The Transnational Architecture Group is 10 year’s old this year. Thank you for supporting the blog and to all of our excellent contributors over the years for enriching the content and generously sharing their work. We’d also like to thank the communities in the places in which we work, the archivists and librarians for making material available to us and sharing their expertise, our respective institutions for supporting our research, and to the research funders who make travel, time, and resources available to us.
The blog started as a means to share our work-in-progress ideas and to promote events – and that is still at the core of what we do. We continue to add updates from our ventures into the archives, travel reports, and to share interesting events and innovative papers. These small reports and updates have compounded into something of a large resource and repository, and we’re delighted so many people have been able to make good use of (and to correct and expand upon) our work and attempts at writing these histories.
To celebrate the 10 year anniversary we held a small gathering at the Liverpool School of Architecture on Wednesday 8th March, curated and organised by Dr Alistair Cartwright. Our speakers were all PhD students, post-doctoral researchers, and research associates at the school. You may watch the proceedings here:
The speakers and titles of the presentations are below, with timings if you’d like to skip to a particular talk:
Rixt Woudstra, “Sapele and Samreboi: Building Company Towns in British West Africa” 5:25
Excy Hansda, “Indigenous Modernities in the Twentieth Century Architecture of Bombay” 20:00
Adefola Toye, “Tropical Modernism in Nigeria’s First Universities: Accessing Sources Beyond the Archives.” 37:00
Ewan Harrison, “Planning for Post/Neo Coloniality: the Paramount Hotel in Freetown” 1:11
Iain Jackson, “Erhabor Emokae and the curious case of the UAC Mural: tropical modernism and decorative arts” 1:31
Daneel Starr, “How and why has the vernacular architecture and intangible cultural heritage of the Akha people changed in the face of globalization: Using the village of A Lu Lao Zhai, Xishuangbanna (sipsongpanna) China, as a case study.” 1:50
Alistair Cartwright, “Ecologies of Vulnerability: Post-Cyclone Reconstruction in Mauritius, c. 1945” 2:35
We also heard an excellent paper from Razan Simbawa, “The Effects of Demolish-based Urban Regeneration on Displaced Residents in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia” – which cannot be shared on the video recording at the moment.
Thank you again to all of the speakers for their wonderful talks, presentations, and work-in-progress. There was such variety and richness in the topics and methods, and at the same time numerous connections and cross-overs between the work.
Please do get in touch if you’d like to know more, or to share your work on the blog.
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)
Have a look at the latest article from Design233 on Community Centers in Ghana, including the Accra Community Centre (paid for by the UAC) and Tarkwa Community Center (paid for by the Manganese Mining Company) – both designed by Fry and Drew. In addition to these modernist works the more formal and classically inspired centre at Kyebi is discussed – this centre is more of a mystery… We know it was funded by the Consolidated African Selection Trust (CAST)- but who designed it, and why did CAST commission such a lavish project?
This article examines recent attempts to create specifically African forms of modernist political architecture that draw on ‘traditional’ or ‘pre-colonial’ aesthetic forms and ideas. Taking examples of three prestigious structures – the presidential palace in Ghana, the parliament in Malawi and the Northern Cape regional parliament in South Africa – the article shows how vernacular ideas have been incorporated into state-of-the-art political architecture, producing new or explicitly ‘African’ forms of modernism. It explores how such buildings, which draw on ‘invented traditions’, are used alongside conventional, monolithic representations of the state to produce ‘invented modernisms’ that both uphold and question the African state as a project of modernity.
The George Padmore Library: A Potential Attribution
Text by Dr Ewan Harrison
The George Padmore Library in Accra is a dynamic composition. Its principal block houses a fan-shaped reading room that extends from an apsidal end wall. This is raised up on pilotis, and is entered via a delicately wrought cantilevered staircase that itself springs from a fan-shaped expanse of terrazzo floating above a reflective pool. Externally, the facades are defined by horizontals of louvred glazing which allow for free air circulation, keeping the reading room at a comfortable temperature, and a strongly modelled canopy with sculpturally expressed rain water outflows. The building was established by the first president of the republic of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, in memory of the pan-Africanist writer, journalist and activist George Padmore. Padmore, who was born in Trinidiad, Nkrumah during the 5th Pan Africanist Conference, held in Manchester in 1945, and on Ghana’s independence, Padmore moved to Ghana to work for Nkrumah’s government as a diplomatic adviser. Sometime following Padmore’s death, Nkrumah’s government built the library in his memory, to house Padmore’s archive and a growing African studies library collection. The Library continues to function as Ghana’s primary deposit library to this day.
Before visiting, I had assumed that the building was likely designed by Nickson & Borys. Responsible for the design of both the Accra Central Library complex and the nearby Ghana National Archives building in the late 1950s, the practice might have seemed the natural fit for a commission to design a bespoke library in Accra at this date. However, on visiting the George Padmore Memorial Library, after having recently spent time in both of Nickson & Borys libraries in the city, the manifest differences in both spatial planning and design between those and the George Padmore Memorial Library became clear. Whilst both the Accra Central Library and the National Library are simple, cubic buildings, the architect of the George Padmore seems to have rejected the rectilinear in their handling of the main reading room. The Nickson & Borys buildings use brise-soliel and pierced concrete walls to dissolve the wall plane: creating lightweight buildings. In contrast, the George Padmore is a heavier, starker, more sculptural composition: much of its drama comes from strongly modelled canopies and sculptural concrete rainwater outflows, and its main facades feature long planes of unbroken concrete.
This points to another possible attribution, a design by Max Bond Jnr (1935-2009). The scion of a prominent African-American family, Bond studied architecture at the Harvard School of Design before working at Le Corbusier’s Paris atelier (1958-61) and the New York practice Pedersen and Tiley (1961-64). Bond believed that African-American culture should ‘hark back to Africa,’ and thus in 1963 wrote to Nkrumah asking for a job. By 1964 Bond was established in Accra as an employee of the Ghana National Contracting Corporation, the state’s contractor, working on designs for buildings at the government complex at Flagstaff House. Two of the precepts he outlined as central to his practice in Ghana were a ‘responsiveness to climate,’ and ‘modern buildings for new institutions.’ Bond’s most famous commission for the GNCC, the design of a public library at Bolgatanga, in the country’s arid northern region, strongly evidences these concerns. The Bolgatanga library project, which features four discrete volumes – two library reading rooms, a lecture hall and an administration block – under a free-standing roof designed to maximise cooling air circulation throughout the complex, is very different in its massing to the George Padmore Memorial Library. But there is something in Bond’s heavy roof at the Bolgatanga Library, in his handling of the oval wall of the Lecture Hall, and the sculptural treatment of the rainwater goods which show clear affinities with the George Padmore Memorial Library. And there are reasons beyond the stylistic to suggest Bond’s authorship of the building. Padmore’s intellectual project, and, it can be argued, much of Kwame Nkrumah’s political one, resolved around drawing attention to the shared heritage and struggles of Africans and the African diaspora throughout the Atlantic world. In this context, a design by an African-American architect, resident in Ghana, might have seemed especially suitable.
Neither the Accra Town Planning archives, the papers of the Ghana Library Board or the archive of the Padmore Memorial Library itself shed much light on the building’s authorship, although a letter in the National Archives of Accra politely rebuffing an offer from Nickson & Borys to fund a memorial plaque to Padmore is certainly suggestive that the building’s patrons didn’t think a practice headed by European emigres a suitable one to design a memorial to a titan of Pan-Africanism (dated 1961, this letter makes no mention of the project for the Library, suggesting that it predates the library’s construction). Questions remain, however. The Bolgatanga Library was extensively published, if the Padmore is by Bond, why wouldn’t he have seen that it too received attention in architectural publications? Why wouldn’t he accord it a central place in his Ghanian oeuvre? Was this perhaps a collaborative job, an awkward collaboration with one of the expatriate architectural practices that Nkrumah wished to side-line, practices like Nickson & Borys? Or with Eastern European or Yugoslavian architects employed by the GNCC? The last might be the most likely, given Ghana’s political culture in the early 1960s, and Padmore’s own long, if increasingly fractious, association with the Communist Party. Conclusive answer may well lie in the collections of the Avery Library at Columbia, which holds Max Bond Jnr’s archives, or in the private papers of Kwame Nkrumah. For now, a tentative attribution will have to suffice.
 J, Max Bond Jnr and the Approproation of Modernism in a Library Design in Ghana
 J, Max Bond Jnr and the Approproation of Modernism in a Library Design in Ghana
Returning to Accra after a 30 month break, I was expecting there to be changes, but not on the scale I witnessed. Three major projects have commenced – the new cathedral; the Marine Drive project; and the new fishing harbour. When completed they will have a drastic impact on the city and how it is experienced. Marine Drive, in particular, promises some spectacular changes to the much neglected and large sea front. For a port city Accra has never really utilised its enviable position overlooking the sea with its refreshing breeze, until now. The scale of the Marine Drive project is vast and incorporates the set design piece of Independence Square as its focal point.
The project for Marine Drive initially commenced back in 1958 with Geoffrey Jellicoe as lead designer, and various other projects have been mooted since. Jellicoe’s proposal centred around the Community Centre, and also utilised the cricket stadium and polo pitch on the current site of Black Star Square, as well as a golf course and series of club houses.
After so many other false starts it looks like Marine Drive is finally going to happen this time, with Sir David Adjaye as the lead architect. Whereas Jellicoe’s design was mainly concerned with providing sport facilities to the Colonial residents, the new proposal includes provision for other leisure facilities including beach bars, shopping, a promenade, and a series of residential and commercial towers. Sir David’s practice is also designing the new Accra cathedral and initial ground works have also commenced, with the site hoarded off and clad with architectural renderings explaining the project’s concept.
The fishing harbour project has resulted in an extension of the old breakwater wall along with some major engineering works linking the shore to the harbour, as shown above.
It’s impressive that the city is conducting works of this scale, ambition, and vision. We’ll continue to record the developments here and to document the changes.
We also revisited the classic modernist constellation of the law court, library, and community centre. Whilst the library is still in use the community centre is not, other than as a store. It’s looking particularly tired, and the building fabric is beginning to deteriorate. Its future is uncertain, and as it sits within the Marine Drive development area discussed above it isn’t clear what, if any, it’s role will be. Even the beautiful Ghana Club is potentially at risk from the new development. It’s been mooted that the club might have to be physically moved to a new site. It’s not an impossible solution as the upper level is a timber structure with louvred facades. It could be jacked up and rolled to a new location, but equally it’s also disappointing that these older structures were not incorporated and woven into the new plans.
The 1951 victory for Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’sParty resulted in some major shifts in the procurement of new infrastructure and housing. For the electorate, housing was one of the most important issues and Nkrumah’s government was quick to recognize this potency.
His plan, announced in 1952, was to build a new port city, complete with innovative and improved housing at the highest standards. Located only 18 miles from the centre of Accra, the new city of Tema would demonstrate Nkrumah’s commitment to industrial development and that Ghana was at the centre of a pan-African vision.
Tema was part of a wider industrialization project that included a new aluminum smelting plant and hydroelectric power station on the Volta River. It was a major project involving international financial backing and set out the major ambition Nkrumah had for the nation during the advent of independence. For such a major project, very little is known about the first team of architects and planners responsible for the execution and delivery.
Have a look at https://www.design233.com/articles/from-buckman-to-turkson for my article on some lesser known Ghanaian architects, including John Buckman and Peter Nathaniel Kwegyir Turkson. I uncovered Turkson’s architecture thesis project in the University of Liverpool archives and discuss his plans for a new Parliament Assembly building in Accra.
Turkson wanted a design that was ‘classic in character and at the same time distinctly modern in feeling and detail…[exhibiting] the spirit of modern times’.
Turkson’s solution proposed using a ‘sandcrete’ (laterite soil mixed with cement) block wall along with a brise-soleil frame of fixed vertical and horizontal fins. Topping the structure and reflecting the chamber below was a reinforced concrete dome clad in copper, whilst some of the walls would be clad with faience finish. The plan was symmetrical forming two courtyards with a central drum for the debating chamber and library above.
For the past months, we have been exploring the vast United Africa Company (UAC) archive held at Unilever in Port Sunlight. The archive documents decades of commercial activity in West Africa, which left a significant imprint on the built and natural environment. The UAC extracted raw materials such as palm oil and timber, but also exported finished goods such as cars, building materials, and refrigerators. The UAC also sold British products in its department stores across Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, it operated its own shipping line, named Palm Line, that ferried goods between the UK and West Africa. We have come across a variety of different materials, ranging from maps documenting the company’s palm oil plantations in the Congo and architectural drawings showing the modern Kingsway stores in Lagos and Freetown, to detailed notes related to the design of the UAC’s port, Burutu, in the Niger Delta.
One aspect of the UAC I have been focusing on these past months is the company’s timber operations in Ghana and Nigeria. In the early twentieth century, the UAC founded the African Timber Company (later the African Timber and Plywood Company), located in Sapele, Nigeria. Through a range of concession agreements with local chiefs, they managed to consolidate vast areas of territory around Sapele from which they extracted a wide range of different tropical hardwoods for export to the UK. At the same time, the company began operating in Ghana (then still the Gold Coast), in Samreboi, a hundred miles inland from the port of Takoradi. After World War II, they also built a plywood factory in Sapele—the first of its kind in this area and described as ‘the largest industrial plant in West Africa’—and began producing plywood at a large scale. Using photographs and written documentation, I have begun to explore the construction of these two company towns and their wider infrastructure. While the factories and processing plants were built using prefabricated steel sheds made by Arcon (also responsible for prefabricated houses in the UK during the postwar period), the bungalows for the company’s British employees can be described as traditional. Later, a Timber Research Laboratory was added, as well as showrooms, and several local facilities such as a (plywood) cinema and clubhouse. Through felling hundreds of thousands of logs every year, the company irrevocably left an imprint on these two areas in Ghana and Nigeria and had a devastating impact on the natural environment.
What is interesting is how the work of the African Timber and Plywood Company aligns with the British government’s focus on ‘empire timber’, or the push to use timber in Britain from different parts of the empire for furniture as well as architecture and interior design. While the government attempted to promote empire timber through a variety of exhibitions in the first decades of the twentieth century, the UAC archive reveals how widespread the use of tropical hardwood and plywood produced in Sapele and Samreboi was during the postwar period. Often marketed as giving ‘a feeling of warmth’, it was used for modern furniture made by the Conran Design Group, doors, window frames, and outside paneling for a variety of council housing, but also as interior decoration and flooring in buildings such as the Commonwealth Institute in London and the Commonwealth Royal Pool in Edinburgh. The former headquarters of the UAC in London, United Africa House at Blackfriars, is another case in point: the building’s interior functioned as a display of tropical timber, ranging from mahogany to African walnut and Sapele hardwood—all produced by the company.
Another fascinating aspect is the shift to production for the local, West African market in the 1960s and ‘70s, after Independence. Aside from furniture, one innovation was ATP Systems Building, a prefabricated building system using tropical hardwood and plywood. The company promoted this as an affordable, quick, and flexible way to build without requiring much technical knowledge. Documents I found in the archive point out that ATP Systems Building was widely deployed in, for example, Warri, a rapidly growing oil town in Nigeria, to build houses, offices, and schools.
Overall, the archive of the African Timber and Plywood company demonstrates, once again, how (modern) architectural construction in Britain was shaped by colonialism and, conversely, how British companies continued to impact design in the former colonies after independence. Many questions, however, are still unanswered. How, for example, was the work of the timber companies related to the colonial government’s efforts to promote empire timber from Nigeria? How should we understand the widespread use of (colonial) timber in postwar Britain? What prompted the shift to focus on the Nigerian market after Independence? How successful was ATP Systems Building? Over the coming months, we will continue to explore these issues.
This colour footage includes shots of the Great Hall, Kumasi; Methodist Church, Winneba; extensions to Effia Nkwanta Hospital, Secondi, and various others designed by Gerlach and Gillies-Reyburn Architects.