Archive

Sierra Leone

Amongst the palms and mango trees is a K6 telephone box and the ruins of former trading stores and warehouses overlooking the quayside. This is Bonthe, a small town on the island of Sherbro located just off the West African Guinea coast. The remote tropical location is six hours drive from Sierra Leone’s Freetown and 45 minutes speedboat through a maze of mangrove lined coastline.

Bonthe was once a major trading post rivalling the port of Freetown. Conveniently located at the mouth of the Sherbro River it was perfectly positioned for trade. Along with the many other islands in the estuary it was initially a slaving post, occupied by Portuguese, French, and British slavers. After emancipation in 1807 the island was used to supress the now illicit trade, and also became a place for returning Krio – former slaves from the Caribbean, Canada and UK.

The Island stretches about 30 miles long with Bonthe its largest settlement. Set out on a grid plan like Freetown, but on a much smaller scale, the town rapidly became a place for trade, especially after a treaty was formed with the British in 1861, and around 4500 people lived there by the 1890s.

The linear harbour overlooking the river was once lined with trading houses, merchant stores, and warehouses, offering the latest goods and merchandise from Europe. Cast-iron standpipes imported from Liverpool tapped into the fresh water supply and by the early 20thC street lighting and power was available.

Behind the trading stores grew a community of Krio houses – many adopting features from the Americas blended with European style bungalows. The active missionary population competed for converts and a vast array of churches catered for nearly every flavour of Christian denomination.

Whilst the tropical island and profitable trading created something of a paradisical, if remote setting, it wasn’t always a utopian settlement.  In 1895 five African agents of Paterson Zochonis were killed in a period of unrest that started as protest to a poll tax known as the ‘hut tax’.  The violence quickly spread exposing the lack of security on the island and the difficulty in defending the tributaries and mangrove lined swamps.  13 people were hanged there in 1898 after the murder of several American missionaries following ongoing conflict.

Sherbro in 1895: The Graphic Newspaper

Conditions were eventually restored to calm and the bustling trade of exporting raw materials from the interior mainland and the import of manufactured goods from Britain continued. The old premises of Paterson Zochonis still survives, with the company name proudly stated above the store’s portico.  Patterson Zochonis set up shop here in 1884, and their trading empire spread across West Africa.

The origin of the firm dates to the 1870s when George Henry Paterson (from Scotland) worked with George Basil Zochonis (from Greece) at Fisher and Randall in Freetown. There’s still a Fisher Street in Freetown, just around the corner PZ roundabout – named after the firm. They initially traded calico and wax cotton prints from Manchester before moving into soap after the Second World War. A soap factory was acquired by the firm in Nigeria and by 1975 they’d bought out Cussons (and their famous Imperial Leather soap brand).

Other rival trading firms such as the United Africa Company and CFAO also set up businesses at Bonthe, building large stores along the waterfront and housing behind. There’s also the ubiquitous colonial clocktower and unearthed canons littered about the place, although most of the trading stores are now dilapidated shells being reclaimed by the tropical flora and humid climate.

A landing strip was built here by the Allies during Second World War – complete with its own miniature terminal building – but the silting up of the river and the construction of new harbour facilities at the Queen Elizabeth II Dock in Freetown had a severe impact on the future prospects at Sherbro Island. There was a period of high-end holiday resorts catering for international visitors with a focus on nature lovers, birdwatchers, and fishing fanatics. A helicopter service even conveyed tourists to the Island from Freetown until about 2008.

Now it’s very much an overlooked backwater, but there are attempts to reverse its fortunes.

A new power plant is being built to restore mains power to the island and a few guest houses continue to give a warm welcome to all visitors. It’s a fascinating and beautiful place with such a rich history.

We’ve photographed most of the major structures that survive in Bonthe and will continue to investigate the archival material to uncover more of its past.

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.

Paul Robinson writes:

Professor Ken Ndomhina picked us up in his SUV and we drove through Fourah Bay College, Freetown to the Faculty of Architecture building of the University of Sierra Leone. My colleague, Iain Jackson, had been invited to give a lecture on the architecture of Fry and Drew in Western Africa. We parked up outside a two storey, white and green building with interesting post-modern ornament that included fluted ionic columns which captured swirling red dust in their profiles.

When this Architecture School opened four years ago, twenty-one students enrolled, and the first cohort is about to graduate. The school now boasts around 150 students across four year groups.

Creating a new School of Architecture is a wonderful opportunity – the chance to ‘start again’ and to develop a new programme from scratch is very special. Equally the challenges are great – not least recruiting staff as there are only 25 accredited architects in the whole country.

Yet progress is being made. Once the lecture was complete, we enjoyed light refreshments and conversation with local staff who had been trained far and wide in Cyprus, Morocco and England. They had returned ‘home’ to be involved with this exciting and growing project. The School is preparing for Commonwealth Association of Architects accreditation. It has a hands-on approach to teaching with many 1:1 scale building experiments and model-making, supplemented by history, environmental design, and building technology.

Although change is slow the University of Sierra Leone architectural department vision is strong: to see men and women from Sierra Leone, trained as architects to positively impact the developing built environment of the nation. And to establish the role of architect within their communities. Knowing this, it made it a thrilling privilege to pose with this next generation for a celebratory photograph once the event ended.

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.