In the 1960s, dozens of countries in central and sub-Saharan Africa gained independence from their European colonizers. This kicked off a remarkable period of experimental architecture in these newly sovereign nations, which sought to build cutting-edge buildings for parliaments, universities, and banks to showcase new national identities.
“Architecture of Independence: African Modernism,” an exhibit at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, looks at revisits those forward-thinking designs, with a focus on the delicate process of mixing past traditions with future goals. Curated by Swiss architect Manuel Herz, it explores more than 80 buildings in Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, Zambia, Ghana, and Senegal.
The works on display represent contradictions inherent in the process of building a newly independent set of countries. Most of the architects commissioned to build these monuments to African modernism were imported from European countries like Norway and France. And in the midst of the building boom, the daring ideals of modernist architects were occasionally stymied by political upheaval. For instance, the University of Zambia, designed in 1965, was built by Israeli contractors. But during the Arab–Israeli War and oil crisis of 1973, Israeli companies were kicked out of the country, leaving parts of the Lusaka campus unfinished.
However, the projects also showcase an amazing architectural heritage that is rarely part of the conversation about Sub-Saharan and West Africa–works that are worth recognizing and, in many cases, restoring. Rinaldo Olivieri’s pyramid of administrative offices in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, with its facade of angled sun shades, is unlike any other building in the world. In Senegal, an exhibition center, the Foire Internationale de Dakar, juts out of the ground like a futuristic mountain range. The Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi, Kenya–the tallest building in the country for more than two decades–features a towering, round pavilion that opens up to the sky with a series of wood and metal panels arranged in a cone. These designs play with form and heritage in a way that deserves more attention.