International connections and local expertise combine at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology’s School of Architecture, Town Planning, and Building
A lush garden city in the Ghanaian rainforest, boasting a glorious past as capital of the Ashanti Confederacy, Kumasi is home to the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) and its 25,000 students. The institution is named after Ghana’s heroic moderniser, who led the former British colony to independence in 1957.
One year later the first students were enrolled in the School of Architecture, Town Planning and Building. Since then, unsympathetic refurbishment and accretions have compromised the coherence of the Modernist campus and time has taken the shine off many of its buildings which − like Ghana’s infrastructure − are showing signs of wear and tear.
Yet Ghana today, increasingly prominent on the world stage due to its burgeoning oil economy, provides a more complex context for architectural practice. Against this background George Intsiful, who heads the department, advocates pragmatism: ‘In an environment where, for example, power supply cannot be guaranteed for 24 hours a day, it is important for the future architect to be equipped to operate successfully in the face of all such difficulties.’
Being part of international debate is important to Intsiful, who plays a key role in the recently constituted ArchiAfrika Education Network, a partnership linking architecture schools across the continent. This network provides a counterpoint to validation, on a five-year cycle, by the long-established Commonwealth Association of Architects. Accreditation consolidates the school’s standing and gives graduates access to a worldwide arena for professional training. According to Intsiful, KNUST alumni are on the staff of reputable practices ‘in the UK, Europe, North America, and several other African countries’.
One of Intsiful’s former students, Emmanuel Nibo, now works as an architectural assistant while studying part-time for his RIBA Part 2 in London. Nibo suggests that KNUST’s emphasis on problem-solving anchored his understanding of architectural practice, an emphasis which he contrasts with the UK’s comparatively abstract and frenetic marketplace of educational ideas. ‘We did a lot of fieldwork, engaging with locals to inform our design solutions.’
In year two of the four-year undergraduate degree, students are billeted out to rural communities where they conduct a settlement survey and come up with proposals for public facilities based on an evaluation of local needs. For Intsiful, evaluating needs must go beyond simply economic and social analysis if it is to be meaningful.
It must be embedded in an architectural conceptualisation of the design response − an agenda in which the KNUST pedagogy prioritises three components: culture, climate and construction. Students are encouraged to consider cultural responses that draw on social consultation; climatic responses that work with rather than against the tropical environment; constructional responses that make use of locally available skills and materials.
Notwithstanding this acknowledgement of local conditions, the globalisation of ideas is evident in the choice of themes for the self-guided final year ‘thesis’ project. KNUST students select topics from the shopping list of trends and tendencies typical of any school, anywhere. What is notable is the effort to ground these concepts in Ghanaian realities.
One student, Kuukuwa Manful, aimed to intensify the Kumasi district of Bantama with an urban proposal combining commercial and public buildings including an IMAX cinema, a hotel, a retail promenade and a ceremonial palace for a traditional leader − the Chief of Bantama. She sought to extract essential characteristics of Ashanti identity from indigenous vernacular architecture, using the resulting vocabulary of forms and materials as the basis for an emphatically hybrid idiom. Outdoor ‘cinepods’ are made of basket-weave bamboo; the IMAX is shaped like a giant gourd.
Other projects address similarly perennial themes. Emmanuel Ofori-Sarpong proposed a research facility in the arid north of Ghana devoted to the study of biodiversity and the natural world. The scheme is a study in ‘biomimicry’: a neologism celebrating the forms and patterns
in plants and organic processes. Interconnecting domes and vaults, made of layered clay tiles, rely on thermal mass to stabilise internal temperatures.
A third project, located in Kumasi, investigates whether architecture can support wellbeing and promote healing. Emphasising ‘care’ rather than ‘cure’, Marian Petison’s cancer treatment and research centre critiques the way that terminal disease is conventionally treated as a medical problem alone. Instead of the clinical environments associated with illness, courtyard gardens and water bodies offer serene outdoor spaces, places to recover, to relax, or to spend precious time with relatives.