Hansen Road looking towards the Methodist cathedral
James Town is an old district in Accra running along the coast and associated with the British during the early colonial period – when the Dutch and Danish were also grappling for control of the town. Set behind the Usher Fort are many warehouses, trading posts and residences. A fine array of historical buildings can still be found here, but much of its rich tangible and intangible heritage is at risk through insensitive development, lack of maintenance and the departure of large businesses from the area. Despite this, it remains a vibrant and charming district full of markets, traders and the cultural epicentre that is the James Town Café, recently frequented by Emmanuel Macron during his visit to Accra.
James Town Café
Led by the charismatic Allotey Bruce-Konuah we weaved our way through the markets and informal structures that now occupy the gaps and leftover sites, punctuated by a vast collection of colonial-era buildings. Our first stop is a stone obelisk encased within an old market hall. The obelisk was built shortly after 1900 to commemorate the last of the Anglo-Ashanti wars. One of the plaques is in Arabic script, perhaps in recognition of Nigerian-Islamic troops who fought the Ashanti with the British. From here we went to the adjacent market hall. It was used until quite recently – and with some minor repairs could make for a very fine market venue today, perfectly sited on a strong axis and at the centre of the district.
Obelisk base with Allotey Bruce-Konuah (L), Ola Uduku (C) Irene Appeaning Addo (R)
Obelisk within the market
Interior of the Market Hall
We visited Azumo house, built in 1914 – the original owner’s escapades of shipwrecks and ‘salvaging’ are apparently recorded in the Red Book of West Africa. The quality and number of historical buildings is surprising – a case of preservation by leaving-be. The warehouses of the Compagnie Francaise de L’Afrique Occidentale (based in the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool) occupy a prominent site, and Ellen House built in 1918 boasts a rich history – we will attempt to uncover more.
Bruce-Konuh Family Residence
Our trip concluded with a visit to the studio of Deo Gratias. You may remember some of the photos from this studio featuring in The Guardian (and here) not so long ago. It was extraordinary to see these images printed and in large format. Kate Aku Tamakloe, the granddaughter of the studio’s founder, JK Bruce Vanderpuije, and curator of the collection kindly gave us a tour. Kate told us there are many, many more images to scan, some from glass plates. We look forward to seeing more of this important work.
Escaping the freezing temperatures of the UK we returned to Ghana for our final trip of the British Academy sponsored project. There were a number of buildings on our list still to be visited in Accra and we were eager to explore…
George Padmore Library, Accra
The first stop was the George Padmore Library designed in 1961, and containing a vast collection of Kwame Nkrumah’s personal books and pamphlets. The building is hidden in the Efua Sutherland Children’s Park and forms an excellent example of tropical modernist architecture with carefully detailed finishes, craftsmanship and landscaping. The cooling reflection pool sits beneath the open-tread staircase that weaves its way up into the reading room. There is no air-conditioning here, just the pleasant breeze enticed through the building by the louvres on each side. Who is the architect of this oft-overlooked gem? The Librarian is eager for the facilities to be expanded and developed – we hope they pursue a sensitive solution, and avoid what has happened the library at Sekondi.
From here we visited the UTC building, a former department store and office block now stripped of its external solar-shades and in the process of demolition. We were lucky to photograph this building, as a few weeks from now it will no longer exist. The building is located in the frantic and exciting market area of town where everything from a tomato to a stadium PA system can be purchased. The market grew up around the train station that brought produce from the north and relayed the imported goods back. Complete with a dainty clocktower and waiting rooms the station structure is made from an imported cast iron kit from either Liverpool or Glasgow. Although there are no trains running any longer the station is as busy ever with squatters and traders making full use of the facilities.
Cedi house, the first podium-base-cum-high-rise to be built in the city in the early 1960s by John Owusu Addo is now, sadly, looking a little tired, and needs some major investment. Each façade is different to respond to the specific climatic/solar demands. Inside a couple of murals survive and the marble cladding and exposed staircase give a glimpse of the building’s former style.
Biennial Conference, Centre for European Architecture, Kent School of Architecture (UK)
From Building to Continent: How Architecture makes Territories
Cultural landscape refers to landscapes shaped by humans through habitation, cultivation, exploitation and stewardship, and has influenced thinking in other fields, such as architecture. Generally, architecture has been subsumed within cultural landscape itself as a comprehensive spatial continuum. Yet standard architectural histories often analyse buildings as isolated objects, sometimes within the immediate context, but typically with minimal acknowledgement of wider spatial ramifications. However, buildings may become spatial generators, not only in the immediate vicinity, but also at larger geographic scales. ‘Buildings’ in this case include architectural works in the traditional sense, as well as roads, bridges, dams, industrial works, military installations, etc. Such structures have been grouped collectively to represent territories at varying scales.
In the context of this conference, the term ‘territories’ is appealed to rather than ‘landscape’, for the latter is associated with a given area of the earth’s surface, often aestheticized as a type of giant artefact. Territories by contrast are more abstract, and may even overlap. Discussions in this conference may consider varying territorial scale relationships, beginning with the building, moving to the regional, and even to the global. For example, at the level of architectural detailing, buildings may represent large-scale territories, or obscure others, themselves acting as media conveying messages. How tectonic-geographic relationships are represented may also be considered. Various media, primarily maps but also film and digital technologies have created mental images of territories established by buildings, and are all relevant to these discussions. Geopolitical analysis may provide another means towards understanding how architecture makes territories. Governments are often the primary agents, but not always, for religious and special interest groups have played central roles. Mass tourism and heritage management at national and international levels have reinforced, or contradicted, official government messages. Organisations dedicated to international building heritage, such as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) also are implicated in such processes.
Paper proposals may cover anytime period, continuing into the present. Relevant proposals from all disciplines are welcomed.
Conference organisers: Dr. David H. Haney, and Dr. Luciano Cardellichio.
It’s been great fun, and here’s to the next five years of exciting research, difficult questions, dusty roads and even dustier archives, and of course new discoveries that make everything worthwhile.
We’d like to thank all of the blog contributors (please do continue to send us your updates, research findings and short articles). Thanks also to our committed readers and for all of your kind comments and emails.
Last year architect Killian Doherty and filmmaker Edward Lawrenson visited Yekepa, a remote new-town in Northern Liberia, designed and built by a mining company prospecting for iron-ore in the late 1950s. Yekepa emerged through the West’s investment in the natural resources of a ‘developing’ Africa to become a built symbol of utopian promise, symbolism that voided local inhabitants claims to ancestral lands and their eventual displacement.
Eventually the iron-ore reserves became depleted and Yekepa fell into disrepair, rendered a ghost town haunted by the memories of past prosperity. Now partly repopulated by workers of another mining firm, Yekepa has returned to life, but its fortunes remain dependent on the global market of iron-ore. Having spoken to past and present residents of Yekepa—both in Liberia and in Sweden—they are making a documentary about the town to chronicle its unusual history and uncertain future.
Doherty and Lawrenson’s research film traces, through the neo-colonial architecture and planning of the town, the complex relationship between land, displacement, and the global extractive industries within, and beyond, Sub-Saharan Africa.
Killian will also give a lecture and film screening in the Autumn 2018 at Liverpool School of Architecture – date to be confirmed soon.
Killian Doherty is a qualified architect who has practiced in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Rwanda. He runs the collaborative practice Architectural Field Office that has a particular interest in sites of conflict and the dissonance of modernity and development in Africa. He has written for Architectural Review, MAS Context, and VOLUMEmagazine on these themes and is currently is undertaking a PhD by Design at the Bartlett School of Architecture.
Edward Lawrenson is a London-based filmmaker whose films have played at a number of festivals, including Sundance, BFI London Film Festival, True/False, Open City; and cinemas, including the Museum of the Moving Image in New York and London’s ICA. His radio documentaries have played on BBC Radio 4. His 2015 documentary Abandoned Goods (codirected with Pia Borg) won the Golden Leopard for Best International Short at the Locarno Film Festival
I was fortunate to attend two conferences this week that traced the research topics I’ve been investigating during the last 20 years. The first was at the John Michael Kolher Arts Centre and focused on ‘Visionary Environments’ [that is, places and objects built by self-taught and ‘outsider’ artists/builders/architects] and the second was the GAHTC investigating how we might teach a Global Architectural History.
‘The Road Less Travelled’ conference/exhibition at JMKAC celebrated the centre’s 50th Anniversary and brought together many of the contributors, responders, artists and scholars associated with this extraordinary set of 17 exhibitions. It forms a radical set of artwork with equally provocative and experimental curating. I’ve previously reviewed some of their earlier displays in Raw Vision Magazine and on this blog here. Three highlights from the current set of exhibitions include the works of Dr Charles Smith, Eugene von Bruenchenhein and Stella Waitzkin.
Stella Waitzkin resin cast
Eugene von Bruenchenhein bone sculptures
Dr Charles Smith, monument to forgotten slave
Dr Charles Smith exhibition
It was an engaging line-up and full of challenges ranging from conservation, community use, cultural concerns, research methods, and lots on Pasaquan. Prof. Jo Farb Hernandez’s documentation work in Spain really resonated and she’s gathering more material for a follow-up book. I also enjoyed the podcast/lecture on the Forevertron by Benjamin Walker and The Theory of Everything.
There was a strong connection between these two conferences – both held a desire to reexamine and question the way we think about architecture and art, both in terms of its production as well as in its dissemination and history. GAHTC is working from within the canon [with a desire to change it], whereas JMKAC perhaps doesn’t view its collection as architectural, or as something architectural historians might be concerned with. Its collection certainly falls within the ‘architecture without architects’ bracket but not in the way that Bernard Rudofsky presented it. Perhaps the common denominator between these conferences is the visionary environment in LA built by Italian migrant Simon Rodia, and now known as Watts Towers. I paid homage to this staggering creation and highly recommend it.
Watts Towers detail
JMKAC has recently become the new home for SPACES archive [previously held in California] that contains some wonderful survey drawings, model and photographic documentation of the Towers, currently on display at JMKAC.
Model of Watts Towers from the Spaces Archive
Survey Drawing of Watts Towers from the Spaces archive
The SPACES methodology and detailed survey work sets the standard in this area, and their collection is being digitised. In many ways GAHTC is attempting to build up an equivalent archive of teaching material. To date, there are over 200 lectures held in its repository, and the ambition is for another 200+ lectures. They are also issuing a number of grants for scholars to develop new teaching resources and material. The three plenary speakers, Philip J Ethington, Stella Nair and Greg Castillo stoked considerable debate on cultural appropriation, settlements that existed on the site now occupied by Los Angeles, and the power of mapping this data. I also enjoyed the module proposed by Alicia Imperiale with its three lectures considering various aspects of mobile architecture, (including one by TAG friend Anoo Siddiqi).
Only 1% of houses around the world were designed by architects. Paul Oliver, who has died aged 90, devoted himself to studying the remainder, architecture that was of the people rather than built for them. His books on vernacular architecture ranged from Dunroamin: The Suburban Semi and Its Enemies (1981, with Ian Davis and Ian Bentley) to a three-volume Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World (1997), produced with 780 contributors from 80 countries.
An artist by training who became a distinctive commentator on both architectural history and music, especially the blues, he considered himself a generalist, though writing from an architectural background; when pressed, in 1998, he accepted the term “architectural anthropologist”.
His opportunity to develop this perspective came from taking a part-time job as drawing master at the Architectural Association (AA) in London in 1960. When the leading academics Robert Furneaux Jordanand Sir John Summerson both quit, he was left as the principal lecturer in architectural history.
Oliver’s inspiring teaching took two strands. One was the study of modernism, with its emphasis on simplicity, quality and economy. The other was vernacular architecture.
His interest had been aroused when his parents moved to Symondsbury, near Bridport in Dorset, a village with a strong music tradition, a mummer’s play and a close-knit cottage community. Then six articles in the Architectural Review by EA Gutkind, a planner, in 1953 revealed the diversity of traditional building around the world.
The study of vernacular traditions offered ideas on honest construction and functionalism attractive to modern architects, while also contributing to Britain’s emerging conservation movement. An international dimension took hold when in 1964 Oliver was invited to teach at the School of Architecture in Kumasi, Ghana, where his AA colleague John Lloyd was principal. Oliver and his students studied the ways of managing a humid climate and restricted resources, patterns of use and the buildings’ cultural values. His eyes were opened by the housing of the Gurunsi people, compounds with “the formal beauty and logic of pottery”, as he later wrote, which were being swept away for a reservoir and replaced by rows of prefab dwellings that paid no respect to Gurunsi traditions.
The Ghana trip coincided with Bernard Rudofsky’s exhibition Architecture Without Architects at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Although it was important in popularising vernacular architecture as a subject, Oliver was enraged by its emphasis on the buildings as art objects, which he considered patronising. Working with colleagues from the AA, including students from its small department of tropical architecture, he offered a broader cultural perspective in his book Shelter and Society (1969). Further books on Africa, Greece and symbolism in buildings followed.
His greatest love was perhaps sub-Saharan Africa where, under Islamic and Christian influences, architecture predominates among the visual arts. His contributors were architects and anthropologists, but the disciplines seemed entirely separate; only archaeologists took a holistic view, and Oliver considered their approach to be as valid for the present as the past.
He advised on conservation issues in French towns and villages for the Patrimoine Historique et Artistique de la France. The British Council supported research and teaching in East Africa and India, and he worked for the Overseas Development Administration in Turkey, the Balkans, Central America and Mexico. Some projects focused on the vulnerability of vernacular buildings to earthquakes and floods, and the failures of post-disaster housing that had not taken account of the lessons of older cultures.
Oliver became head of the AA’s graduate school in 1971, but left two years later to lead the art and design department at Dartington College of Arts, at Dartington Hall, Devon. He became an associate head of the architecture school at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) in 1978 and founder of the Shelter and Settlements Unit there. His greatest concern was to safeguard traditions in the face of technological change. He believed that the wisdom, skills and satisfaction of human needs embodied in traditional buildings were fundamental to the housing of millions in the 21st century.
In 1987 Oliver took early retirement, though he continued as a visiting professor, so he could devote himself to his research, stimulated by the suggestion of Alyn Shipton, reference editor at the publisher Blackwell, that he produce an encyclopedia of world architecture. His three-volume study was organised by cultures rather than countries, with the first volume explaining general traits, environments, materials and services. Oliver was particularly proud of sections like that for Ethiopia, which was entirely written by local scholars, while gamely taking on himself areas in which no research existed.
Born in Nottingham, Paul grew up in Pinner, north-west London, the son of W Norman Oliver, an architect, and his wife, the former Dorothy Edmunds. His father was keen that Paul should follow him into the profession, but he lacked any talent for mathematics and turned instead to painting.
At the age of 16, Paul entered Harrow Art School, where he met his future wife, Valerie Coxon (they married in 1950), and began a lifelong interest in African-American music. He trained as an art teacher at Goldsmith’s College, London, and in 1949 returned to his old school, the Harrow county school for boys, as art master. There he established a department teaching crafts as well as art, acted as client for a new building, and introduced an African-American music society after the headmaster refused to allow a jazz club. When he left this post for the AA, the drop in his income forced him to write more music reviews.