Tropical Architecture: Current Research

A.E.S. Alcock and the planning of Asawasi, Kumasi

As part of our research into the architecture and planning in West Africa we have uncovered some important work undertaken by Alfred Edward Savige (“Bunny”) Alcock. He worked as  Town Engineer in Kumasi, 1936-45, and then as Gold Coast Town Planning Advisor from 1945-56. Whilst working in Kumasi, Alcock was a pioneer in developing self-build villages. He set up small scale production lines where the villagers could produce ‘swishcrete’ blocks, prefabricated roof trusses and various sanitation devices such as latrines and communal laundries.

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This work was all carefully documented by Alcock and his hand-made photo album survives in the National Archives, London.  Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew worked with Alcock on this ‘experimental village’ (they were credited in Alcocks album) and went on to plan the larger second phase of the development, known as Asawasi. Fry described how the project grew, ‘from being a little experiment has become a big scheme spawning all over the hillside.’

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The plan above shows the complete development arranged into ten compounds (housing groups). The area coloured pink was the original village planned by Alcock with the remaining areas designed by Fry and Drew. Alcock proposed a terraced (row) housing approach to create ‘interior’ courtyards, or ‘open compounds’. Alcock described it as a ‘ a repetitive pattern of garden and service compounds alternating… this pattern is adapted to curving contours in the main estate.’ There was a low-tech thrifty approach to the development as Alcock describes,

‘door and window furniture was made from scrap iron by blacksmiths. It was stronger and cheaper than imported furniture.’ In the kitchen a hood and flue were provided by using ‘old tar drums covering all four fire places shared by eight tennants’
Fry and Drew’s Village Housing in the Tropics is indebted to this early development. Alcock proudly noted that his designs could exceed the current building regulations and reduce costs. The big idea was for the government to supply the materials (and technical knowledge) with the villagers providing the labour. It was a system that became very popular throughout West Africa, although it was not always a fair and equitable solution.

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Alcock took over from Fry as the Town Planning Advisor in Accra and was instrumental in the initial planning of Kwame Nkrumah’s Volta River project, new port and town Tema. He (along with Helga Richards) published his findings in a series of ‘How to’ building guides. Although less commercially successful than Fry and Drew’s acclaimed Village Housing in the Tropics manual, Alcock’s books were far more pragmatic and explanatory. There is also an element of humour in his books. How to Plan your Village for example is all about an educated villager returning to his old village and helping them to restore it – the character is named ‘Kwame’  – an overt reference to Nkrumah and a metaphor for the radical changes he was proposing.

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