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Africa’s Overlooked Modernist Architecture from an Era of Independence

FIDAK - Foire Internationale de Dakar, Dakar (Senegal), von/by Jean Francois Lamoureux & Jean-Louis Marin, 1974, Foto/photo: © Iwan Baan
FIDAK – Foire Internationale de Dakar, Dakar (Senegal), by Jean Francois Lamoureux & Jean-Louis Marin, 1974 (photo © Iwan Baan) (all images courtesy Vitra Design Museum Gallery)

Futuristic pyramids and boxy concrete forms rose up with the modernist architecture of Africa in the 1960s and ’70s, although beyond the continent the radical forms aren’t widely recognized. Growth following independence from colonialism in Ghana, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, Zambia, and Senegal coincided with this radical new aesthetic, dotting the countries with striking buildings that represented a new optimism.

Architecture of Independence — African Modernism opened in February at the Vitra Design Museum Gallery in Weil am Rhein, Germany, featuring over 80 buildings in those five countries. The exhibition is the smaller component of the Vitra Museum’s spring focus on Africa, with its larger Making Africa — A Continent of Contemporary Design opened this month. Curated by Swiss architect and author Manuel Herz, Architecture of Independence is accompanied by a thorough 700-page publication from Park Books.

Hotel Independence, Dakar (Senegal), von/by Henri Chomette and Roland Depret, 1973-1978, Foto/photo:© Iwan Baan
Hotel Independence, Dakar (Senegal), by Henri Chomette and Roland Depret, 1973–78 (photo © Iwan Baan)

The photographs of the buildings in the present day, many captured by expert architectural photographer Iwan Baan, show a complicated legacy of the construction and economic boom. Some of the buildings are gutted with streaked concrete exteriors; others are still in use, but in sharp style contrast to the surrounding urban landscape.

Architecture of Independence doesn’t shy away from pointing out that a large number of these buildings were designed by outsiders, even sometimes from former colonial powers. Yet as forward-thinking representations of an embrace of an independent identity, the colleges, government buildings, banks, stadiums, and conference centers were all part of the countries’ nation building.

Herz affirmed to CNN that some “of these buildings are really the most interesting and fascinating that were built in that era worldwide, but they have completely fallen off the radar.” Dakar’s 1974 FIDAK (Foire Internationale de Dakar) by Jean Francois Lamoureux and Jean-Louis Marin is an angular wonder with its rows of pyramids, while Nairobi’s 1973 Kenyatta International Conference Centre by Karl Henrik Nostvik — at 28 stories and with soaring views of the land around it — towers with symbolic ambition. While the architects’ names and buildings are mostly obscure to an international audience, the photographs in Architecture of Independence argue that this late era of modernism in Africa deserves recognition.

Hotel Ivoire, Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), von/by Heinz Fenchel and Thomas Leiterdorf, 1962-1970, Foto/photo:© Iwan Baan
Hotel Ivoire, Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), by Heinz Fenchel and Thomas Leiterdorf, 1962–70 (photo © Iwan Baan)
La Pyramide, Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), von/by Rinaldo Olivieri, 1973, Foto/photo:© Iwan Baan
La Pyramide, Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), by Rinaldo Olivieri, 1973 (photo © Iwan Baan)
University of Zambia - UNZA, Lusaka (Zambia),von/by Julian Elliott, 1965-1970, Foto/photo: © Iwan Baan
University of Zambia – UNZA, Lusaka (Zambia), by Julian Elliott, 1965–70 (photo © Iwan Baan)
Mfantsipim School (Ausschnitt), Cape Coast (Ghana), von/by Fry, Drew and Partners, 1958, Foto/photo: © Manuel Herz
Mfantsipim School (Ausschnitt), Cape Coast (Ghana), by Fry, Drew and Partners, 1958 (photo © Manuel Herz)
Independence Arch, Accra (Ghana) des/by the Public Works Departments, 1961, Foto/photo: © Manuel Herz
Independence Arch, Accra (Ghana) by the Public Works Departments, 1961 (photo © Manuel Herz)
Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Nairobi (Kenya), von/ by Karl Henrik Nostvik, 1967-1973, Foto/photo: © Iwan Baan
Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Nairobi (Kenya), by Karl Henrik Nostvik, 1967–73 (photo © Iwan Baan)
Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Nairobi (Kenya), von/by Karl Henrik Nostvik, 1967-1973, Foto/photo: © Iwan Baan
Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Nairobi (Kenya), by Karl Henrik Nostvik, 1967–73 (photo © Iwan Baan)
School of Engineering at KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology), Kumasi (Ghana), von/by James Cubitt, 1956 Foto/photo: © Alexia Webster
School of Engineering at KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology), Kumasi (Ghana), by James Cubitt, 1956 (photo © Alexia Webster)
Stadium at KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology), Kumasi (Ghana), von/by KNUST Development Office, 1964-1967, Foto/photo: © Alexia Webster
Stadium at KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology), Kumasi (Ghana), by KNUST Development Office, 1964–67 (photo © Alexia Webster)

Architecture of Independence — African Modernism continues at the Vitra Design Museum Gallery (Charles-Eames-Str. 2, Weil am Rhein, Germany) through May 31. 

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