-theodore-shealtiel-clerk and more extraordinary images of Tema under construction in the 1950s.

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