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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.