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Invented modernisms

Julia Gallagher, Kuukuwa Manful and Innocent Batsani-Ncube

Modernist architecture has had a complicated time embodying the post-colonial state in Africa.

High-modernism, favoured by many post-independence elites, was used extensively to represent ideas of modernisation, of ‘catching up’. The hope was that modernist buildings could represent centralised power, rationality, and expressions of the universal: qualities of the confident new states.

Universities were among some of the boldest examples - highlighting state attempts to produce highly educated, tech-savvy citizens to lead the new nations.

Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumase, Ghana

Trade centres and market places were others - showcasing state-driven economic transitions from peasant-agrarian to industrial economies.

La Pyramide, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

But such ideas were difficult to realise in practice. The new states faced many challenges that made it difficult to push their modernisation agendas. Ideas of centralisation and bureaucratic rationality were very difficult to achieve using the weak institutions bequeathed by colonialism. In many cases, the post-colonial state was seen as more of a mirage than solid reality.

High-modernist architecture, like the state itself, came to be criticised as shallow, a rearticulation of colonial state forms or a mere borrowing from the West.

However, since the end of the 20th century, new modernist architectures have fused simple modernist forms with locally-referential aesthetics and ideas to present a more locally ‘authentic’ modern state.

Do they do better in symbolising locally meaningful state ideas?

Here are three examples.

The first is Jubilee House, the new Presidential Palace opened in Accra, Ghana in 2008. The building draws on Akan cultural symbols, in its shape of an Asante stool and the Adrinka symbols inscribed on its outer surface.

Jubilee House, Accra, Ghana

The second example is the Malawian Parliament building, opened in Lilongwe in 2011. Its debate chamber is topped by a dome which is meant to resemble a cooking pot or calabash, in a representation of traditional Malawian hospitality.

Parliament, Lilongwe, Malawi

The third example is the Northern Cape Legislature in Galashewe, South Africa, opened in 2003. Its central cone-structure was designed to echo the shape of a Zulu beehive, or the ‘bullhorn’ traditionally used to call people to meetings.

Northern Cape Legislature, Galeshewe, South Africa

When it comes to expressing a locally-derived identity, each of these buildings has had its problems, as revealed by comments from locals.

Jubilee House claims to encompass all of Ghana by representing it through a particular ethnic motif. The use of Akan culture to represent all of Ghana has a long pedigree. It describes the challenge of creating a single nation out of a collection of different peoples: many non-Akan people say they feel little affinity with its aesthetic.

The Malawi Parliament has been criticised for its Chinese funding and design. Rather than paying for the expensive new structure, the government accepted the building as a gift. For many people it is an embarrassment that the country cannot afford to build such an important symbol of sovereignty: the pot-shape is lampooned as a ‘begging bowl’.

And the Northern Cape Legislature building, in attempting to symbolise pre-colonial political ideals, often feels a bit alien to the people who live nearby. Although they like its references to the anti-apartheid struggle, its pre-colonial cultural references are lost on most people who compare it to a steam boat or even a ‘giant lipstick’.

Aloof and grand; yet also divisive, dependent, dissonant or trivial. These three buildings might not fully realise the ambitions of the politicians who commissioned and the architects who designed them. But they do describe how many citizens view the state. If they appear contradictory, this is only a reflection of the contradictions inherent in state-making.

This article is drawn from a longer piece which is available free online:

Kuukuwa Manful, Innocent Batsani-Ncube and Julia Gallagher (2022) 'Invented Modernisms: Getting to Grips with Modernity in Three African State Buildings' Curator: the Museum Journal


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