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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Architecture & National Identity: A Tale of Two Buildings

The discussions on this site have largely been focused on defining African architecture. Although others have suggested that architecture and national identity are two separate entities, I continue to make the assertion that societies in general always find physical and tangible things to identify with; Romans and the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral, Greeks and the Parthenon, Americans and the dome of the Capitol building… etc. Think of every historic place you would like to visit, and I’m certain the image of a building comes to mind. The question I keep posing is, what building images come to mind when one thinks of Africa? Thus, in order to begin the process of bringing African architecture into mainstream discussions, I would like to bring your attention to two significant buildings in the history of architecture in Ghana, West Africa.

For the purpose of this discussion, I will take the liberty of making this as short as possible. Do note however that I have done all the preliminary research to support all my statements, and I will be more than willing to post any facts in support should your questions merit such a response.

The buildings I wish to discuss are Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle, both located along the southern coast of Ghana. The original intent of these buildings were very different, but the end use became the same, and both are now considered world historical monuments.

At the time of its construction in 1482, Elmina Castle was the first structure built on African soil of complete European influence. It was originally built as sovereign property of the Portuguese to be a trading post. At the time, items being traded were gold, ivory, spices, and other goods. In return, Ghana (or Gold Coast as it was called) received guns and gun powder, salt, glass, and other items considered worthy. Due to the aggressive nature of the trading business, the building was designed as a defensive fort. The large courtyard allowed for a training area for the men in the castle, and the storage rooms were well ventilated so items stored there did not go bad. Eventually, the trade shifted from gold to humans, and Elmina Castle was transformed from a trading post into a slave castle.

Brief note on the slave trade. No Europeans ventured into the mainland to capture slaves. The Europeans made deals with the African chiefs, who in turn would wage wars against each other, then sell their prisoners to the Europeans for weapons, salt, glass, etc. The slaves were from all over west Africa, making the long journey by foot, and leaving the weak to die along the way. Once they arrived at the castle, the slaves were separated by sexes, and packed into the storage rooms as tightly as possible. They lived in their own filth, not being allowed out for any reason. Food was shoved through the cell doors, and on the rare occasion, water as well. If a slave needed to relieve themselves, they would try to make it to the outer perimeter inside the cell and add their excrements to what was already there. The dead are dragged to the perimeter as well, hopefully to be dragged out by the guards. Rebellious slaves were put into a much smaller cell, the doors closed, and not opened until the last of them dropped dead…. And these were just the male slaves.

The female slaves went through much the same process as the males, except once a month, a chosen few would be brought out into the small courtyard, where the general would look down from his balcony and chose one. The chosen slave would then be hosed down in the yard and sent up the staircase, through a trap door, into the private suite of the general. Due to the fact that there were hardly any women in the castles, the female slaves were at the mercy of the male guards. Perhaps the silver lining in the dark cloud was that any pregnant slave was not allowed on the ship.

Once the ship arrived… which could be months, the slaves were looked over one last time to determine which ones would survive the long journey. They made their way to “the door of no return,” taking one last look at their native land, and the last thing any of them would ever see is the castle where they had been stored.

Cape Coast Castle, built much later around 1654 by the Swedes was meant to be a slave castle. The dungeons are much smaller and more ominous in comparison to Elmina. These dungeons are also below grade, and from the day of arrival to the day of departure, the slaves never saw natural light. In fact the conditions at Cape Coast Castle were the worst for any slave, but the most efficient of all the slave castles in terms of being equipped for the slave trade.

The reason I went through all this in talking about these two castles is that the slave trade lasted for about 400 years, and roughly 70% - 80% of all African slaves spent some time in either Elmina or Cape Coast Castle. That means, for about 80% of the slave population, the very last sight they saw of Africa was one of these two castles. Think about that for a second. For them, these buildings must have been the very epitome of evil, and yet they were connected to it in every way imaginable. You literally left your identity behind when you boarded the ship because as you went through the door of no return, there was a European guard there giving you a new name.

Keep in mind that ships from these castles made stops from Haiti to Jamaica, Havana to Santo Domingo, most ports in Europe, and eventually the Americas. Thus, most blacks in any of these places can trace their ancestors back to either Elmina or Cape Coast Castle. Not to mention that the slaves left behind who ran away, or any lucky to escape, and those who returned, founded Liberia and Sierra Leone, nations of freed slaves, and most originated from Elmina and Cape Coast Castle.

For these reasons, I believe that Elmina and Cape Coast Castles are a very large part of the national identity of most Ghanaians, and we are defined by them due to its impact on our society and our culture.

As such, although these buildings were designed and built by Europeans, they are very much African because of its social impact. The question does still remain that what were Ghanaians identifying with before Elmina Castle was built? This is a question which continues to drive me, and hopefully this forum, as we continue to ask ourselves as Africans what images we identify with, and what is it about these images that make them African? That is when I believe we will truly be on the path to defining African Architecture, and perhaps making that very important connection to our past.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Reflections of Places in Ghana

The purpose of this post is to hopefully give all of us a starting point of discussion. Africa is quite a large continent made up of wonderful countries. However, unlike the United States or even Europe, one can not simply embark on a road trip to discover the treasures these African countries have to offer due to visa restrictions, political issues, etc. As such, I felt it would be very appropriate to begin to show images of our African buildings, neighborhoods, villages, towns and cities, as these are really the basis of our conversations on this blog. By doing so, we also begin to familiarize ourselves with eachother's countries of origin.

The first image is a regional map simply to show the context of Ghana and its surrounding countries. After living in the US for over 16 years, I still have issues location certain states on an American map, thus I don't intend to assume that everyone would know where Ghana is located:)

This second image shows the map of Ghana (and also shows the national colors of the Ghanaian flag). Clearly defined are the 10 regions of Ghana, with Accra being the capital city of the country, and the city where I grew up.

Here is an image of the small village of Boadua, located in the Eastern region where my father's family is from. This is a typical "National Geographic" image of Africa.... the dirt roads, mud huts, etc. What I'd like to point your attention to as architects and urbanists is the construction and disposition of buildings. The buildings are typically made of burnt/baked mud reinforced with sticks, and the roofs which used to be woven straw are now "modern" aluminum shingles. Thanks to the tropical location, no insulation is ever needed.

A quick observation of the street shows how difficult it would be to navigate a car through (although tourists do try). As such, everything is typically within walking distance, a point I alluded to with my earlier post. Also do note that these structures typically last for centuries, and villagers are content to live in this environment.

The Cape Coast region of Ghana is a beautiful quaint town. Notice the difference between these buildings and the ones in Boadua, although their populations would probably be the same. I would venture to say that Cape Coast looked just like Boadua in the 14th century. I give credit to its current appearance due to its coastal location, and the fact that it was the headquaters of the Portuguese, and later the British imperialists who were involved in slavery. Meaning, it is my humble opinion that one can establish European influences in the character of the buildings, and the design of the town.

The drive through Cape Coast is actually quite lovely. As an architect and urbanist, I appreciate the structure of the buildings, the care and attention paid to the detailing of the architecture which I will address later, and the walkable streets and blocks.

The Catholic church in Cape Coast is absolutely beautiful, and the urbanism of the surrounding area is probable one of the best in all of Ghana. The site of the church, the design to take advantage of approaches, and the scales of buildings with relation to architectural hierarchy are all exemplary.

The negative of everything I've just said is, how much of it is "African?" Simply put, Boadua looks the way is does because it was never occupied by Europeans. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Not really. However, the recent trend of buildings in Ghana, and especially in Accra tend to be borderline generic reconstructions of bad, western, modern architecture, and if we want to build on what we started, we need to look at examples of places like Cape Coast... which is an improvement over places like Boadua.

Here is the monument in Accra at Independence Square. If anyone has ever seen the movie "Ali" with Wil Smith, this is where he's driven through as he sits on the back of the car with crowds lining the streets chanting his name. I show this image for one reason, we need more monuments in our cities which speak to the history of the place. Monuments become landmarks, and one thing Accra needs are better monuments. This monument is famous not because it is good, but because it lacks competition. We can do better.

Fort James, one of the slave castles of Ghana. What I'm hoping to do now is show images of documented buildings in Ghana, and in the future, begin to break these down into what makes it belong on the continent of Africa, and not Europe.... since they were mostly designed by the Portuguese and built by Ghanaians. Once again, I want to stress that this is not necessarily a bad thing. These are actually very good buildings. But something existed before the Portuguese had these buildings built. How much of what existed before found its way into these buildings? This is the question we need to find the answer to in order to establish what really defines African architecture.

Elmina Castle in Cape Coast, the most famous slave castle, perhaps in all of Africa. It may be argued that in c.1472, this may have been the first building on the continent of Africa designed by people not from Africa. The Castle was design by the Portuguese to be their strong hold on the "Gold Coast", the previous name of Ghana before we attained our independence from British rule in 1957.

I finally end with the Church of St. Catherine in Accra. This is the church where my parents were married on July 3rd, 1976. The simple, yet elegant design of this building has always made it a favorite of mine. Where it lacks in adornment, it makes up for it with skilled masonry. Buildings such as St. Catherine make me wonder what was used for precendent. It is undoubtedly a well proportioned, and thoughtful building, but is it African?

The common thread through my reflections of these places in Ghana is really what led me to initiate these discussions. What exactly is African architecture? What makes it African architecture? My hope is, through enough research to what came before, we can be informed of what led to buildings such as St. Catherine. Was it Elmina Castle, or something earlier? If we can distinguish between a Greek temple and a Roman temple, what would an African temple look like? We can begin to answer such questions once we're able to discern how much of the details in these buildings take their origins from the continent of Africa.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Urban Design Principles - A reconciliation of two eras

Assuming that we are to respect the notion of using African ancestoral historic precedents in the case of urban planning, just as we hope to do in the case of architecture proper, how do we go about reconciling these two eras - the ancient and relatively simple one from our ancestors' time, and the current one we live in, with all its complexities from the technological, social, environmental, and other transformations? In other words, are the urban planning principles from the era of our African ancestors transferable?

The above is a very legitimate question posed by Seo in response to my initial post. I believe the answer lies with a lot of very good places which have stood the test of time - managing to evolve with the rest of the world without losing sight of their historic past.

I will begin to sound like a broken record, but I will always be grateful for the years I spent abroad in Italy, Greece and Spain. Don't get me wrong, these places don't hold all the answers, but we must admit that the longevity of these countries as places of great physical historical content is a testament to which we can all learn from.

With that said, what we can learn from these places is the willingness to move forward without great disregard for the past in most cases. By that, I mean when one walks through the streets of any of these countries, you realize that not all streets are meant for cars. The historic streets (like Seo alludes to) were designed for other means of transportation, mainly foot traffic, and at the widest, horse drawn carriages. Roads were rarely ever strait because these animals did not really travel in strait lines. Streets are very narrow, buildings are dense, and this allows for the ability for a person to live a full daily life within a very tight travelling radius, sometimes as little as a 1/2 mile radius is all one needs to live a complete day in any of these countries.

As technology improves and automobiles become a necessity that needs to be dealt with, roads are built around the historical centers and new block patterns begin to develop which may be a little bit more spacious. The key to the new growth, however, is that they never stray too far from the original building patterns of their ancestors. The streets may be wider, and the buildings nicer with more ammenities, but the barber shop is still next to a butcher shop next to the hair dresser next to the grocer, and we all live above the shops. Thus, the 1/2 mile radius is all but intact.

I encourage people to look at plans of Rome, Siena, Pienza, Athens, Valenzia... and the list can go on and on.... to see how many strait and wide streets there are in these cities. We can not design as slaves to the car. The citizens should always come first, and cars should be thought of as what they were intended to be, a luxury to have, a pleasure to use, but not a dependant lifeline without which we can not function.

How does this relate to African cities? We need to declare and restore historical centers which indicate some of which our ancestors lived by. We need to recall the growth structures of how cities grew in Africa, with the automobile as a secondary, or tertiary thought, and most certainly not a primary dictator of how we should design our blocks. Most importantly, we need to use new technologies that we have afforded us now. However, we need to employ technology as a part of the design process, not as the overriding factor of design.

I sincerely believe that there's a reason why we look in travel brochures and decide to take vacations to places that look nothing like where we live, and because it looks interesting and has some historical value, and if we use the history of our African cities to our design advantage (and if there's one thing we have a lot of, it is history), we can begin to create cities of great interest which will begin to inform us all about not just our history, but also about a positive path towards a better future.

Hopefully some of what I've said makes sense and responds to the question posed by Seo. As always, I end with the statement that the opinions I offer are quite humble and I'm very open to other points of view, and I look forward to hearing what everyone else has to say.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

What makes a place?

Question - "Imagine the entire population of the earth just disappears, and there're absolutely no people left on earth. If an alien spaceship lands somewhere on earth, how will they know where on earth they are? How will they know they're in Venice, Barcelona, Rome, Egypt, Washington DC, or Kenya? In other words, how do our buildings inform others about our place on this planet?"

This is the question that drives me to define what is African Architecture and Urbanism, and my attempt to anwer this question is what has driven me to initiate this blog. The answer to my question may appear quite simple, but I merely ask that we take the time to examine the places we live and/ or have visited, and what can we take away from these places.

In my humble opinion, the answer is not as simple as determining the difference between St. Peter's Cathedral and the US Capitol Building. It's much more than that. I believe the answer lies in two basic architectural principles - proportion and detail.

Looking closely at buildings in different parts of the world, what seems to set them apart are the proportions of the massing, the proportions of the openings, and the choice in details. For architects who know what a "figure-ground" diagram is, look at figure ground diagrams of prominent buildings in different parts of the world. What begins to show through are distinct proportions of the openings. Greek openings seem slender and taller, Roman proportions are slightly wider, Spanish openings are wider still, American openings are wider and taller. These seem vague until graphic presentations are done to show what I mean, and this is something I intend to pursue.

Details of buildings are perhaps what defines the place. There are a number of details which come to mind when thinking of specific places. Athens and the low sloped roofs with accreterion on pediments. Venice with slender columns and moorish arches. Rome with the refinements of the classical orders and rounded arches. The US and colonial architecture to prairie style.

I believe all of these may seem like common knowledge, but the problem is that when it comes to African Architecture, we arrive at a total loss. The reason is quite simple, a lack of proper documentation and globalization. Allow me to explain: In thinking of African Architecture, one immediately thinks of Egypt and the Pyramids, and that is about where it ends. Being from Ghana, the first buildings we have documented are the castles built by the Portuguese in the late 15th century when they arrived on our shores. So now, when I need a precedent in order to design a new building in Ghana, what am I to look at?

The resolution to defining what is African Architecture and Urbanism begins with research. We need to find out what our ancestors were building, and how they lived in communion, before we can begin to design better places to live in our African Cities. Our architects in Africa, with no precedent to look at, simply look to poor western examples of architecture, and the result is, everything is beginning to look like everything. Why go to Rome if you can see the same thing much closer to home and for much cheaper. The reasons we go to Rome, Athens, Barcelona, Syndey, Washington DC, is because these places are different from where we live. Thus, there's no reason for African cities to copy these places. We need to decide what is African and build on that precedent.

These are my current thoughts, and I'm anxious to hear what others have to say. As we progress with the discussion, my intention will be to pose new questions which address this same issue of definining Africa, and the goal will be to finally begin discussions of how to resolve the mess we seem to have created for ouselves in our African cities.