By Sunil Pun
On October 2020, ASA project put forth a call for nominations for Africa’s favourite building. Since then, we have received 33 submissions of buildings from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, Guinea Bissau, Seychelles, Congo, DR Congo and Zambia. The buildings are a representation of different eras; pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial, and serve various purposes for the state and society; administrative, commercial, education, creative, and cultural.
As an outsider who has had relatively little engagement with the architecture and politics of Africa, what stood out from the submissions were stories of what the buildings meant not just as iconic representations of the nation-state and the functions it serves, but the meanings it held.
I have divided the recurring themes into three phases: buildings that represent oppressive histories; buildings that are identified as ‘uniquely African’ uninfluenced by colonial powers; and buildings that are part of the drive to self-sustainability.
Below are the recurring themes and patterns from the photo submission I will attempt to summarise.
The submission of buildings from South Africa included museums, universities and heritage houses. What I found interesting were the common themes of displacement and struggle against the apartheid state.
Anastasia Witbooi’s District Six Museum, Cape Town tells a personal story of a community that was forcibly removed after the area was declared a ‘white area’ in February 1966. Witbooi’s great grandparents were amongst those ‘60,000 residents who were forcibly removed from their home in District 6’. The Museum holds a personal connection for Witbooi as space is ‘not only dedicated but acknowledging the pain and injustice caused by South Africa’s oppressive past’.
Along with displacement is also the struggle for justice against the apartheid regime. Kamfwa Sandu’s Oliver Tambo Heritage House, Zambia, is a safe house where Tambo lived whilst in exile for ‘his leadership in liberation struggle against apartheid regime’. Similarly, the themes of struggle against the regimes are shown in Wanga Gambushe’s University of the Western Cape, South Africa which was established as university for the ‘so called coloured population’ and became the ‘centre of fightback against apartheid and has continued to be the centre of providing opportunities for working class and poor students’.
On a similar theme, Irene Appeaning Addo’s submission of The Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra, Ghana shows Nkrumah’s espousal of a pan-African agenda that arose out of an oppressive past and struggle for liberation along with the spirit of independence of nationhood and regional unity. Dhanush Vir Maini’s post on Kenya Parliament Buildings represents the ‘Winds of Change’ with determination to rebuild and recover from the colonial era. The building symbolises ‘a new country on the cusp of entering the world stage representing the hopes and aspiration of a modern nation’.
Another interesting pattern I observed from the submissions was of architecture that was untouched by colonial influences, revered as uniquely African in design.
Gilbert Chisenga mentioned that The Great Wall of Zimbabwe as a structure not only to marvel at but a design that gives insight into ‘African God-given skills’. Evans Fundira says of The Great Zimbabwe that ‘to some these are echoes of ancient sovereignty masterminded by an exotic and now extinct civilisation’. Daniel Mulugeta believes that The Church of Saint George (Bete Giyorgis) in Lalibela is ‘a sublime expression of African architectural creativity’.
Similarly, Ana Dju and Isa Lopes da Costa’s submission of Old Bank building, Guinea Bissau although built in the post-colonial era, used materials endogenous to Guinea Bissau. The building demonstrates that ‘in spite of colonialism’ the local architects overcame the colonial influence and created a building ‘we chose, reminding us of what Bissau once was’.
At times there appears to be an idealisation of a pre-colonial era of uniquely and authentically African building, but it raises questions of the organic transformation of the architectural designs without colonial disruptions. Perhaps more important are the meanings and stories we give to the buildings, which can often reflect aspirations and hope. As Fundira wrote of The Great Zimbabwe, the structure is ‘a clear message carved in stone by my forefathers, a timeless memento testifying how strong we once stood and how strong we can stand’.
Moving on from colonial influence and embracing what is authentic, another recurring theme are questions raised on self-sustainability and use of local materials. Emmanuel Kusi Ofori-Sarpong’s submission on Amui Djor Housing Project, Ghana, a low-income housing scheme accommodating 32 families, and completed between two political administrations, shows that ‘urban challenges in Ghanaian cities can be solved with local resources, provided there is political will’.
Similarly, Awut Atak’s Hassan Fathy's New Gourna Village project, Egypt, a village settlement built entirely in mud, is ‘informed by ancient Nubian construction’. The architect, Fathy, although trained in reinforced concrete following western and international modernist approaches, was driven by political conviction and chose to explore the vernacular and local roots of earth building, avoiding working with iron and cement. ‘The result was a low-tech, sustainable scheme that embraced the vernacular architecture of the region, was suited to the climate and could be constructed by the general population.'
I have missed elaborating other photo submissions with recurring patterns on hybridity, but there are many more examples of fascinating buildings. Joanne Tomkinson’s Commercial Bank of Ethiopia building in Addis Ababa, Xuefei Shi’s Mobutu’s Nsele Palace, Hangwei Li’s The Arul Mihu Navasakthi Vinayagar temple, Seychelles, Emmanuel Siaw’s The Anagkazo Bible & Ministry Training Centre, Ghana, and Gregoire Borchard’s Basilique Saint-Anne-du-Congo, Brazzaville. Or themes on buildings that symbolises the hallmark of economic growth; Nkosinathi Masuku’s The Leonardo (Sandton), Johannesburg, South Africa and Tshuma Cassandra’s Eastgate Mall, and creative spaces and meeting points; Kuukuwa Manful’s Jerfix Studios in Accra and Innocent Ncube’s Bulawayo City Hall.
The ‘Africa’s Favourite Building’ nominations are still open, and we hope to get more submissions to continue the discussion. To join the conversation, please leave a comment or click on this link to upload your picture.