African Modernism

by William Harris

Manuel Herz (ed.), African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence Park Books 640pp £55.00 9783906027746

Modernism died twice. Its first death, dated March 16, 1972, is famously said to have occurred when the explosives detonated on St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. The second, 12 years later and also in March, took the only mildly quieter form of Perry Anderson imploding the designation itself. Modernism was ‘completely lacking in positive content,’ ‘a portmanteau concept whose only referent is the blank passage of time itself,’ ‘the emptiest of all cultural categories’ and ‘vacant and vitiated’ like ‘no other aesthetic marker.’ Anderson is not known for holding back – ‘we could draw lots for who gets the job of telling Perry Anderson to lighten up,’ Stefan Collini once remarked – and here he took aim primarily at the term’s promiscuity, the contradictory way Soviet Constructivism, German Expressionism, and Parisian Surrealism could all somehow be huddled under the same blank umbrella. But for architectural modernism blankness wasn’t just the product of some potted historical amateurism; blank abstraction acted as modernism’s aesthetic ideal, apparent in its emphasis on transparency, on whiteness, on function, on tabula rasa, universality, and liberation from tradition and context – all things which, as things do, link back in the end to local specifics.

So Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius pored over images of the grain silos and daylight factories strewn across early industrial America, struck by the buildings’ pure rationality; the Soviet avant-garde, as Owen Hatherley has recently shown, delighted in what they saw as the machine-like choreography of Chaplin’s slapstick movements, and in Chaplin’s fellow silent comedian Harold Lloyd’s gag-fraught tiptoe among the naked steel frames of an unfinished American skyscraper in Never Weaken (1921); and the manifesto-prone Le Corbusier developed his style after being enthralled by the Mediterranean whites of North African houses and mosques, with the result of each becoming an important local source of inspiration for Europe’s avant-garde. Modernism’s universal ideal was rooted in varied, often non-Western specificity, and those obscured sources might be the place to begin an architectural history of African modernism – with Corbu sketching North African vernaculars in his notebook.

It’s an origin story that echoes the more widely known use of African art as a model for Cubism, Expressionism, and European modernist art in general, and one that complements the most exciting academic and curatorial work being done on modernism today, in which the conventional tale of the movement’s dissemination (from Europe, to the rest) is disturbed. No longer the centre-periphery conception of modernism as a unilateral colonial import, but instead a movement of dynamic internationalism, highlighting the back-and-forth between artists from, say, Africa and Europe, or how artists in newly decolonised countries exploited modernism’s abstract and universal pretensions to transform modernism, synthesising it with indigenous forms.

This last point – modernist transformation – has an echo of its own in literature. Franco Moretti wrote of the novel’s dull centripetal conformity in his Atlas of the European Novel (1998), charting how a radical 18th-century form collapsed into a uniform 19th-century world of marriage plots and historical novels, dominated by publishers in London and Paris. In his telling the novel has seen two major narrative breakthroughs: the Russian novel of ideas and Latin American magic realism. It’s no coincidence that each emerges from a point of ironic distance. He cites the Brazilian critic Roberto Schwarz’s essay ‘Misplaced Ideas’ to argue that it’s in the uncanny conjunction of foreign forms and new locations that innovation occurs: Dostoevsky intensifying the stakes of Western Enlightenment thought, Garcia Marquez fusing the realist and mythical histories the European novel held opposed. In a literary marketplace swamped by sameness, frontiers opened by diffusion, by subjecting a parochial form to the complex inheritance of a new place. It’s a startling argument. Claims for the originality of non-Western artistic modernism have yet to be issued with as much world-historical force, but in art history, too, a resonant paradigm shift appears to be emerging.

In 2013 Tate Modern held its first retrospective of an African artist, Ibrahim El-Salahi, a Sudanese painter schooled in Khartoum and London who confected an art from Arabic calligraphy, Western modernist abstraction, and African decorative design – part poetry, part painting and suffused with a sense of mystical order. In March the newly opened Met Breuer, the Met’s off-site extension, led off with a major retrospective of Nasreen Mohamedi, the abstract Indian artist whose line drawings make use of calligraphy, Sufi poetry, Islamic arabesques and Russian Suprematism to reveal a natural geometry also inherent in modernist architectural designs. Her photography finds abstraction in built environments (shots of sprawling, gridded public spaces designed by Le Corbusier in Chandigarh, or black-and-white takes on the blue-and-white striped blooming Kuwait Water Towers); her early drawings find it in the streaks of birds or the calm repetitions of the ocean. Hers is a singular modernist sensibility, and the Met Breuer’s foregrounding of her work is in line, to provide one last example, with art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu’s comprehensive new study Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria (2015), an exploration of Nigerian modernism in the decades following independence. A flurry of projects are now emerging, all united in their bid to expand modernism’s horizon, recasting artists once seen as imitators or elitists – by turns not traditional enough, not realist enough, too European, too inaccessible – into major figures in a global avant-garde constellation at once oppositional and conjoining, local and universal. It’s a constellation not without potential controversy: a vision of dialectical universality at a time when hybridity and difference still buzz through academic halls, and a project of unification mirrored by the continued expansion of a single world market, its circuitry plugged with art biennales.

There’s a similar story to tell about architectural modernism. Similar, but different, and one that’s likewise been receiving attention: African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence came out in 2015 from Park Books, and was recently the subject of a traveling exhibition (first the Vitra Museum in Germany, then the Graham Foundation in Chicago) arranged by the book’s editor, the Swiss architect Manuel Herz, and featuring photography by Iwan Baan and Alexia Webster in what’s come to be known as Baan’s signature style – rejecting the chic, fetishised building porn common to coffee-table architecture books in favour of shots populated with people posing, stuck in traffic, selling vegetables, gazing from a balcony or walking up a ramp, lending the buildings life and a sense of urban context. (Baan and Webster have a painterly knack for perspective, too; someone appears always to be returning the camera’s gaze from the margins.)

The book is subtitled The Architecture of Independence, and yet modernist design could just as easily be framed as the architecture of colonialism. European cities have long been hostile to modernity, with modernist buildings flung to the suburban rings, or often not built at all. In his manifesto ‘Bigness,’ the architect Rem Koolhaas described how the late modernist trend toward megastructuralism spread through Europe, as everywhere else. But in Europe it came with a difference; its apotheosis, he claimed, was not in anything actually existing but in the architecture of Yona Friedman – a so-called feasible utopian whose plans never made it off paper. Not so with Africa. From a colonialist perspective Africa seemed a tabula rasa – lacking Western infrastructure and sparsely urbanised, particularly along the coastal areas vital to business. Master plans were solicited en masse, and designers jumped at the chance to test their ideas in what became a modernist laboratory. It’s a useful reminder of the murkiness of modernism’s politics; today the movement is often characterised as rooted in progressive or socialist principles, and while this was certainly true for some practitioners it doesn’t capture much of modernism as a whole, buoyed along as it was by an open-ended wave of industrial optimism. Three months after the Italians conquered Ethiopia, Le Corbusier wrote to Mussolini with a master plan for Addis Ababa.

Still, modernism’s ideological vagueness was lent structure by the rise of the welfare state, with big public projects taking up much of its focus. And while the welfare state rose, colonialism fell, leading anxious colonial powers at times to bestow public institutions on colonised populations as gifts of appeasement. Protests shook Ghana after British officials jailed a young Kwame Nkrumah and colonial authorities responded by building more schools; a decade later trade boycotts led to a new community center in Accra. On the eve of independence African states prepared to inherit universities, libraries, housing blocks, garden cities – the patchy and underfunded skeletons of state infrastructure, much of it designed by modernists.

After decolonisation colonial officials packed their bags, but the architects didn’t. There’s a striking design continuity from late colonialism to the heady first decades of independence. Tropical Modernism – an architectural style based in research funded by the British, following colonial ‘disturbances,’ and propagated by the Department of Tropical Architecture at London’s Architectural Association – continued to carry the day. Free-façade, pilotis-propped International Style projects turned tropical through umbrella-like roofs, recessed windows, open, breathable slats and generous allowances of air circulation. A sense of regionalism modified the universal charter of International Style modernism, and new opportunities for symbolic ornamentation followed. Sunshades repeated a play of triangles or fanned out luxuriously; blank walls were perforated with circular ventilation openings. Tropical Modernism brought in a new expressive lexicon, a sort of art deco rendition of the International Style. Nevertheless its African manifestations were almost uniformly designed by foreigners, many of who first built for colonial regimes, and whose architecture at times had a diplomatic purpose projected on it – a way to preserve colonial relationships in a nervous new world. The colonists hadn’t bothered with design schools.

African Modernism takes in the independence (and colonial) architecture of Ghana, Senegal, Côte D’Ivoire, Kenya, and Zambia. It’s a good range. Two countries (Ghana and Zambia) that leaned socialist, three that tipped toward Cold War-era US capitalism. Two colonised by France, three by Britain. A nice-ish regional spread. Trop-modernist Pan-African monumentality in Nkrumah’s Ghana; stylish Senghorian symbolism in Senegal; a glazed, sleek commercial verticality in Côte D’Ivoire matched by an infrastructural bid for UN-globalism in Kenya and a more reserved style in Zambia, with occasional towers leaping out of Lusaka’s low-rise sprawl.

A major argument in the book is that newly independent African states, despite having their buildings designed by Europeans, expressed International Style architecture in national ways. It’s a variation on the art-historical turn towards recognising the synthetic inventiveness of non-Western abstract art: a modernist International Style transformed by its subjection to postcolonial contexts, first with the regional specificity of Tropical Modernism, and then later, during the nation-building process, by an explosion of building projects that often mixed formal abstraction with vernacular design or symbolic significance, as in the dizzying splay of richly ornamented shell-coated pyramids at Dakar’s International Trade Fair (1974), or the ‘almost inconceivable’ vastness of Accra’s Independence Square (1961), its inclusiveness and sea-presiding gateway a clear articulation of Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism. It was architecture as function and symbol, a melding of characteristics thought to be separately modern and postmodern. An easy formal criticism would be that postcolonial architecture simply decorated modernist design with vernacular touches, layering symbolic embellishment over modernist formalism without truly innovating. That’s disputable, but criticism like that misses how draping symbol over function itself anticipated the postmodern turn toward architecture as language, putting symbolism in service of the imaginary work of Pan-Africanism and public nation-building rather than the free-market populism of Las Vegas postmodernism. Early shades of the postmodern, but ones that embraced culture palaces, not billboards.

And yet billboards are hard to escape. Many examples of African modernism had to thread a line between national symbolism and executive vanity project, sometimes slipping over to the side of corrupt self-aggrandisement. It was an era in which throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America cities were renamed and capitals relocated, resulting in two of modernism’s most iconic realisations: Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia and Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, tabula rasa capitals planned in flawless modernist accordance. The trend spanned the world – Canberra was an early instance – and also the continent: Tanzania transferred its seat of power from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma, Nigeria from Lagos to Abuja. African Modernism details the development of Yamoussoukro, the quiet hometown of Côte D’Ivoire’s first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Yamoussoukro had 4,500 people in 1960, the year of independence; two years later Houphouët-Boigny launched an extravagant project to transform the lushly foliaged outpost into a midcentury fantasy: flush with international airport, luxury hotel, universities, a presidential golf course boasting an alligator-stocked lake, party headquarters, and the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, ‘an almost exact copy of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, only larger.’ Planned for a million, today the city is home to 355,000, becoming the nation’s capital in 1983. The ten-lane roads running through the city appear spectral, with ‘far more streetlights than cars,’ and while some of the university buildings make great use of the openness, other projects (the golf course, or, as Herz notes, the James Bond-ish Hôtel Président) seem ludicrously garish. Pope John Paul II blessed the Basilica with a visit in 1990, ‘under the condition that a hospital be built nearby.’ Officials agreed, but after the Pope left they never commenced building.

‘It is easy to denounce Yamoussoukro,’ Herz chides. He prefers recalling the era’s optimism, and without question much of the architecture was exciting, for reasons both aesthetic and social. African Modernism neglects North Africa, but Morocco would’ve been a nice addition. The Moroccan chapter of Congrès International d’Arcitecture Moderne (CIAM) – the modernist collective counting Le Corbusier among its impresarios – planned cities ambitiously during the French colonial period, carrying out extensive research on Moroccan vernacular architecture. They designed with mixed motives and mixed results, constructing much needed social housing, but social housing built in segregated quarters, based often on research guided by Orientalist assumptions. Like many African states, after independence Moroccan architecture represented in part a continuation: the same organisation did the planning, with some of the same formal tropes. But as Aziza Chaouni has argued, independence also brought important architectural differences. Inhabitants’ preferences – high-rise or low? ‘modern’ interiors or ‘traditional’ courtyard? – became central to the design process, and planners experimented with encouraging self-building to provide economical housing for all, a participatory emphasis predating by half a century some of today’s most celebrated activist architecture, such as the half-a-house scheme of Alejandro Aravena’s Chilean firm Elemental. Large-scale investments in social housing, education, world-class public institutions: why not look back on the first decades of independence and see optimism?

It’s an approach that runs the risk of a kind of retrofitting nostalgia (ignoring neocolonialism, corruption, forced displacement, and a carnivalesque, self-parodying process of commercialisation, along the lines of Côte D’Ivoire’s never-realised Africa World Amusement Park, intended to crown the ‘African Riviera’), and one that also makes African Modernism part of an ongoing trend beyond its postcolonial complication of modernism. Today the retroactive manifestos keep pouring out, even achieving market diversification: not just serious, provocative works ranging from Koolhaas’ reissued Delirious New York and Hatherley’s Militant Modernism (2009) in architecture, to Gabriel Josipovici’s criticism and a rash of neo-modernist novels in literature, but also the burgeoning field of glossy, gushing photo book odes to brutalism. Modernism is in the air, and for good reason: its thrilling, in a time of austerity, to recall the rise of social democracy, a time when a deeply indebted Europe still managed to finance welfare, and when African states were able to play off Cold War anxieties to extract funds from both the US and USSR. Commodity prices were high and the architecture, at times, was sublime. Now things have changed. African Modernism sets out to survey the architectural expression of a continent’s optimism before the buildings go extinct. Some, like the outlandish UFO-shaped Chai House in Nairobi, have already been torn down.

Continental optimism, too, soaring along for the past decade, or at least according to the dubious media-modish narrative of ‘Africa Rising,’ is now being demolished in the same business press pages in which it was first pronounced. Few African states had managed to diversify their export-driven economies away from being tied precariously to global commodity prices when prices sank in the ‘80s, a failure that for many states heralded the end of the modernist era and its replacement by glassy fleets of privatised luxury projects, or the faux-vernacular tourist kitsch of postmodernism.

But briefly the tides turned. While Europe crawled along under its self-lacerating austerity program following the 2008 market crash, many African economies grew impressively off China’s manufacturing boom, exporting to the newly ascendant Chinese at unprecedented rates. Now that season seems to have ended, with China’s economic contractions plunging commodity prices worldwide, while the US fracking revolution does the same for oil. From Nigeria to Angola, South Africa to Zambia, many African states are on the brink of recession, requesting loans from China and the IMF as they slash domestic budgets. South America’s left-leaning regimes are teetering or ended, likewise driven into crisis by low commodity prices, and worldwide a neoliberal consensus is furthering its stranglehold. The social democratic dream of the committed historian – the return and democratic expansion of the modernist-era welfare state – is giving over to a fantasy of the nostalgist. Modernism risks being reduced to fashion, where at best it might find itself the subject of a museumified survey as serious as African Modernism, and at worst the hollow, gentrified design preference of the business class. Imagine a party in a newly privatised brutalist flat, people perched on Eames chairs while they page through a coffee-table tour of modernist architecture. Modernism not for party politics, but costume parties.