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Understanding Statehood through Architecture: a comparative study of Africa’s state buildings

This research will establish a new ethnography of statehood through architecture. 

States are conventionally understood as an objectively existing set of political, bureaucratic, legal and economic tools used by elites to run a country (Weber, 1922 [2014]; Pollitt and Bouchaert, 2011). Alternatively, critical approaches understand states as discursive constructs, summoned up through ideas and practices of elites and citizens (Mitchell, 1991). 

These approaches might be termed the ‘concrete’ and ‘symbolic. Each touches on aspects of statehood, but underestimates its complexities, which can only be captured by understanding the relationship between the concrete and the symbolic. 

This research proposes to do this through a bold new methodology: exploring statehood through architecture.
Architecture also juxtaposes ‘symbol’ and ‘concrete’ – the first in the aspirations, designs and drawings created in planning a building and the second in the solid outcome of building processes (Bachelard, 2014). Once built and being used, we likewise experience buildings on aesthetic and functional levels, the two being mutually dependent (Scruton, 1979). 

The starting point of this project is that symbols and processes of statehood are realised in the symbolism exacted from, and processes enacted through, state architecture. 

State buildings give us a tangible, living archive of the state – ministry buildings, parliaments, presidential palaces, courthouses, police stations and public records offices, all embody and enable the state. 

These buildings represent ideas in the ways they act as symbols of statehood, and its concrete reality in how they house, enable and embody state activities. 

Furthermore, in state buildings, we can see the tools of statehood being exercised by elites, and encountered by citizens. On one hand, their design, position and deployment reveal elite aspirations to encompass and impress statehood on the population they are governing. On the other, the ways citizens navigate and describe them reveal grassroots understandings and feelings about the state. 

A study of state architecture thus reveals the complex interplay of ideas, functions and relationships that together constitute statehood. 

The project will use and develop this new ethnography of statehood by looking at state architecture in Africa. Again, this presents a bold departure from conventional approaches to politics that see African examples as aberrant or peripheral to the more ‘normal’ politics of the West. 

But African examples are a good starting point. First, statehood is relatively unsettled and raw in much of the continent (Mbembe, 2001; Villalon and Huxtable, 1998). The physical tools of statehood are often less coherent, and state authority more obviously built on ideas and images (Englebert, 2009; Bayart, 2005; Mudimbe, 1988). 

As a result it is possible to disentangle processes of establishing state authority and the negotiation of problematic new state-society relationships embedded in both the concrete and the idea (Routley, 2016). 

Second, nearly one third of the world’s states are African. They, like many other states around the world, were formed through colonialism. The process they went through is therefore not aberrant but a common and even dominant experience of statehood (Gallagher, 2017). 

If we are serious about moving beyond Euro-centric views of the world (Abrahamsen, 2017), it is important that African experiences become more mainstream. 

For both these reasons – for extending the approach to broader studies of statehood, and for enriching conceptions of post-colonial statehood – it makes excellent sense to construct a new way to understand statehood based on African experiences.

The project has four distinctive features.

  • It is comparative, focusing primarily on the state architecture of South Africa, Tanzania, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea Bissau, countries with different historical experiences and manifestations of statehood. 

  • It is multi-layered, exploring politics on domestic, regional and international levels by looking at the way architecture is used in state buildings, regional headquarters and in airports and embassies. 

  • It is interdisciplinary, drawing on theory and methods from political science, history, sociology, art and architecture theory. 

  • It draws on citizens’ perspectives on statehood by employing innovative ethnographic methods, including collecting photographs of buildings and displaying them on a website and in interactive exhibitions staged in Africa. 

African state architecture includes classical-colonial, modernist-nationalist and post-modern or vernacular post-colonial styles. These buildings provide a fascinating archive of states across the continent, and will be the basis for a compelling new way to understand statehood everywhere.

Research questions

The main research question is: How does African architecture manifest statehood, and how is statehood understood in the ways citizens use, view and engage with the buildings of the state? 

Subsidiary questions relate to the five areas of history, identity, culture, function and ideology.


How do political elites and the wider population incorporate colonial buildings, designed to represent European state-ideals, into inclusive manifestations and understandings of independent statehood? For example, icons of state authority such as presidential offices, parliaments and high courts, built in classical European style by colonial authorities, remain key features of many African capitals. On the other hand, newer post-colonial buildings incorporate alternative histories and myth in order to establish authority.

Examples include South Africa’s new glass-fronted Constitutional Court, built on the site of an apartheid-era prison, and its Department of Trade and Industry, inspired by the ancient pre-colonial trading city of Mapungubwe.

Different types of history and myth are reflected in these buildings, and it is interesting to see how these resonate (or not) with citizens. Pilot research for this study suggests that in these two examples, the colonial and apartheid era references appear to make much more sense to citizens than the pre-colonial references, raising questions about how far it is possible to escape statehood as a colonial institution; and how citizens understand their own part in shaping it.

Ethiopia, which does not have a substantial colonial history, provides comparative leverage here, and questions might relate to the re-purposing of the imperial palaces in Addis Ababa as presidential/prime ministerial offices. 


How far can buildings create particularly national or more broadly conceived African expressions of statehood, whilst retaining the authority that comes with international recognition? One example is Ghana’s new presidential palace built in the shape of an Asante stool, but with a loan from India and retaining the old British colonial name (Flagstaff House); another is the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation building, whose design incorporates references to the African value of Ubuntu and was meant to represent African ideas of gift-giving, yet whose public face embodies a mixture of classical and international styles that might be seen in any of the world's capital cities.

Guinea Bissau provides the further interesting examples of the old colonial presidential palace which, ruined in the 1998-9 civil war, has been converted into a luxury hotel, while the president now works from a modern palace built by the Chinese.

Others include airports, embassies/high commissions and foreign ministry buildings, often designed to display national characteristics and project power abroad. How do such buildings manage the tensions between projections of local or regional identities and the modernism associated with internationalism? 


More fundamentally, how do Africans, who have historically used open spaces for political engagement, navigate state forms realised through permanent, enclosed structures? How do they read the space in their state buildings, how far do they experience it in non-visual ways? Are buildings that attempt to represent more historically resonant embodiments of African political authority experienced differently?

Examples of these include Nyerere’s rural-pastoral architecture in Dodoma (Tanzania), or the Northern Cape Legislature buildings in South Africa which incorporate an open public space in which people gather to petition their representatives. How do buildings explain and organise state-society relations, and how are these experienced by citizens through physical engagement? 


More prosaically, how do citizens view and engage with functional state buildings, for example in visits to the public registrar's office or police station, often tools of the state’s coercive apparatus? These buildings represent the face of the state best known to citizens in their daily lives. Are they viewed as places to be avoided if possible, as helpful and supportive, or as vacuous and irrelevant? Given mundane familiarity with such buildings (as opposed to buildings that act as collective icons), opinions here reveal more intimate perspectives on the state.


Finally, how do buildings express the ways in which statehood has evolved since independence? Can buildings outlive the ideologies or personalities of the leaders that commissioned and built them? Here we would investigate building-projects of early post-colonial regimes, such as the bombastic buildings of Houphouët-Boigny in Côte d'Ivoire or of Mobutu in Zaire/DRC; and the ideals of pan-Africanism embodied in the modernist architecture commissioned by Nkrumah in Ghana. To what extent do these buildings continue to embody the ideologies and personalities of the men they were built for? To what degree have their legacies been collectively internalised? How do public attitudes towards them make clear wider feelings about the evolution of statehood?

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