Conserving African Modernist Architecture

Africa Hall heritage image and new Revit model

David Gole, Principal at Conrad Gargett recently returned from an intensive three-month research project at the Getty Conservation Institute as a 2020 Guest Scholar.

Background on The Getty

The J. Paul Getty Museum seeks to inspire curiosity about, and enjoyment and understanding of, the visual arts by collecting, conserving, exhibiting and interpreting works of art of outstanding quality and historical importance.

The Getty Centre consists of four parts; The Museum, The Research Institute, The Conservation Institute and the Foundation

The Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) works internationally to advance conservation practice in the visual arts—broadly interpreted to include objects, collections, architecture, and sites.

The Institute serves the conservation community through scientific research, education and training, field projects, and the dissemination of information.

In all its endeavours, the GCI creates and delivers knowledge that contributes to the conservation of the world’s cultural heritage.

The Guest Scholar Program

The Guest Scholar program provided support for undertaking focused research including access to the Getty Library and Collections, access to other libraries (including nearly UCLA via inter library loans), a research assistant, generous work station, access to Getty staff and colleagues in the Conservation Institute Buildings and Sites Science Departments and the Getty Research Institute.

In addition, the Getty provided international and local travel, accommodation and scholar housing.

Summary of research outcomes

Initial research focused on investigating the issues and current body of research around the conservation of Mid Century Modern Architecture (the architecture of the period spanning from post war to the 1970’s).

Research then shifted to the conservation of African modernism as an emerging area of focus including identifying key issues and unique challenges.

The recent listing in 2017 of the African modernist city of Asmara in Eritrea as a UNESCO World Heritage city has provided new momentum in this area. Asmara is an emerging hotspot for the conservation of modernism with both highly intact urban planning and a significant body of individual buildings and precincts.

UNECSO has also identified the under representation of African modernism in World heritage listings coinciding with 2021 marking the 20th anniversary of UNESCO’s Modern Heritage Programme which will provide further impetus for initiatives on the African continent.

Much of the focus on African Modernism to date has been academic providing a valuable overarching context for conservation practice. In addition to this broader context, there is an imperative for identification and assessment of sites, pilot demonstration projects (conservation and adaptive reuse) and to develop a conservation practice framework.  There is much work required in taking the first steps in generating the tools for conservation including planning documents and guidelines to support precinct planning, individual project initiatives and outcomes as well as the development of a conservation industry (seemingly from the ground up in some African nations such as Eritrea and Ethiopia)

Why conserve African Modernist built heritage?

This planning and architecture dating back to the (postwar) 50’s, 60’s and 70’s represents the aspirations of both the waning period of colonialism (in the late colonial period through the provision of welfare state amenities such as schools, hospitals and administrative buildings) as well as the early years of postcolonial independence (the symbolic role of new built form in embodying and signaling the aspirations of newly emerging nations and their leaders).

In post-colonial Africa it could be argued that (for better or worse) modernism was one of the forms of expression of independence, new identity and future aspirations. This is best summed up by Manuel Hertz in his assertion that;

As countries in Africa gained their independence, modernist architecture attempted to express their new identities.

In the late 1950s and the early ’60s most countries of Sub-Saharan Africa gained their independence. Architecture became one of the principal means for the young nations to express their national identity. Parliament buildings, central banks, stadia, conference centres, universities and independence memorials were constructed, often featuring heroic and daring designs.

Modern and futuristic architecture mirrored the aspirations and forward-looking spirit 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. Hertz. M, African Modernism: Nation Building, The Architectural Review, 2 May 2017

Africa Hall Heritage photo and Revit Model

There are conflicting (academic) views on the meaning, significance and values embedded in these buildings (both positive and sometimes negative).

Regardless of this, these buildings are a physical representation of a significant part of the story of contemporary pan African history. Motivations and context for the realization of these modernist masterplans, precincts and individual buildings varied from nation to nation, geographic location, political, economic, social and cultural context.

More focused research was then undertaken in to the understanding of the current issues and challenges for this specific area of practice in Africa (and how these have been addressed on other case study projects). Africa has particular challenges and issues with lack of identified modern heritage sites (as well as World Heritage sites) coupled with climate change, biodiversity loss and extremely rapid urbanization. The continent with an average population age of 19.7, will experience the highest rate of urbanisation globally over the next 30-years putting huge pressure on built infrastructure including modernist built heritage.

The research aims examined the themes of broader conservation practice (focused on 20th century modernist built heritage in Africa) and considered strategies that may benefit future conservation projects including;

Defining African modernism

  • The problem of applying definitions in Africa – there may be some blending of discourse on modernism with discourse on “being modern”. Africa compels us to reexamine the assumed structures and characteristics of “modernism”. In architecture …. David Rifkind, Building Modern Africa, Editors Theme Introduction, 2014, p 156

Context of African history and global modernism

Development of African Modernism

  • Time period and geographic locations (Themes explored include British Architects in Ghana – The tropics and colony, Modernist “Tropical” Architecture movement, Narratives for African Modernism, Challenging the Western ‘Eurocentric’ view, Ambiguities of African modernism, Success of West African Modernism and broader cross continent influences, Expression of African Modernism and the development of the Conservation Movement in relation to African Modernism)

Developing a broader understanding of the current issues and challenges for this specific area of practice (and how these have been addressed on other projects – case studies).

Case study projects for Individual buildings (across a variety of geographic regions) were examined including;

  • National Museum Uganda (Getty Foundation, Keeping it Modern Grant)
  • Beira Train Station (Getty Foundation, Keeping it Modern Grant)
  • Children’s Library, Accra (Getty Foundation, Keeping it Modern Grant)
  • Uganda National Theatre, Kampala, Uganda – DOCOMOMO campaign 2017
  • Knust Campus, Kumasi Ghana – DOCOMOMO campaign 2016
  • Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC), Nairobi
  • FINDECO headquarters, Zambia
  • Hôtel Ivoire, Abidjan, Ivory Coast

Potential actions and framework that might foster conditions for the conservation of modernist built heritage in Africa

Key strategies to benefit future potential projects were considered including;

  • Identifying, mapping and understanding of current networks (universities, practitioners, professional bodies including ISC 20C and Docomomo African Chapters, government) and how to further build and develop these
  • Understanding of current practice for built heritage in Africa and establishing a conservation practice framework relevant to Africa and to modernist built heritage
  • Consideration of the tools and resources that currently exist to benefit future projects
  • Consideration of the tools and resources that might need to be created
  • Consideration of how these tools and resources might be shared – what platforms (if any) exist already?