During the late 1950s and the early 1960s most countries of Sub-Saharan Africa gained their independence. Architecture became one of the principal means with which the young nations expressed their national identity. Parliament buildings, central banks, stadiums, conference centers, universities and independence memorials were constructed, often featuring heroic and daring designs. Modern and futuristic architecture mirrored the aspirations and forward looking spirit that was dominant at that time. A coinciding period of economic boom made elaborate construction methods possible while the tropical climate allowed for an architecture that blended the inside and outside, focused on form and the expression of materiality. The architecture of countries such as Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya or Zambia still represents some of the best examples of 1960s and 1970s architecture worldwide. Nevertheless it has received little attention and still remains to be ‘rediscovered’.
At the same time, this architecture also shows the difficulties, contradictions and dilemmas that the countries experienced in their independence process: in most cases, the architects were not local, but came from countries such as Poland, Yugoslavia, the Scandinavian nations, Israel, or even from the former colonial powers. Could the formation of a new national identity through architecture therefore be described as a projection from the outside? Or does the international dimension rather represent the aspirations of the countries aiming for a cosmopolitan culture? To what extent are projects such as the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi, or the construction of Yamoussoukro as a new capitol of Côte d’Ivoire modernistic grand projects that propel a country forward, or instead vanity projects initiated by authoritarian ‘Big Man’–policies? The documentation of these buildings allows us to see architecture at a fascinating nexus of design and politics.
The book and the exhibition consists of an archival section showing more than 80 buildings from five countries of Sub-Saharan Africa with commissioned photographs by Iwan Baan and Alexia Webster; a biographic section that narrates the historic and societal dimension of five selected buildings; and a timeline, contextualizing the architecture.