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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.


Mazlin said...

I have to excuse myself for not being African, of never having been there, and of having only very superficial knowledge of it, gained mainly from Western commentators rather than the people who actually belong there.

I am from Malaysia, in South East Asia, another region that was once colonized. Here, as in Africa, many people in the rural areas live in old homes that constantly need upkeep, that have inadequate infrastructure and services that they have to spend an inordinate amount of effort to access simple things like water and schooling. The low quality of life coupled to insufficient economic opportunity cause many to be discontented with their surroundings. That's why young people migrate to the cities.

We have more than our fair share of mega projects and monuments in my country but they don't really address the chief concerns of ordinary people. They are nice to look at but can be burden.

Very often, planners dwell too much on the consumption aspects the city – its liveability, aesthetics and monuments. But I am rather influenced by Jane Jacobs ‘the Economy of Cities' ideas on how cities can become generators of wealth.

Like you, I have thought about architectural and national identity, and the conclusion I come to is that national identity ultimately comes from its people rather than the bricks and mortar. The buildings and their decorative details are indeed interesting, but the history of the people who built and lived in them is not only more fascinating, but also tells a more complete story.

In my opinion,the movement for a national (or regional) identity in urbanism and architecture ought to start first with the people, to try to formulate their concerns and aspirations. And then, after that: to work out the best way to meet the challenges. If the search for the solution includes the parameters specific to the people and to the place, a unique identity will be naturally follow.

Good luck in your quest for African Architecture!

nandoh said...

First of, no need to excuse yourself for not being African or an architect to comment on this blog. The point is to get people of similar mindsets to contribute to the discussion.

With that said, Mazlin's comments are very interesting and intriguing, although I think it poses some conflicting messages which I hope to address. In the end, I believe we're saying the same thing and have the same objectives, but we seem to approach it in different ways.

The first point Mazlin makes is that people live with inadequate infrastructure, resources, and services, living in old homes which need constant upkeep, and require great effort to access such things as water and schools. However, these needs are neglected by planners in favor of liveability, aesthetics, and monuments.

I couldn't agree more with this point. As I've been stating in my previous comments, before anything can be designed, we need to research. I strongly believe that our ancestors were able to live very simple lives with the required ammenities of their time, with everything they needed within easy access.

Also, as Seo pointed out, what if the research proves that what exists now is a direct result of how our ancestors lived and built? My response to that question (if you care to look at the earlier comments) was to look at working examples of places we've been, seen, or heard about that we think are successful.

However, the second point that Mazlin makes makes is one that I would contend with. Mazlin comments that "national identity comes from the people rather than the bricks and mortar." He goes on to say that "the movement for a national identity in urbanism and architecture ought to start with the people....".

In my humble opinion, a national identity is as much about the bricks and mortar as it is about the people. I made mention of research and the possibility of using existing places as precedent should the research reveal an exercise of mediocrity. The point is, how do we revise the precedents we chose to define its new location and occupants? It's all about national identity. Without it, all we need is one good precedent and the rest of the world could follow suit and every place would begin to look the same.

The essential point here is that the buildings are the physical footprints we leave behind to tell our stories after we're long gone. Thus, the Greeks are able to identify with the Acropolis, the Romans can identify with the Ancient Forums, the Egyptians can identify with their monuments, and American can identify with Washington DC. The buildings tell us as much about the places as they do about the people who built them, and it is this combination which helps define a national identity.

Thus, I do believe that Mazlin has a very valid point in that we as architects and planners need to determine what the needs of the people are before we design using our egos as a guiding force. I would however disagree with the point that bricks and mortar don't play as important of a role in determining a national identity. In that point, I would contend that we need to place equal importance on the built environment as well as the citizens when it comes to defining a national identity.

Once again, I look forward to hearing what others have to say. Thanks again to Mazlin for bringing along this very important discussion, and my comments were in no way meant to undermine what he said, but rather to provide add my personal thoughts on the subject.