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Recent years have seen an upsurge of academic, curatorial and critical interest in postwar art in Britain and around the world. This has included addressing the question of how we define what “postwar” is and how expansively we might think about the period and its cultural significance. This series of Paul Mellon Centre research seminars will showcase new perspectives on the arts of postwar Britain as an interdisciplinary and transcultural terrain of research. Talks in the series engage with the issues of empire and worldmaking, with questions of migration, the environment and with the intersections of art, technology and new media.

The sixth and last in a series of summer research seminars on The Arts of Postwar Britain 1945–1965 with Iain Jackson and Rixt Woudstra. 13th July 2022, 6pm-7.30pm, Paul Mellon Centre

  • 25 May to 13 July 2022
  • A series of summer research seminars to be held on Wednesdays from May to July 2022
  • Paul Mellon Centre [online and in person]

Iain Jackson – Modern Architecture in West Africa: Schools, Sculptures and Magazines

This paper is concerned with modernist architecture in “British West Africa” produced in the aftermath of World War Two and the independence period of these countries.

These experimental and often provocative structures were designed for climatic comfort, as well as becoming didactic vehicles for ideas sharing ideas of a modern and liberated Africa.

The paper will discuss attempts at forming a “Bauhaus” Art School in Accra, followed by various commissions of libraries, community centres and museums that attempted to blend the most radical architectural designs with decoration, murals and sculptures. The West African context seemingly presented a “blank canvas” for newly qualified architects eager to “experiment” in ways that would be impossible in Britain. Whilst these buildings were often presented as symbols of an emerging nationalism and expectation of liberation, they also reveal the ongoing neo-colonial methods, with many relying on the patronage of multinationals such as the United Africa Company.

Finally, the paper will discuss how these projects were reported and shared, especially through the high-brow magazine Nigeria, which regularly featured extensive articles written by the architects on the latest designs.

The result was a diverse and extremely fertile context that reveals an often-overlooked set of important structures responding to a period of political flux and cultural exchange.

Rixt Woudstra – “A feeling of warmth”: Tropical Timber, Modern Interiors and the United Africa Company in Postwar Britain

In 1960, the new, modernist headquarters of the United Africa Company (UAC), one of the leading British trading businesses extracting palm oil, cocoa and other raw goods from West Africa since the late nineteenth century, opened near Blackfriars Bridge in central London. While the structure’s grey concrete and glass exterior appeared cold, inside the architects used a strikingly large variety of gleaming tropical timbers. The doors, floors and panelling, as well as most of the furniture, were made of honey-coloured idigbo, pinkish makore, fine-textured guarea, reddish-brown sapele and deep-brown African mahogany – all logged by one of the company’s subsidiaries, the African Timber and Plywood Company, in Nigeria and Ghana. Although an exceptional example, it was certainly not the only building containing exotic timbers in postwar Britain; tropical wood could be seen in and on the outside of university building, civic centres, housing estates, sport facilities and offices.

Scholars have explored how Jamaican and Honduran mahogany, sourced by enslaved workers, left an imprint on British domestic interiors and furniture design in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. Less well known, however, is that “empire timber” – and later, “world woods” – continued to permeate British design and interior architecture well into the twentieth century. This talk focuses on the commercial activities of the UAC in Nigeria and Ghana during the 1950s and ’60s and considers how tropical timber was deployed to soften or provide a decorative element to modernism, often perceived as cold and austere. Moreover, examining tropical timber and tracing where and by whom it was logged, how it was processed, sawn, shipped and sold, enables us to see how British postwar modernism was dependent on imperial and neo-imperial networks of extraction and colonial labour.

The full programme details are here: https://www.paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk/whats-on/forthcoming/liquid-crystal-concrete/event-group and you may book tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/liquid-crystal-concrete-postwar-colonialism-tickets-333553967897

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.

Tropical hardwood at Sapele, Nigeria
African Timber and Plywood Concessions in Ghana, ca. 1955

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.

The plywood factory in Sapele, Nigeria
Sapele, Nigeria, in the 1950s
The Timber Research Laboratory at Sapele, Nigeria

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.

Modular furniture designed by the Conran Design Group, made of African walnut
Different types of tropical hardwood used for the interior of United Africa House, London, 1960s

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.

The ATP Showroom in Benin City, Nigeria (originally built for the Lagos Trade Fair of 1962)
An ATP employee selling an ATP Systems Building bungalow in Nigeria, ca. 1970

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.

Ghana’s housing – an historical retrospective.
Ola Uduku writes:

Visiting Ghana gives one the chance to step back through time – there is an abundance of housing which has survived the vicissitudes of the temporal, physical and socio economic life of more than fifty years; and in certain cases an entire century of existence in the unforgiving tropical climate which comprises much of Southern Ghana’s landscape. In two weeks we came across these special gems.

 Timber housing: Colonial Ghana, then called the Gold Coast along with Nigeria had significant swathes of forests which were sources of tropical hardwood. The Colonial government established significant agro-forestry concerns in both countries, which resulted in timber research stations. The two houses in this post are examples of experimental worker housing that these research stations were responsible for developing. We think that the Kibi house, near the market town of Koforidua,  is over one hundred years old. The other lapped wood house was found at the Aburi botanic gardens, which had previously been the site of a sanatorium. Interestingly both buildings have substantial elements preserved including; walls, casement windows, wooden flooring and roofing elements. Generally only the non ‘wood’ roofing sheets have had to be replaced.

Brick Housing: At Kibi also across the road from the ‘forestry’ house we found an example of a demonstration brick building. This was a semi detached pair of worker quarters set out as a single depth bungalow with a wide verandah and walls one brick thick. The first building retained the balcony format whilst the second had its balcony appropriated to create more space for the larger families who now occupied these buildings.

 

Experimental Brick Housing in Kibi

Experimental Brick Housing in Kibi

Impregilo Prefabricated Housing
Going to Akosombo Community One  – which was where the elite staff and also the contractor Impregilo had its staff quarters revealed a further rare find.  Built on a higher part of the Community One hill ridge are the original staff quarters for Imregilo staff, we assume these would have been for the Italian foremen and remain in near pristine condition. The original prefabricated lightweight wall-panels can be seen clearly in the neat avenue of houses which looked in some ways like a re-created Italian village scene. A number of the houses had the individually built ‘sit out’ verandah areas with views to the Akosombo landscape and the staff club below.

Impregilo Housing in Akosombo

Prefabricated housing for Italian contractors at Akosombo

View of the Akosombo Dam

View of the Akosombo Dam from Community 1

Today’s domestic architecture in Ghana as in much of West Africa unfortunately seems to have not incorporated much of the ‘environmental design rules’ that these and other residences of this early post independence era were able to employ. The site orientation, use of lightweight materials, utilisation of large areas of operable fenestration, and shading, have all contributed to make these now historic houses exemplars of how domestic buildings could be built to ensure thermal comfort without reliance on today’s ubiquitous air conditioning systems. Surely it is now time to re-evaluate the principles so aptly demonstrated in these houses and use them as a basis for developing a more sustainable response to tropical housing in Africa today.