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British Academy – ASAUK Funded Ghana Architecture Writing Workshop 6–8 July

Apologies for the short notice – but if you’re in Accra this weekend and want an opportunity to improve your writing skills, there are some free places to join an excellent Architectural Writing Workshop.

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Water tower at Korle Bu, Accra.

Please do get in touch with Prof. Ola Uduku on o.uduku@mmu.ac.uk for more details and see: British Academy – ASAUK Funded Ghana Architecture Writing Workshop  6–8 July

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Architecture in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Glasgow School of Art and its Future

Like many people, I was again saddened, shocked, and frankly annoyed to see Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, engulfed in smoke and flame for the second time in just four years. It was a radical piece of architecture that helped to shape the development of early 20thC Modernist architecture, and unlike a lot of contemporary and experimental work it was much loved and held a popular appeal.
The charred remains have yet to cool, but a fierce debate has erupted on the future of the building. On the one hand there is an impassioned plea to demolish and rebuild a new structure that would be something of ‘our time’; with any attempts to refabricate the ‘original’ resulting in a ‘replica’, that is, a fake.

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Glasgow School of Art, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

This faction argues that a rebuilt school would be rendered a ‘museum piece’, and that a new school would somehow respond better to the needs of today’s students.  For sure, it is a compelling argument and after the shock of the tragic event it shows a fighting spirit and an optimism that all architects possess to create a better future. If an architect were to design a new building today that mimicked, or somehow parodied the ‘Mackintosh style’, then for sure, that would not be the way forward for architecture. But this is not a newly commissioned project, rather it should be a restoration of a dilapidated shell.

“The handle has been replaced several times, and the blade was changed once, but this knife has been in our family for centuries”

Unlike other works of art, such as painting or sculpture, there is a utilitarian, designerly approach in building, and buildings are made of many components, materials and finishes. They can all be replaced or remade. Certain parts of a building inevitably wear-out and have to be replaced; lead flashing is carefully reinserted, roofs are precisely re-laid, window frames rot, and sometimes windows are smashed and replaced. We accept this continual, sensitive remaking and in the case of buildings like the GSA undertake this process with extreme diligence. This is all part of a building’s ability to endure time and survive, and whilst a fire rapidly accelerates this process, it need not be the end. Buildings are never complete, they are always unfinished and being continually remade through the acts of everyday use. They develop patina, tarnishes, stains, and are weathered, changing all buildings for better or for worse. This aging cannot be replicated of course, but it demonstrates that a building is not a pristine artefact, there is a spectrum of aging and renewal.

The surviving GSA structure could be retained and kept in its ruinous state as a kind of memorial to what we once had. Some of the ‘original’ fabric would be retained and fixed to commemorate Mackintosh’s genius. It could become a shrine with a steady pilgrimage of architects’ eager to touch the stone relics with their direct link back to the hand of the Mackintosh. This would surely be the worst type of preservation – for whilst we would have the vestiges of the School there would be no joy, no use, just a sad lament. The surviving stones might enable a façade to be retained, or possibly form a similar condition to that deployed by Basil Spence at Coventry Cathedral, in the aftermath of World War Two. Whilst this might preserve the outer shell, or image, it wouldn’t suffice because the interiors at GSA were so rich and possibly even more important than the building’s skin.

We should not be afraid to remake architecture, because architecture as a concept is detached from its manifestation as a building. There is the idea and its representation often in the form of drawings and physical models, and then there is the physical construct. The physical entity is of course very important, but it is an outworking of an idea. Unlike painting, where the hand of the artist is important (but not essential) architecture is always remote from the act of construction. Architects make drawings that are then interpreted and fabricated by teams of artisans, technicians and craftspeople into the built object. Inevitably there are gaps between the artist’s intentions and the drawings they produce, and then of course there are numerous clefts between the drawings and the constructed piece. Decisions are made ‘on site’ and changes made on the hoof – this is all part of the construction process. In many buildings there is even a devolution of some parts of the design to the craftspeople on site, especially in decorative pieces, or commissioned artworks and sculptures. The core idea remains and is entirely the responsibility (and gift) of the designer, but it is important not to overly fetishize the object as a fixed, pristine artefact.

A burned out Jaguar E-Type can be fully restored, and even enhanced to suit modern environmental standards as the ‘Concept Zero’ illustrates. In no way does this detract from the ‘original’ duplicated model, nor the enjoyment of driving the vehicle. Indeed, there is pleasure and pride to be had from such a restoration. There is certainly room to manoeuvre here in construction and many buildings are sensitively restored and enhanced for modern living and reduced energy use. The drawings produced by Mackintosh (and his wife Margaret) survive and the recent scans and computer models of the building produced in response to Fire no.1 will enable a faithful rebuilding of the GSA. There is no technical reason why this school could not be rebuilt. Other art forms revel in this ability to be remade and enjoyed; music is recorded, plays are performed, artists issue facsimile casts and photographers offer limited edition prints. Walter Benjamin foresaw this in his seminal writing, ‘Art in the age of mechanical reproduction’. I’m not suggesting that multiple GSAs are licensed, but rather the single edition we had is carefully remade in honour of Mackintosh and the city which this building has helped to define and create.

India Buildings by Herbert Rowse

India Buildings by Herbert Rowse

There are claims that a rebuilt School would not be ‘of our time’. Some, like eminent architect Alan Dunlop have claimed that Mackintosh’s would indeed want ‘to see a new school of art fit for the 21stcentury’ – but we can never truly know the wishes of the deceased. Surely the GSA is an excellent didactic tool for today’s students, and in any case it is not very old – it’s a mere blink of an eye in the broader scheme of things. To remake it now would not be a disservice to ‘our time’ but would be a measure of how we value and cherish such works of art. So many buildings have been regrettably erased following fire – to the detriment of our built environment. Gavin Stamp’s publication, Britain’sLost Citiesis a roll call of this approach, whereas when the decision to rebuild has been made the results are rarely questioned. We do not hear claims of, ‘we should have pulled this down and replaced it with something else’. Herbert Rowse’s India Buildings in Liverpool was carefully rebuilt after the effects of incendiary bombs – its authenticity is not questioned because of this; it simply becomes part of the building’s story. Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion was also famously remade and it continues to bring pleasure and delight to all who see it. It is far better to experience this wonderful design than to imagine it’s ‘spirit’ or look at the old photographs.  Plus, we live in an age when this is possible – it is ‘of our time’ to replicate and reproduce components and objects that are better than the ‘originals’.

 

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I’ve been spending some time working in and around Accra, and in particular at the Public Records and Archives Department. This archive has undergone major changes in the last five years and is a great place to undertake research with helpful staff and quick responses to queries. Located in a distinctive building with bold concrete brise soleil and a brave concertinaed roof over the entrance space, its interiors rely exclusively on passive ventilation. I was looking mainly at the late colonial records including those of the Public Works Department, sanitation, land, and town planning.

Experimental Swishcrete blocks at Kibi
Experimental Swishcrete blocks at Kibi from 1945
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Experimental Swishcrete housing at Kibi from 1945. Note the arches above the windows and doors

There were many discoveries and lots to celebrate (and eventually publish), but one particularly interesting find related to a folder called ‘Experimental housing at Kibi’. This gave lots of details on an attempt to build a couple of dwellings in swishcrete (i.e. laterite and concrete mix) blocks in the gold mining town of Kibi, with a view to saving on cement costs and also creating an aesthetic that was more in keeping with the vernacular. It was a particularly exciting find, as we had stumbled across these houses earlier this year, and were taken by their unique construction. The archives revealed that Jane Drew was involved in their design and that she visited the site in early April 1945. It must have formed part of her work on village housing. Although modified and extended the houses still stand and clearly demonstrate the strength of this construction method having survived over 70 years.

Outside of the archives, I managed to finally track down Denys Lasdun’s Paterson Simon’s Office in Accra, 1962 (thanks to the help of their current Managing Director John Traynor). It was formerly a supermarket and toyshop called Farisco.

I was hoping to see the Optimist Club in Sekondi, but as suspected, I was too late and the influential African club has been demolished and now replaced with a large youth centre. Fortunately, Nate Plageman did manage to visit the club before it was demolished and you can see his photos here. Despite this loss, it was good to use copies of the early plans of Sekondi from 1900-1920, housed in the UK National Archives, to further explore the town. I was particularly taken by the Venice Cinema located at the edge of the settlement by the lagoon (was this how the cinema got its name?) and the wonderful merchant villas and stores that can still be found in dilapidated abundance throughout the town.

Venice Cinema, Sekondi
Venice Cinema, Sekondi

Accra continues to seduce with its array of late colonial structures and modernist set pieces. At Korle Bu just west over the lagoon from Jamestown the hospital dominates the landscape. The hospital forms part of the trilogy of projects developed by Gordon Guggisberg in the 1920s (along with Achimota Schooland Takoradi town and docks). The old hospital structures remain, looking almost like they did when built (and similar to the harbour board buildings in Takoradi) – as captured on Africa Through a Lens. The later brutalist addition to the hospital was by Kenneth Scott, looking more restrained and orderly than the edgier and abrupt Effia Nkwanta hospital in Takoradi by Gerlach and Gillies-Reyburn. If you visit Korle Bu hospital continue to walk through the grounds and head out to the staff housing, tennis courts and garden sanctums that lie secretly beyond – it is a hidden, gentile world of privilege that still manages to exist just a couple of miles from the excitement and paucity of Jamestown.

 

Korle Bu Hospital, Accra
Korle Bu Hospital, Accra photographed shortly after completion, 1928

 

 

Call for Papers: COLONIAL AND POSTCOLONIAL LANDSCAPES: Architecture, Cities, Infrastructures

16th – 18th January 2019  |   Lisbon | Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
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The infrastructure of the colonial territories obeyed the logic of economic exploitation, territorial domain and commercial dynamics among others that left deep marks in the constructed landscape. The rationales applied to the decisions behind the construction of infrastructures varied according to the historical period, the political model of colonial administration and the international conjuncture.

This congress seeks to bring to the knowledge of the scientific community the dynamics of occupation of colonial territory, especially those involving agents related to architecture and urbanism and its repercussions in the same territories as independent countries.

It is hoped to address issues such as how colonial infrastructure has conditioned the current development models of the new countries or what options taken by colonial administrations have been abandoned or otherwise strengthened after independence.

The congress is part of the ongoing research project entitled “Coast to Coast – Late Portuguese Infrastructural Development in Continental Africa (Angola and Mozambique): Critical and Historical Analysis and Postcolonial Assessment” funded by ‘Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia’ (FCT – Foundation for Science and Technology), which has as partner the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (FCG).

The aim of this congress is to extend the debate on the repercussions of the decisions taken by the colonial states in the area of ​​territorial infrastructures – in particular through the disciplines of architecture and urbanism – in post-independence development models and the formation of new countries with colonial past

 

1. Projecting Power in Colonial and Post-Colonial Angola and Mozambique: Architecture, Urban Design, Public Art and Monuments (Jeremy Ball, Gerbert Verheij)

2. China in African, Latin American and Caribbean territories: Examining spatial transformations around diplomacy and economic aid (Valeria Guzmán Verri, Natalia Solano Meza)

3. Spaces in the Americas: current efforts towards a non-Eurocentric theory (Fernando Luiz Lara, Marcio Cotrim Cunha)

4. Planned Violence: Post/Colonial Urban Infrastructures, Literature and Culture (Dominic Davies, Elleke Boehmer)

5. Infrastructural development in the European Portuguese territory in the late colonial period (Paulo Tormenta Pinto, João Paulo Delgado)

6. Peripheral infrastructures in late colonial cities (Tiago Castela)

7. Single and collective housing as a modern laboratory in colonial territories: from public order to private initiative (Ana Magalhães)

8. Beyond Colonialism: Afro-Modernist Agents and Tectonics as Expression of Cultural Independence  (Milia Lorraine Khoury, Diogo Pereira Henriques)

9. (De)constructing the Right to the City: Infrastructural policies and practices in Portuguese-speaking African countries (Sílvia Viegas, Sílvia Jorge)

10. The interrupted utopia. Landscapes of modern collective housing in Former European Colonies  (Roberto Goycoolea, Inês Lima Rodrigues)

11. Globalized Regionalism: the inheritance of colonial infrastructure (Eliana Sousa Santos, Susanne Bauer)

12. Materiality & Mobility in the construction of Colonial Landscapes (Alice Santiago Faria)

13. The transnational live project: critical reflections on the ethics, politics and pedagogies of collaborations between the global north and global south (Jhono Bennett, James Benedict Brown, Peter Russell)

14. Colonial Spatiality in African Sahara Regions (Samia Henni)

15. Urban Legacies: linking enclaving and social identities (Anna Mazzolini, Morten Nielsen)

16. The spatialization of population control in late colonialism: contexts, modalities, dynamics (Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo)

 

The paper focusses on the planning of rural settlements by the Athens-based firm Doxiadis Associates (DA), a key, even if unrealised, project for Zambia’s nation-building and development efforts in the mid-1960s. In line with post-war discourses of modernisation, DA employed Christaller’s 1933-Central Place Theory and its abstract hexagonal geometrical model to organise different-sized settlements within a single spatial system. By introducing a hierarchical rural network over Zambia, the firm aimed to standardise rural settlement patterns and to formulate a strategy to alleviate rural-urban migration. DA’s top-down, large-scale approach even exceeded the State’s aspirations and the firm’s visions eventually faced two challenges: First, DA’s modernist planning was questioned by the social/ecological considerations as formulated by George Kay’s counterproposal on resettlement policy. Secondly, DA’s ‘urbanising’ visions for rural areas were forestalled by some of the country’s realities, which remained out of the planners’ field of control, and eventually called for more cautious responses to the realities on the ground. By exposing the challenges DA’s rural proposal faced, the paper ultimately contemplates the multiple, and even conflicting reactions towards Zambia’s rural settlement projects, and also adds nuances to the wider histories of rural development in Africa.

Full article here: https://doi.org/10.1080/13602365.2018.1458044

 

‘I need 30 minutes to meditate before giving the lecture’ stated Balkrishna Doshi, ‘and a quiet room in which to do so, and, oh, some tea please’.

I’ve always been somewhat taken by this, my first (and only) meeting of Doshi. This was not the request of an architectural tyrant making petty demands, but an essential aligning of thoughts, removal of distraction, and focusing on how he might respond to the audience. It was a process he mirrored in his architectural work – bring forth a determined idea, eliminate any confusion and put the ‘audience’ or the ‘user’ at the centre. Doshi was in Liverpool to give a lecture to coincide with a Le Corbusier exhibition arranged as part of the European Capital of Culture year. The lecture covered parts of his biography such as his time with Le Corbusier in Paris (and surviving on a meagre subsistence) working on the monuments of Chandigarh, as well as his work with Louis Kahn at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmadabad. Had his career ended there it would have been remarkable but he would go on to make significant advances in both formal and social aspects of architecture.

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Mill Owners Association Building by Le Corbusier

On 7th March Doshi was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the first Indian to receive the award, and we send our hearty congratulations.

Together with his studio he has designed well over 100 projects in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad and many more throughout the rest of India. He has chosen to focus on India rather than developing an international portfolio of work, and he has contributed much to low-cost housing provision and town planning.

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Sangarth

Ahmadabad, with its wealthy merchant class, has proved an eager patron of architecture and the city is astonishing for its quantity of bold design. They readily embraced Corbusier’s work and he received three commissions in the city. Doshi’s own work emerged out of this context. He wasn’t a mimic or somehow bound by Le Corbusier – on the contrary, he developed his ideas further and pursued the playfulness that is rarely discussed in Corb’s later commissions.

Working out of his self-built studios ‘Sangarth’ for the last 40 years, Doshi created a series of half-round concrete parasols clad with ceramic.  These vaulted spaces were quick to construct, eliminate complicated details and components, and offer flexible enclosures that can easily be extended. The vaults offer protection from the intense heat of the Gujarati summer as well as channeling the monsoon rains into a series of pools. The landscaping is equally important with large scale planting, shade trees, and a small amphitheatre carved out of the terrain. The campus is a lesson in how to design with care and beauty whilst minimising materials and maximising spatial impact.

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CEPT

Although more sculpted and at a larger scale similar themes were explored at the Centre for Environment, Planning and Technology [CEPT].  Here there is an encouragement of procession and movement through the various structures and landscapes. Gathering spaces open up amongst the strong, yet simple brick masses. The climate here permits few enclosures and the building envelope is perforated and rarely defined. Wandering through the campus exposes the students to the work of others, and one stumbles upon critiques, exhibitions, models being tested, and class discussions. Circulation is no longer a corridor or a staircase. There are elements of Kahn’s IIM, but the CEPT campus is more compact, more urbane and less of a‘set piece’ than IIM – whilst both use the humble brick and deep shadowed reveals to great effect.

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Critique at CEPT

There are of course many more projects that we could discuss (see William Curtis or James Steele’s monographs for more on the work), but two that immediately spring to mind are Premabhai Hall (1972) and the Tagore Theatre (1963-65).

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Premabhai Theatre

Premabhai was a brave project, situated in the heart of old Ahmadabad’s Badra, a large public square lined with historical works and old city gates. The theatre seems to leap up and cantilever out over the square.  It confidently dominates the space, rewarded for its quirky form, and the blank gables acting as a foil to its ornate neighbours.

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Tagore Theatre, Vastu Shilpa Foundation 1967

The Tagore Theatre is a rigid frame, folded plate structure, and achieves an impressive 33m span enabling the interior to remain free of columns (as well as containing all of the services). At first sight it appears too much  – the scale and lack of surrounding context makes for a foreboding approach. But the delicate folds of the concrete and precision casting seems to soften and give the theatre a more starched-fabric feel upon close contact – plus it’s impossible not to smile at the acoustic clouds that line the interior.

Inside the Tagore Theatre

Inside the Tagore Theatre, Vastu Shilpa Foundation, 1967

 

Two New Buildings in Accra

How are we to build today in Ghana? What is our architectural syntax and how are we to generate form, meaning and qualities that somehow resonate with Ghanaians today? This is of course a difficult question, and not all architecture has to be reflective of the country in which it is built. Indeed, it is very problematic to think of architecture in terms of geo-political territories, especially when the architecture of the West is rarely presented like this. It is unusual to hear of architecture referred to as European, or Luxembourgian for example, but the architectures (and architects) of the global south are frequently labelled according to country or region of origin (Indian, South East Asian, West African for example – see http://blog.nus.edu.sg/seaarc/symposium/), furthermore when ‘modern’ architecture is produced in those countries it is labelled as mimicry, inauthentic, or somehow borrowed, imported, or not belonging.

This is the difficulty architects face when working in places like Ghana. However, architects must take a stance and adopt a position. They should be self-conscious of the designs that they are making, and conceive of a direction, or ambition for their work. There were two recent buildings that we visited in Accra that are attempting to deliver a new response to architecture.

One Airport Square

One Airport Square

One Airport Square  (designed by Mario Cucinella Architects) has gone for the attention-seeking approach. A complex façade composition made up of diagonally arranged structure with horizontal fins. The fins and ‘columns’ project from the building’s envelope by almost 2m, acting as a vast brise soleil they provide much needed shade, as well as absorbing heat externally whilst reflecting sunlight light into the building.

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Atrium of Airport Square One

Internally there is a large atrium space that holds the circulation as well as bringing light into the deep plan and pulling fresh air through the courtyard. This kind of building works well when set amongst other less adventurous forms. It is also helping to create a new context for that part of Accra, and is distinctive enough to become a reference point and landmark. I just hope it doesn’t become part of a silly form-making game with each bank trying to out-do each other in the quest for the next distinctive shape.

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Ecobank, Accra

Another new building that has just reached completion is the vast Ecobank Headquarters located adjacent to the Efua Sutherland Children’s Park. This provocative building was designed by a consortium of Ghanaian and South African architects (http://arc.co.za/project/ecobank-ghana/), the local and site architects being Mobius, lead by KNUST graduate Augustus Richardson. A lightweight metal brise soleil is used to protect the glass façade where the sun strikes, and a perforated metal jali screen offers solar protection at the lower levels, as well as being used to depict a map of the world, and a larger drawing of Africa.

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Augustus Richardson with the model of Ecobank

At ground level the building is clad with limestone firmly rooting it into the earth and forming tactile surfaces. The two forms reflect the public banking space, and the private offices of the bank HQ. The bank is orientated on an axis leading towards the concrete obelisk in Africa Liberation Square, and there is a real declaration of optimism in this building. Mobius are an exciting firm to follow, and Richardson kindly took us on a tour of the bank, giving behind the scenes access. The quality of the finish is exceptional and build quality excellent. Richardson clearly cares about architecture and his city; there is a charged excitement in the way he talks about design (see http://www.design233.com/oldhtml/works/augustus_richardson_the_bridge_mobius.html for more on this).

But what of the building envelope? Is it an appropriate response to design an almost entirely glazed building in Accra?

In 1957 Anthony Chitty gave the opening address to the new school of architecture at KNUST and posed this question,

‘Is a regional architecture, a truly African style, possible for West Africa; for Ghana in Particular? I believe the answer to this question is “yes” : not only possible but desirable, something to be striven for.’

In many ways the Ecobank is the perfect response to the clients wishes – they wanted a modern, international office space to reflect their brand, and clearly Ghanaian architects and engineers can deliver this type of work as well as anyone, but, if we are to be critical, are we guilty of what Chitty spoke about 60 years ago when he demanded,

‘Not just a pallid and mediocre edition of the international style, not just the half considered European solution trotted out to make do here, but a real and living architectural answer to your own local problems, social, technical and political, drawing the maximum from such origins as do exist here, a true Ghana aesthetic.’

I don’t think the Ecobank is at all mediocre, or half-considered, and Chitty was over-playing the Ghana aesthetic idea in light of the nationalist tendencies from the time-  but there must be an approach that can make the architecture of this region specific to this place. Other large projects are rapidly springing up (and unlike the Ecobank) they parade the hackneyed multi-coloured cladding approach that is tormenting every city, whereas Ecobank is clearly searching for something more.

The difficulty is how to scale-up ‘tropical’ design. Tropical architecture stems from the bungalow, barracks, and hospitals – it works well for small-scale low-rise buildings, as the Children’s Library, George Padmore, KNUST Senior Staff Club House demonstrate – it wants to be a ground hugging solution set within leafy gardens and evaporation pools.

A bank today however cannot rely on loggias and verandahs, and rising land values and the ability of buildings to generate substantial rental incomes stimulates the high-rise approach.  This was something that Fry and Drew encountered in West Africa. They worked for the Co-op Bank in Nigeria and placed louvres on the facades of multistory buildings, a technique also used by John Addo at Cedi House in Accra. The library at Ibadan presents another alternative – with its delicate screen and effectively double-façade-cum-circulation zone. Fry found the façade too ‘lace-like’ and pursued something more strapping and formal in later works, such as the library at Girls College in Chandigarh’s Sector-11.

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Cedi House viewed from Ecobank roof garden

Fry also set himself the challenge of using a glazed façade in a hot climate, again in Chandigarh. At the Government Printing Press he used glass on the north facing façade only, and included adjustable louvres on the interior to reduce glare. The south facing façade was protected by the walkways and an external aluminium louvre system based on the traditional jalousie reduces solar gain.

There is perhaps just the germ of historical precedent in the two recent Accra buildings – and both reveal a confidence in the city, as well as an ambition to test this type of architecture. The next step will be to put some data-loggers into these buildings and to see how they perform. Their critics might be pleasantly surprised.