African Modernism: Architecture of Independence

Edited by Manuel Herz with Ingrid Schröder. Hans Fockelyn and Julia Jamrozik. Essays by Manuel Herz, Hannah Le Roux, Léo Noyer-Duplaix, Zvi Efrat, Till Förster and Ingrid Schröder. Photography by Iwan Baan and Alexia Webster. African Modernism: Architecture of Independence

(Zurich: Park Books, 2015) 639 pages with color photographs of different size and black plans.

This large sized book is richly illustrated and has beautifully reproduced color photographs, many of which are full or double spread pages. While the title of the book is very broad, it covers only five countries on the African continent: Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and Zambia. However, it does not make the book or the buildings being showcased any less significant or interesting.

During the late 1950s and 1960s countries in Sub-Saharan Africa gained their independence and, as in many countries in South America, architecture and buildings became the means with which to express a national identity and signify a departure from their colonial past. This impressive and innovative architecture is largely unknown and has not received much attention or recognition.

Aside from the stunning array of buildings one of the surprises are the architects and who they are. In Accra, not entirely surprisingly, we see the work of Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry. However, a surprise is the occasional collaboration with Denys Lasdun. Accra is also where we find the (former) US Embassy designed by Harry Weese, a remarkable building, commissioned as part of that innovative US State Department program that invited many well-known architects (such as Ralph Rapson, Eero Saarinen and Marcel Breuer to name only a few) to design buildings abroad.

In addition to architects commissioned from abroad, frequently from what was referred to as the non-aligned countries, others settled in the respective countries. Henri Chomette is a probably the best case in point. Born in Lyon and educated in France he was one of the most important architects in Senegal and Cöte d’Ivoire.  In Nairobi, Kenya, the Kenyatta International Conference designed by Karl Henrik Nøstvik from Norway is another example.

The chapter for each country is accompanied by a general introduction and a timeline that illustrates the political, demographic and economic development of the respective country during the period. In addition there are separate chapters on such subjects, Henri Chomette, the influence of Israel during the period, and the Hôtel d’Ivoire.

African Modernism, in spite of its somewhat confusing title, is an impressive book not only for what it covers but also for its execution. With its stunning photographs that are beautifully reproduced it brings an important part of postcolonial African architecture to life. Hopefully other areas of Africa where modern architecture flourished will get a similar publication someday. 

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