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African Modernism: Nation Building

Africanmodernismindex

As countries in Africa gained their independence, modernist architecture attempted to express their new identities

In the late 1950s and the early ’60s most countries of Sub-Saharan Africa gained their independence. Architecture became one of the principal means for the young nations to express their national identity. Parliament buildings, central banks, stadia, conference centres, universities and independence memorials were constructed, often featuring heroic and daring designs.

Modern and futuristic architecture mirrored the aspirations and forward-looking spirit dominant at that time. A coinciding period of economic boom made elaborate construction methods possible, while the tropical climate allowed for an architecture that blended the inside and outside, focused on form and the expression of materiality.

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Nairobi 14 03 1124

Proud symbol of a young country: Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC), Nairobi, Kenya, 1973, designed by David Mutiso with Karl Henrik Nøstvik

At the same time, this architecture also shows the difficulties, contradictions and dilemmas that the countries experienced in their independence process: in most cases, the architects were not local, but came from countries such as Poland, Yugoslavia, the Scandinavian nations, Israel, or even from the former colonial powers. So could the formation of a new national identity through architecture be described as a projection from the outside? Or does the international dimension rather represent the aspirations of the countries aiming for a cosmopolitan culture? To what extent are these projects Modernist grands projets that propel a country forward or, instead, vanity projects initiated by authoritarian policies? 

Three towers stand pars pro toto for a series of architectural projects that attempt to push the young nations forward, and to actively participate in a nation-building process. Instead of seeing them just as a result of an economic or political decision, we can observe how the buildings themselves became actors in this process. 

On 24 September 1973 Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta and World Bank President Robert McNamara opened the annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank Group in Nairobi. It was the first time a meeting between the two main global financial institutions, part of the United Nations, would take place on the African continent. Over four days almost 3,000 delegates from 126 nations would pack the various halls of the just completed Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC). Soaring 28 floors, the KICC was by far the tallest structure in Nairobi and, at the time of its completion, the tallest in Africa outside of South Africa. With its large convention hall (‘The Planary’) and its circular amphitheatre, it was perfectly suited to bringing the world to Nairobi, just 10 years after Kenya gained independence in 1963 – a proud symbol for a young country to connect with a global league of nations. 

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Nairobi 14 03 1397

Amphitheatre of the KICC

Image by Iwan Baan

Initially, the KICC was not planned to be the tallest building, nor to host international conferences. In fact, it was originally to be the headquarters of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), which was the main – and later only – political party of the post-independence era. In 1967, Kenyatta approached the Ministry of Works with the task of designing and building a new headquarters of his political party in the central business district of Nairobi. For the project, David Mutiso, head architect within the Ministry, recommended one of his employees, Karl Henrik Nøstvik, who had recently arrived from Norway, as his most talented planner. Nøstvik had come to Kenya on an assignment funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. Influenced by the dynamic spirit of the early 1960s with several African countries gaining independence and a continent opening up for opportunities, he had left his job in Oslo to move to Nairobi.

Nøstvik’s preliminary designs for the building included a short tower of 13 floors, rectangular plinth and small auditorium. The design concept was based on a flower with the open and closed blossoms represented by the top of the tower and auditorium building respectively. In the midst of the design process, the World Bank and IMF decided that they would host their 1973 annual global meeting in Nairobi, underlining the continent’s importance in global consciousness at the time. Nøstvik reworked his design, almost tripling the height of the tower to 32 floors, enlarging the plinth and considerably expanding the auditorium to host major international events. Instead of the KANU headquarters it became the KICC. From a building of previously national importance for a political party, it became a complex of international scope.

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Nairobi 14 03 1303

The lobby of the KICC – once the tallest building in Sub-Sarahan Africa outside of South Africa – was completed in time to host a meeting of the IMF and World Bank Group

Image by Iwan Baan

Nøstvik developed an architectural language regarding massing and volume as well as the scale of building elements through brise-soleil, canopies and atria. The plinth consists of two main levels and is L-shaped in plan. Multiple stairs and ramps negotiate the exterior piazza with both floors on the outside shaded by cantilevers and exterior galleries made of exposed concrete. Lush greenery seems to be growing off the facades and cantilevers, reaching down into large water ponds and fountains. The interior of the main plinth consists of multiple cascading stairs and platforms on various levels seemingly crisscrossing each other. A strong sense of robustness pervades an almost Escherian space treated with a beautiful combination of raw exposed concrete and dark-red wood. The eastern wing of the plinth contains the voluminous double-height Planary, used for trade shows and large conferences.

The tower itself is a 16-sided polygon in plan. Precast concrete elements, which act as balustrades and sun-shading panels, are suspended in front of the windows, supported by beams projecting from the volume of the tower. This results in a striped pattern that, with the large and protruding petal-like elements at its top, gives the tower a distinct and sculptural expression.

Lusaka 14 07 2445

Lusaka 14 07 2445

FINDECO House, Lusaka, Zambia

Dušan Milenković and Branimir Ganovic, 1977

The amphitheatre, the KICC’s main assembly hall, is contained within the flower-like building cantilevering daringly above and across the southern wing of the plinth. Light falls over a height of more than 20 metres through a central skylight and reflects across myriad wooden leaves and over several levels of balconies and terraced seating, giving the space an aura of majestic importance. It exudes a sense of pride, of a country, finally independent, meeting other nations at eye level.

Having attracted the World Bank and the IMF to Nairobi for a conference was significant for the nation’s capital. Eventually though, the building’s importance for the nation proved to go much further. Simultaneously to the IMF and World Bank meeting, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – one of the UN’s main sub-organisations – opened offices in the KICC. Subsequently the headquarters of UNEP was based in the building. The following year the Kenyan government gifted a large piece of land in the Gigiri neighbourhood of the capital to the UN, which began building a complex there. The campus would grow to house the headquarters of UNEP and UN – Habitat (established 1978), as well as several regional headquarters of UN sub-organisations. Nairobi had become one of the four capital cities of the UN and would now always be mentioned together with New York, Geneva and Vienna.

Today, more than 40 years later and no longer the tallest building, even in Nairobi, the KICC remains the iconic masterpiece it already symbolised at the time of its completion. The building is cherished by the Kenyan population, which is evident through the large number of local tour groups and school classes that come to pay homage to it, and the good condition in which the building still finds itself. Its various meeting halls and conference spaces remain much used for everything from Sunday services of Pentecostal churches and a plethora of trade shows, to international meetings such as the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) – thereby still bringing the world to Nairobi.

But the world to which Kenya connected with the KICC was, to a certain extent, skewed to the Western world and the capitalist countries. Even though formally part of the Non-Aligned Movement, representing a supposedly neutral path between the two superpowers, it sought close ties to the UK, the United States and other European countries during the Cold War. Other countries on the continent, such as Zambia, followed a different political and ideological path, which also became visible in their architecture.

Since the 1930s Zambia has been a mining country and one of the main exporters of copper in the world. At the time of its independence in 1964, Zambia had the strongest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of South Africa), with a GDP per capita similar to that of Portugal. Even after independence, the main mines, as well as its banks and insurance companies, were still owned by foreign investors, mainly based in the United States, the UK and South Africa. Zambia had obtained formal independence, but saw that its key economies were still controlled by outside interests so in 1968 its president, Kenneth Kaunda, decided to pursue a policy of nationalisation. Seen as a slap in the face to the Western world, and much to the fury of their British and American investors, ownership of most of the mines, banks and insurance companies was transferred to the Zambian state. The three new state companies – INDECO (Industrial Development Corporation), MINDECO (Mining Development Corporation), and FINDECO (Financial and Development Corporation) – needed new headquarters, and hence new buildings.

With its independence, Zambia also became a member of the Non-Aligned Movement. Unlike Kenya though, Zambia took a central role in the shaping of that union by hosting the third summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in its capital Lusaka in 1970, with Kenneth Kaunda becoming its secretary general in the same year. Having angered Britain and the United States, it is maybe no surprise that new economical links were sought with countries that were also central to the Non-Aligned Movement, most prominently Yugoslavia, one of its founding nations. In 1971 planning began for the FINDECO headquarters, which was to be strategically located on the southern stretch of Cairo Road, Lusaka’s main axis in its central business district. Dušan Milenković and Branimir Ganovic, the Yugoslavian architects, had previously been involved in projects in Belgrade, among them the Ušće Tower housing the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia.

The FINDECO building consists of a three-storey plinth and a tower that is split into two sections: a 15-storey main body, topped by another three floors separated from the main body by a gap. The plinth contains parking on the ground floor and features an elevated shopping zone that is connected to the street level by a number of stairs. Its main entrance is not on Cairo Road but on the southern side, as at the time of its design, a masterplan by Constantinos Doxiadis foresaw that the bridge over the train tracks would be dismantled (and the train station moved out of town) and the south side would receive a new entrance court. Never implemented, the entrance is now inconveniently wedged between the car park and the bridge approach. The floors of the tower are suspended between the concrete core and steel columns along the exterior facade, which themselves are supported by a strong sculptural concrete cantilever below both tower sections, giving the building its striking form. The facade features fixed windows (as the whole building is fully air conditioned) and ionised aluminium panels that shimmer in a greenish-golden hue.

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Lusaka 14 07 2612

FINDECO House, Lusaka, Zambia

Dušan Milenković and Branimir Ganovic, 1977

FINDECO House is one of the most distinctive buildings along Cairo Road. It is a vertical icon among the otherwise very horizontal fabric of the city. Not only does it mark the southern end of downtown Lusaka, it also marks the end of Zambia’s economic boom period. At its completion in 1977, the country fell into a major recession from which it took more than 25 years to recover.

Cairo Road is not named as such for reasons of camaraderie or partnership between Zambia’s and Egypt’s capital cities. Its name has a very different origin and references Cecil Rhodes’ dream of completing a zone of British rule on the African continent that would run from the very south to the very north. It would physically manifest itself through a continuous road linking Cape Town to Cairo, more than 10,000km in length. The main artery of Lusaka’s central business district is part of that Cape to Cairo road. It is hence the colonial planning project par excellence. What could a newly independent nation do with this charged colonial inheritance? Should it rename the road or develop a new centre at a different location so the old colonial axis would diminish in importance? Independent Zambia decided on a very different approach: Cairo Road remained the focus of economic and commercial development but the colonial hubs of power would, over time, be replaced and supplanted by new national institutions. Instead of seeking a new centre it favoured an approach of grinding away colonial presence and replacing it with symbols of independence. 

The headquarters of the Professional Insurance Corporation Zambia was constructed along Cairo Road, as was the seat for the new Bank of Zambia. Commercial investment projects such as Profund House, which came to accommodate the national revenue authorities, were built, as were the high-rise towers of the main institutions that were created through the nationalisation of key industries, INDECO House and FINDECO House – all of them using expressive and contemporary architecture of the 1960s and ’70s. But beyond the architectural value of the individual buildings, one of the biggest achievements has been to turn a colonial project into a project of decolonisation.

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Abidjan 13 10 3604

Hôtel Ivoire, Abidjan, Ivory Coast

Moshe Mayer with Heinz Fenchel and Thomas Leitersdorf, 1963-70

FINDECO House has seen a mixed fortune since its completion. It remains Zambia’s tallest building, which is less a sign of the tower’s uniqueness than an indicator of the rapid decline of the economy and how little was built after its completion. Struggling through considerable hardship and enormous debts in the 1980s and ’90s, due to a major fall in global commodity prices, the Zambian state decided to partially privatise and close its parastatal companies, FINDECO among them. 

The building has kept its name, but has since then been occupied by a large range of vastly different tenants, ranging from the ubiquitous Pentecostal churches that are using previous office spaces for dramatic church services, to small private colleges, to radio stations. More recently, the current owners of the building, the National Housing Authority, had trouble paying for water and electricity services, resulting in the building going for days without running water. There has been repeated talk of renovation and redevelopment of the tower but, so far, the building remains in a state of stagnation.

‘Luxury hotels are a key ingredient in the process of nation building, drawing celebrities, businesspeople and politicians from around the world’

While Zambia was building high-rises for its nationalised industries, in Abidjan – the economic hub and then-capital of the Ivory Coast – a very different kind of tower project was being developed, namely, a hotel. While that programme sounds slightly underwhelming in contrast to the more heroic seeming functions of national or even international importance in Lusaka and Nairobi, it was hardly so. Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s first president, understood that luxury hotels represent a key ingredient in the process of nation building. Not only do they open the country for a growing international tourist market, they also provide the possibility of hosting businesspeople and important politicians from all over the world, with the infrastructure to hold international conferences and meetings, and communicate an image of success and glamour to the Western world. Consequently, one of the first projects Houphouët-Boigny initiated after independence was the construction of one of the most luxurious hotels in all of Western Africa, if not the whole continent – the Hôtel Ivoire.

He commissioned Israeli architect and developer, Moshe Mayer, who designed the project with Israeli architects Heinz Fenchel and Thomas Leitersdorf and Californian architect William Pereira. Located near several embassies in the upmarket neighbourhood of Cocody, the hotel overlooks the lagoon with a view towards Abidjan’s central district, Le Plateau. Developed in three stages, the first phase saw the construction of a two-storey plinth building containing a lobby, restaurant and other general functions. Resting on that plinth was a 13-storey volume to house approximately 200 rooms. In the late 1960s, a 25-storey tower was added, offering sweeping views over the region and containing an additional 200 rooms as well as meeting and conference spaces on the top floors. In a third phase, a conference centre was added to the large open piazza at the foot of the tower. The hotel features a gigantic swimming pool – aptly named ‘Le Lac’ (‘The Lake’) – which is 250m in length and covers an area of more than 7,500m2. There are several bars and restaurants along the pool, and the complex includes a casino and the country’s first ice rink, although this has been non-operational for years.

Abidjan 13 10 3622

Abidjan 13 10 3622

Hôtel Ivoire, Abidjan, Ivory Coast

Moshe Mayer with Heinz Fenchel and Thomas Leitersdorf, 1963-70

The Hôtel Ivoire indeed fulfilled the hopes of the president and became a glamorous destination for tourists, politicians, businesspeople and stars from the film and music industries. Fancy parties were held, fashion shows and beauty pageants staged, and musicians from all over the world performed concerts. Weddings of the rich and famous from West Africa were celebrated in its halls; Hollywood stars and other international celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Mohammed Ali stayed in its suites. 

Towards the end of the ’80s the ‘Ivorian Miracle’, the economic boom that underlay this development, came to an end. In the late ’90s the country descended into a period of internal conflict. Though no longer operating as a hotel, the Hôtel Ivoire, and especially its tower, remained an important player in the country’s dynamics. In the early 2000s it became the base for the militia group Jeunes Patriotes and was in 2004 taken over by French UN troops, both of which understood the strategic advantage that occupying the tower would lend them in controlling large swathes of the urban fabric of Abidjan. When on 9 November 2004 Ivorian demonstrators amassed around the hotel to protest against the presence of French troops in their country, snipers from the French unit, positioned in the tower, shot and killed as many as 20 demonstrators. Far from being a simple piece of architectural infrastructure, the Hôtel Ivoire itself became an actor and part of the machinery of urban conflict. In 2011, under the management of Sofitel, it re-opened with much fanfare almost 50 years after its inauguration. Since then it has enjoyed a renaissance as one of the prime luxury hotels of West Africa.

Kenya, Zambia and Ivory Coast – as other nations of Sub-Saharan Africa – chose very different trajectories. By telling the stories of these three towers, we start to understand the conflicts, contradictions and complexities of this process of decolonisation, and understand the specificities of how different this process was for each of the countries following independence.