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Building Bureaucracies in west Africa by Julia Gallagher

Abidjan's Cité Administrative

Amos Rapaport says that it’s possible to read politics through the ‘non-verbal cues’ offered by buildings: their position in the city, the materials they are made of, their size and ‘weight’, their accessibility – all tell us about how power works.[1]

With this in mind, I approached the government department buildings in Accra and Abidjan. What kind of clues to politics would they offer?

West African neighbours Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire house their bureaucracies in very different types of building.Their founding leaders, Kwame Nkrumah and Félix Houphouët-Boigny instigated ambitious modernisation plans at independence – and set about building the bureaucracies to make them happen.

These plans were reflected in large-scale modernist architecture programmes, including government department buildings designed both to project their respective states and manage the wider processes of modernisation.

The buildings are very unlike in terms of their design, their location and their openness, presenting widely different versions of what a west African state looks like.

Accra's Ministries

Ghana’s Ministries area is hidden away within the congested matrix of Accra. Unexpectedly, large, rather brutal roads give way to a sleepier, almost residential feel. Mostly low-rise tropical modernist buildings are surrounded by wide car parks, criss-crossed with trees and traversed by suited or smocked officials and street food venders. The odd uniformed security guard lounges by a carpark gate.

The complex includes many buildings constructed in the 1950s, during Ghana's transition years, in the tropical modernist style. These blend modern materials and simple forms with a sensitivity to local climatic and cultural conditions.

One can explore the backsides of the buildings, displays of air-conditioning apparatus and dustbins. Most of the buildings seem happy to avoid ostentatious frontages, or any hint of monumentalism.

Accra's Ministries

The Ministries feels both secluded and open. It is secluded because it’s out of the way of Accra’s heavy traffic: it has a gentler, calmer atmosphere. It feels open because anyone can wander in and around the buildings, easily identifying which building does what, and going inside to find out what’s going on.

In contrast, the Cité Administrative, home to most of Abidjan’s government departments, is signposted from every angle of the uptown Plateau district, itself a daring collection of high-rise and high-modernist architecture built after independence.

Five impressive skyscrapers make up Cité Administrative, sticking up into the sky like cuboid, gilded fingers.

The original two towers were built in the 1970s in an overt rejection of both colonial architecture and supposedly locally sympathetic modernism, in an uncompromisingly internationalist-style. Three more were added in 1984.

Three of the towers of the Cité Administrative, Abidjan

Although you can see them from a distance from many angles, getting up close is prevented by a railinged perimeter. What you can see are buildings covered with an opaque metallic surface only broken up by rows of tiny blue windows that reflect the sky.

I could see no external indications of which departments live there, or how they are arranged.

It looks like a state bureaucracy that is about frontage – projected onto the city's skyline, its windows reflecting it rather than allowing insight into the workings of the state.

These west African bureaucracy complexes offer very different cues, particularly about visibility and penetrability. While Accra’s Ministries suggest a relaxed, potentially close state-society relationship, Abidjan’s Cité Administrative conveys the impression of a state built to impress from a distance.

[1] Amos Rapoport The Meaning of the Built Environment: a nonverbal communication approach (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1982)


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