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A modernist house seen from the garden.
Owusu Addo Residence by John Owusu Addo. Kuukuwa Manful, CC BY-NC-ND

Venice architecture biennale: how pioneering Ghanaian architects reckoned with tropical modernism

As curator of the 2023 Venice architecture biennale, the Ghanaian-Scottish architect, Lesley Lokko, has chosen to highlight the African continent as “the laboratory of the future”.

But as well as looking at the future of architecture on the continent, visitors will also be able to explore its history, through an exhibition at the Arsenale, entitled Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa.

Early 20th-century modernism in Europe saw architects using large expanses of unshaded glass and flat roofs. Practitioners in warmer, humid climates, such as in Africa and Asia, meanwhile, had to adapt their designs to withstand heavier rainfall and warmer temperatures. In late colonial Africa and during the independence era, this style became known as “tropical modernism” or “tropical architecture”.

In the African context, this is possibly the best researched and well-documented architectural movement. When people discuss it further afield, however, it is mostly through a white lens. The focus is on what European architects practising in these regions were doing – African architects of the same era are largely overlooked.

A large building of brick and plaster.
Museum of Science Technology in Accra, designed by Daniel Sydney Kpodo-Tay. Mun85/Wikimedia, CC BY-NC-ND

Putting Europe at the centre of African stories is a choice that echoes the very colonial histories it seeks to elucidate, where European architects operated as though the continent were a blank slate, devoid of pre-existing architecture worthy of note.

My research shows how architects in Ghana in particular aligned with, adapted, or rejected Western colonial ideas. They created modernist buildings that reflected their visions for their nation, their experiences and their global outlook.

Ghanaian expertise

John Owusu Addo, the first black head of department of Ghana’s first architecture school, and Samuel Opare Larbi, another prominent educator and architect, embodied what I term the dominant Ghanaian tropical modernism. Their practice was most similar to, and aligned with, the practice of the white British tropical modernists.

The former Department of Tropical Architecture was established at the Architectural Association (AA) in London in 1954 by the British wife and husband duo Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, and James Cubbitt. Although Fry described the city of Kano, in present day Nigeria, as a “complete realisation of urban harmony”, he and Drew nonetheless declared having “invented” architecture in West Africa. Their work was coloured by the imperial, racist and sexist notions of the time.

An archival photograph of an ancient city.
Kano city, Nigeria, in 1911. Digital Collections, The New York Public Library

Owusu Addo and Larbi both trained at the AA. They counted among their contemporaries the German architect Otto Koenisberger and the Australian-born British architect Kenneth Mackensie Scott. Although they faced racial discrimination in Europe and back home, their UK education put them in a position of relative privilege in Ghana.

From the outside, many of the institutional and corporate buildings they designed, including Cedi House in Accra (a high-rise tower that now houses the Ghana Stock Exchange) featured elements of tropical modernism: solar shading devices, rhythmic facades, breeze blocks, cross ventilation and east-west orientation.

A high-rise building.
Cedi House in Accra. Simon Ontoyin/Wikimedia, CC BY-NC-ND

But it is in the interiors of their domestic architecture that their keen understanding of the people for whom they were designing becomes most apparent. When I interviewed Owusu Addo and Larbi in 2015, they recounted how they took Ghanaian societies into account. And they spoke of the pride they felt at being African architects.

For the Unity Hall student accommodation at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Owusu Addo created shaded outdoor space, with courtyards and verandas. As he put it: “Rarely do we stay in our rooms in the daytime. If in the daytime anyone was in the room, then he was sick.”

A building with boys playing in the foreground.
Unity Hall, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi. Łukasz Stanek, CC BY-NC-ND

Creative dissent

Other architects sought to establish an aesthetic that was visually distinct from European-driven tropical modernism. They accepted the climatic control and other technological and material aspects of the style. However, in the aesthetics they pursued, they were decidedly expressive.

Anyako-born architect Daniel Sydney Kpodo-Tay’s confidence was grounded in his centuries-long family history of building design and construction. Together with his anti-colonial politics and a desire for recognition, this informed an approach that the Ghana Institute of Architects termed “revolutionary”, upon his death in 2018.

Kpodo-Tay was fascinated by symbolism. His designs rejected ornamentation. Instead, he sought to make the buildings themselves sculptural. His projects that were built were often not as bold as his proposals – a compromise he put down to the limited finances and conservatism of clients in Ghana.

When a competition was held, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to design the headquarters for the Economic Community of West African States organisation, Kpodo-Tay’s proposal drew on the form of a bowl as symbolic of communality and unity. His design for the complex, which was to house offices, a bank and a conference venue, featured bold inverted conical forms with internal spaces arrayed radially.

A drawing of an architectural proposal.
Daniel Sydney Kpodo-Tay’s proposal for the ECOWAS headquarters. Kuukuwa Manful, Author provided

Owusu Addo, Kpodo-Tay, and Larbi are not the only Ghanaian architects of their generations whose practice was informed by tropical modernism. Many stories are yet to be brought to light, especially those of the women.

Only a few women were trained at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science’s architecture school. Sexism in the industry saw some leave. But others, including the late Alero Olympio who designed Accra’s Kokrobitey Institute, struck out in bold new ways. These visionaries challenged the Euro-centric assumptions of what tropical modernism was, in particular through their use of materials.

An exterior shot of a building with people working on laptops.
Students at the Kokrobitey Institute in Kokrobitey, designed by Alero Olympio. Olivier Asselin/Alamy

As scholars, practitioners and visitors from around the world turn to architecture on the African continent, they must be careful not to treat it as a blank slate in the way previous generations did. Africans have been creating, studying, teaching, and documenting architecture in Africa since time immemorial. Their work matters.

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