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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.iiiOluwole 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)
In the Architect and Building News from July 1952 there’s an intriguing article for a partially-prefabricated ‘Commonwealth House’.
The house could be easily shipped and ‘erected by the average handyman’, aided by a standardised kit of parts would make manufacturing simple and predictable.
The house was designed by Charles A. V. Smith with John Pearce Mockridge, following a consultation with potential makers and inhabitants. The architects adjusted their designs to suit a consensus – resulting in a house very much designed by committee with a predictable, if utilitarian and efficient, floor plan.
The brief was to develop a house that would be suitable across the geographical and climatic zones of Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and East Africa. Over 20,000 units were expected to be built per year to meet the demand for emigrating workers and their families eager to escape war-torn Britain for opportunities elsewhere.
The house had an aluminium frame structure, and the cladding materials could vary depending on availability and final conditions. It was placed on concrete posts with an ant-trap to resist termite attack. The prototype erected on Great West Road in Hounslow was fitted out with furniture and a fireplace designed by American architect Carl Koch (1912-1998), who later pioneered several prefabricated house designs in the US.
The Commonwealth House design was very similar to houses we saw in the timber saw-mill town of Samreboi in Ghana – even down to the ant-trap detailing.
The African Timber and Plywood Company (AT&P), who owned the mill and were responsible for most of the housing, were also attempting to develop their own housing kits and to expand into new products and markets.
By 1954 AT&P had begun to discuss prefabrication techniques and processes at both Samreboi and their larger station at Sapele in Nigeria. The drive and urgency for this type of production was heightened by increased competition and political efforts to quickly improve housing standards in West Africa. The Dutch firm Schokbeton had been awarded a large order for prefabricated housing in Ghana, and contractors Taylor Woodrow were eager to expand their building products export wing.
Architect Edric Neel (1914-1952) developed a consortium of architectural consultants with Taylor Woodrow in 1944 to research new structures that could be quickly assembled and fabricated. The group was called Arcon and their first project was a temporary prefabricated house. The system developed into a set of lightweight tubular steel components that could be easily welded together. The façade, if required, could be made of local materials, metal sheets, or cement board cladding, as required. The system was intended for export and into ‘tropical conditions’ in particular. The units could be readily scaled and used to assemble large factories and sheds with large spans. Many of the factories and mills (including those at Samreboi) utilised this standardised and low-risk approach to construction.
Over the next 15 years AT&P began developing a series of prefabricated houses, but rather than developing a frame and cladding approach they created integrated wall panels (like flat-pack furniture) with modular dimensions so that windows and doors could be added where required. They called it the AT&P System Building, and priced a small house at £500 – compared to the £1200 Schokbeton model.
The system was adopted for military projects and housing, and continued to be deployed into the 1970s with AT&P developing many different variations and types.
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?
An annotated diary of my visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo: a brief stop in Kinshasa before flying to Kisangani and then, following the Congo River, a preliminary exploration of one the regions where the Huileries du Congo Belge – HCB had established its oil palm plantations.
This trip would have not been possible without the help of >>Istituto per la Bioeconomia – CNR and Forets (Formation et Recherche dans le Tshopo) – >>Cifor (Centre for International Forestry Research).
Kinshasa — Me and Ottaviano landed in Kinshasa on a Monday morning. I had never crossed the Equator before.
Papa Victor is waiting for us outside on a white Toyota jeep with a EU flag on the door and dents and scratches on all sides. A description that would fit most of the vehicles I travelled in during this trip and, as I came to discover, a stereotype for Westerners in this country. Victor is a tall, pleasant man who talk and laugh quietly even when we plunge into the suffocating traffic of Kinshasa. The 25 kilometers between the airport and my hotel in Gombe are an endless sequence of taxis, yellow Wokswagen vans running with the doors open to bring some air to the passengers squeezed inside, a multitude of weva moto-taxis, and trucks covered in sticky black dust.
The two days in Kinshasa are chaotic. We meet with some people and don’t see much. I watch street scenes, buildings, and billboards passing by from the window of Victor’s car.
During the last night in the city, I meet my old friends and former colleagues Raphael, Paul, and Pietro – who became a real Kinois in the meanwhile. From the hall of my overpriced hotel Raphael, tells me with his usually sharp irony: “Il faut que tu sors de cette Leopoldville”. And so we drive away, leaving Gombe behind us. Paul, who has a thing for infrastructures, gives us a lecture from behind the wheel of his car while we cross the city. Boulevard du 30 Juin, which originally connected the two Stanley’s times settlements of Kintambo Ngaliema and Nshasha, and later became the first of the large avenues of the colonial capital [>>Kinshasa Then and Now]. Avenue des Huileries, pointing to the area formerly occupied by the Huileries du Congo Belge, now hosting its successor Marsavco.. And then, Matonge, the neighborhooud that everyone here calls the musical capital of the DRC. After having lived for years few hundred meters from Matonge (Brussels) – a product of Congolese diaspora in Belgium – I finally get to see its original counterpart.
It’s early in the morning when we leave again for the airport but the city is well awake.
Congo River — After landing in Kisangani we are brought directly to the dock on the Tshopo river. The beach, as docks are locally called borrowing the word from English, is just a sandy stretch where dugout canoes and boats come ashore. We get on board of the canot rapide that Cifor made available for us and, following the Tshopo and Lindi rivers, we finally reach the Congo. Few kilometres upriver, the Wagenia/Boyoma falls, a one-hundred kilometres long sequence of cataracts, make the river impossible to navigate. After the falls, the Congo begins its ‘quiet’ descent of the 1,700 navigable kilometers dividing the place where we are navigating now from Kinshasa’s Pool Malebo before rushing again, through impressive rapids, up to Matadi and to the Ocean.
From this moment on, this broad, magnificient river, with its banks covered in thick vegetation, becomes the silent protagonist of the travel.
Moving along the river coast, the canot go past busy docks where pirogues – simple boats built by carving a single tree trunk and manouvred by one or two rowers – carry large, white sacks of coal to sell. Apart from our boat and the infrequent barges, the river is populated by these small crafts and by the noisy baleinières (‘whaler’), a wooden boat used for goods transport. Besides being painfully slow, the two half-sunken relics I could spot along the way, testify the scarce reliabilty of these bizarrely named boats.
From the canot, on the right bank, flanked by colonial villas, I spot the prominent facade of the Yakusu hospital, a now run-down gem of the Baptist Missionary Society in the Belgian Congo and an important institution for the educational and medical history of the country [Nancy Rose Hunt,>>Colonial lexicon: of birth ritual, medicalization, and mobility in the Congo].
Further down the river, the Belgika, a private island owned by the heirs of a high-rank military chief under Mobutu dictatorship. Our boat speeds close to the coast; the waves agitate the fishermen’s pirogues moving under the branches of leaning trees. The shape of old buildings with porches facing the river vanishes rapidly behind the vegetation. >>During the colonial time, the island was a coffee and rubber plantation owned by the Comptoir Colonial Belgika. The company realised barracks for the workers and villas for the European technicians and now, half a century after it abrupty left the island, those buildings are occupied by the few hundred people still living on the island or are left in disrepair.
Yanonge — 50 kilometers downriver to Kisangani, we disembark in Yanonge, a small town built around a river dock and its market; a commercial gate to the river for the backland Opala territory and the Turumbu people. Up from the dock, over the steep river banks, I can read dates and names of European firms inscribed on the front of wharehouses now surrounded by the wooden stands of the weekly market. Along the riverfront, the traders’ villas and shops are almost untouched. Guélor, who shows me the place, lives in one of them with his family of five. The rest of the town is made of single-floor brick houses – the construction material coming from the local furnaces – and by simple clay, wood and straw houses. Outside the busy market area and the two main roads, people walk calmly in the shade of the many acacia and palm trees.
Since few years, Cifor established one of its bases in the town and carries our reforestation, agricultural and local development projects. Silvia, among the many other things, coordinates the construction of a small sawmill. A solar drying kiln is close to completion and an oddly sorted team of Congolese and Italians welds metal, cuts wood boards, make electrical and hydraulic connections, rushing to complete it before our departure. (My contribution to the works is barely symbolic). The aim is to prepare the way for a locally managed, and economically sustainable activity which, allowing to meet the quality standards required for exporting wood, would eventually offer a credible alternative to illegal logging [>>Forets]
During our days in Yanonge we stay at the local Catholic mission. Outside cities, missions often offers one of the few reasonably comfortable accommodations and in Yanonge, the Comboni community also gives the occasion for some peculiar encounters. Our early equatorial evenings are filled by the accounts of Father Vittorio, a truly remarkable character who spent 50 years in the Congolese rainforest, has unlimited energies, and a passion for >>improbable projects. When sitting in front of the usual plate of rice, pondu and tilapia, he starts talking and so I put my recorder on the table. I collect hours and hours of his improvised local history monologues in which he mixes personal memories with the accounts of the people among whom he have lived. “There weren’t many books in the places I have lived – he keeps saying, not without theatricality – but people love to talk to good listeners.”
Here, the buildings have stories to tell too. The religious mission was established in the early days of the Belgian Congo and abandoned for decades after the brutal incursion in the convent by the Simba rebels in 1964. The concrete lintel mounted on rounded jambs – a motive that many times I saw in Brussels – at the entrance of what was the mission’s carpentry school is marked with the date ‘1944’. Behind the art-deco facade, a large room covered with an overly complex wooden trusses system. The three wings with porches on both sides form a courtyard and are in ruin. Part of the high-pitched roofs – a large ventilated chamber was originally left on top of classrooms to protect them from the heat – had been replaced; the rest had crumbled. Kids are everywhere, playing among the teetering walls. Our not so credible recommendations to stay away from the crumbling structures are (quite understandably) ignored. The mostly disappeared wood worshop is now a favourite spot for discreet nocturnal encounters and Paolo says that the large wood cutting machine built in Belgium in the 1940s was still bolted to the floor until not so long ago.
Next to this complex, the church and the old convent – now used as a school. The convent has a familiar shape that I had never had the chance to look closely before. A single-floor building – despite what the view from the outside may suggest – with a central corridor cutting longitudinally, facade-to-facade, through the building and rooms on both sides. Seen in cross-section, the corridor with openings placed at the ceiling level was meant to extract the hot air through natural ventilation. Next to this group of buildings and most probably coeval, a structure carrying a sign MATERNITE’ and two groups of identical brick houses which once hosted the school’s teachers.
The few days I planned on staying in this small town became more than a week as I’m stuck in bed, ill. “The full tropical experience” Iain writes me from Liverpool. I missed the boat for my next destination and I look for an alternative.
Yangambi — Sitting on the backseat of a motorbike running on a rutted dirt road, the lacking comfort is compensated by the view of riverine villages plunged in the luxuriant vegetation and by the glimpses of open horizon on the Congo river. When approaching the Yangambi reserve, the red brick walls of large villas appears on the side of the road, half concealed by the foliage of large ferns. The 250 villas built between 1933 and 1960 scattered across the reserve once housed the scientists and technicians of what was one of the largest ecological, biological, and agricultural research hubs in Africa, the >>Institut National pour les Etudes Agronomiques du Congo Belge – INEAC, later renamed INERA. The derelict storage tanks and the broken windows of the two large buildings facing the river port are the first visible signs of the now partly lost thriving life of this centre. But some sections of the research hub are >>still active.
During the few days I spend in Yangambi, Dorcas drive me from one section to the other of the reserve The library, inside the recently restored administrative building, has a large collection of magazines and publications dating back both to the colonial and Mobuto’s regimes as well as reports and correspondence documenting the exchanges that the institution had established with private companies such as the Huileries du Congo Belge and Lever Brothers. Even today, the centre carries out agronomic research and provide the germinated seeds of oil palm trees to smaller and larger >> Elaeis plantations in the country. The number of houses, communal facilites, and buildings dedicated to the different research sectors that I could brielfy see from the car or from the photographic albums stored in the library would definetely deserve to be explored with more attention but I’ve run out of time. The boat is waiting.
Kisangani — I’m already on the way back to Kinshasa when, during a two days stop in Kisangani that allows for a quick visit to the city, I find a piece of wax print fabric depicting the destination of my next trip to the DRC. In a small shop, one of the last selling locally produced Congolese wax fabric, among the most bizarelly decorated pieces of cloths, one is dedicated to the >>Plantation et Huileries du Congo, the company owning three of the former HCB plantation. Over a green background, the same palm tree and red oil palm bunch is repeated over and over. At the bottom, a sketched and colourful representation of the Congo River and its green banks along with some particularly >>optimistic mottoes of the company.
I greet the country carrying with me this small trace of the persisting signs of British-Belgian colonial capitalism in Congo. Lokutu (Elisabetha), Bumba (Alberta), and Lusanga (Leverville), three of the five company towns built by the Huileries du Congo Belge will be the subject of my next fieldwork in the coming months.
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.
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.
In the UAC archive amongst the Public Relations files is ‘Nigeria Magazine‘. From within the mat brown cardboard of the archive box springs a collection of beautifully designed and printed set of publications. The magazine was a Government sponsored venture, published by the Cultural Division of the Ministry of Information in Lagos. It was issuedquarterly from around 1937 until the mid-1980s “for everyone interested in the country and its peoples”. The focus of the editorial was varied and wide ranging, covering topics across the arts, history, architecture, literature, and culture in Nigeria. There was a strong commitment and celebration of ‘local’ art, as well as extensive articles on planning, housing, and architecture from across the ages. The contributing authors were often experts and highly regarded scholars. Ulli Beier was a frequent writer, and the quality and tone of the editorial was consciously accomplished, supplemented by some striking images and high quality graphics.
Articles were published on the history of cities, including “Ibadan, Black Metropolis” in 1961, relishing in the city’s longevity and traditions, as well as welcoming its position as a new centre for finance and media (see Design Group’s Finance building below). Other sections included biographies on key personalities, such as June 1966 with its feature on architect Alex Ifeanyichikwu Ekwueme (1932-2017).
Ekwueme studied at Washington University on a Fullbright Scholarship in 1952, and went onto to work at Nickson and Partners in London (is this Nickson and Boris?) before setting up a firm in Nigeria that grew to 16 offices. He designed the United Christian College at Apapa, Universal Insurance Building Enugu, and the Administration Building for the Nigerian Petroleum Refinery Company, amongst others. Ekwueme’s architectural career ended when he was elected Vice-President of Nigeria in 1979.
Whilst there was a lofty desire to promote local art, culture, and history, other articles appear to focus on trade and industry, presenting what are effectively op-eds or public relations pieces as historical accounts. In 1960 there was a special report on The Niger River Transport Company and Burutu, “Nigeria’s Timber Industry” featured in December 1962, focusing on the work and settlements of the African Timber and Plywood company – both subsidiary companies of of United Africa Company (UAC). Again, the Company features in various other articles, such as “The UAC in Nigeria’s economic growth” in December 1965. It’s a thorough and detailed account, going to some length to stress how the company is ‘inseparable’ from Nigeria’s economic growth. The article was also eager to stress the restructuring of the company and how it now operated as a series of smaller locally managed entities ‘to encourage the growth of industry and trade in local Nigerian hands’.
It seems that the magazine had a mandate beyond art and culture, and sought to shape opinion (particularly in the emerging and educated middle classes) on business and trade matters. The seductive and authoritative format of the journal gave these opinions validity, and allowed a particular and curated message to be carefully presented. The advertisements within the journal also reinforced these messages and narratives of progress through industry.
At the same time, ‘traditional’ and ‘local’ practices were celebrated and discussed. There is something disarming in this technique. An ahistorical image was usually shown on the front cover, often a decontextualised figure in traditional dress sometimes playing an instrument – followed on the inner leaf by an advertisement for the latest fashions from Kingsway department store. The advertisers tended to belong to, or were in partnership with, the UAC group (e.g. Taylor Woodrow, Guinness, Kingsway Stores), and it seems likely their extensive patronage held some sway over the editorial content. The adverts were not geared towards selling specific products, but were there simply to bolster public opinion and shift attitudes towards modernity, progress, and societal advancement alongside a romanticised nationalist sense of history and culture.
The articles on architecture were also propagandist and concerned with presenting Nigeria as a place of rapid progress and impatient ambition. Again, the UAC story is followed with interest, and their newly proposed offices in Lagos (by Watkins and Gray) demonstrates the Company’s commitment to ongoing business in the newly independent country, and also the shift in its focus from import/export to real estate and property development.
John Godwin, wrote an article entitled, “Architecture in Nigeria” in December 1966. It’s a potted history that starts with the regional building types, local materials, and climatic responses before moving onto the impact of corrugated iron sheeting (pan) and its limitations. Godwin sets out this story to demonstrate the sudden change in scale, building types, and growth of the construction industry in West Africa post-1945,
“Tower cranes were on the scene in 1955 and by 1961 two twenty-five-storey buildings had been completed in Ibadan and Lagos built by Italian firms who thirty years earlier were struggling with their labour force to build small houses”
Whilst acknowledging this rapid growth and exciting possibilities, he also goes on to caution that more ‘research’ is required, greater collaboration should exist between architects, and that building components and materials were still being imported at prohibitive costs. Overly extravagant “prestige building” was also targeted whilst low-cost housing problems remained unresolved. Whilst the claims and hopes for air-conditioning now seem somewhat out-dated, his desire for a civic pride and community spirit, tree planting, and care of the environment is pertinent and all the more urgent. Godwin’s approach was to propose an “architecture of ventilators and sun breakers”, a lexicon that he viewed as, “increasingly identifiable as West African.”
Contributing to this West African style was the Design Group’s “Nigerian Institute of International Affairs” (located on Lagos’s Kofo Abayomi Street). It was discussed at length by Alan Vaughan-Richards in the March/May 1968 edition of the magazine, where he particularly admired the sculptural mural, ‘The Art of Understanding” by Erhabor Emokpae in tooled concrete that revealed the granite aggregate. Inside the Institute are further sculptural elements, including a bronze figure representing Knowledge by Ben Enwonwu and positioned hovering above an evaporation pool. The interior includes some grand double-height spaces, dramatic cantilevered spiral staircases and travertine marble cladding (donated by the Italian contractor). At the rear of the plot there is an octagonal conference room with a dramatic star-shaped roof (still visible on Google maps).
The Institute was to promote peace and progress (the internal conflict taking place in Nigeria at that time was not mentioned), and was to operate as a centre for learning, research, and debate on global affairs.
June 1962 edition included an article on “Contemporary Nigerian Architecture” by D. J. Vickery, the former Head of Department at Singapore Polytechnic (did he then go on to work in Nigeria?). This is an exceptional article covering some of the latest construction in Nigeria, and Lagos in particular. As a gazetteer of the latest building work – including the work from recently qualified Nigerian architects – it formed one of the most detailed architectural surveys of the country. Although the crude categorisation of the works under three types; ‘Climate’, ‘Traditional Spirit’, and ‘Skyline’ is somewhat limited, it gets the message across, and more importantly illustrates what the Independence Boom meant to the towns and cities across Nigeria.
In addition to the speculative offices, headquarters and banking halls there was an impressive array of schools and libraries (many designed by James Cubitt who had also designed similar works in Sekondi and Koforidua, Ghana), but the focus here was undoubtedly on real estate and speculative construction.
Nigeria magazine illustrates how UAC and other global companies shifted their approach and emphasis during the early Independence period. UAC was presenting its suite of businesses as nationalist, pro-development, and key partners in the country’s future. They rapidly placed an emphasis on real estate, finance, and industrial development, whilst curating a sophisticated advertisement and public relations campaign, through an arts and culture journal, to bolster their local credentials and legitimacy in the history of Nigeria.