black liberation: Africa’s modernism

essay for BA Architecture at Central Saint Martins

Senegal gained independence in 1958, with Kenya joining them 5 years later. Independent Africa is often associated to its heroes and the literal process of decolonisation (violence, political turmoil) and less so in terms of its post-colonial and pre-colonial architecture. Could the current new creation of national identity through architecture be viewed as heavy influence from the Western world? Or is this a necessary byproduct of globalisation that might ultimately propel African societies forward. In this essay I will be looking at Dakar International Fair Grounds (structure A) located in Dakar, Senegal alongside Kenyatta International Conference Centre (structure B) located in Nairobi, Kenya alongside delving into indigenous African architecture.

The making of cities was an element of European colonialism in Africa, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; these newly constructed cities were not only environments for economic, administrative and military activities of French and British African colonies (Senegal and Kenya) but also the principal sites of interaction between colonial authorities, “other” settlers and indigenous Africans1. As the spaces of colonial power and society began to melt together; I believe colonial cities became almost like a testing ground for the physical, spatial and visual implementation of ‘outsider’ colonial ideologies. In other words, the cultural theories of assimilation and association that influenced French/British conceptions and practices of colonial power were pressed into Africa’s urban landscape.

It would have been extremely interesting to see the urban traditions that existed on the continent prior to European conquest. With that being said, to what extent are structures A and B modernistic projects that actually reflect the essence of pre-colonial Africa (in some way shape or form) or rather vanity projects initiated by authoritarian policies that some how seem to perform colonisation all over again. Either way their existence allows us to discover the climate of Africa right now alongside the complexities of independence.

Structure A was a product of a particularly prominent time of modernist and forward-thinking architecture in the region, with many African nations exploring and asserting their identities through the built environment. Schools to five-star hotels to international conference centres and fairgrounds, after independence was an electric time for Senegal and many other countries architecturally. Picture C The differences in architectural character in structure A are even more strikingly revealing when it comes to political factors, where the design of buildings says much about the character of the government being forged following independence. Senegal’s first President Léopold Sédar Senghor could be seen as using architecture as part of a wider cultural expression of his country’s independence by attempting to create a culture of design and aesthetics. The movement focused on distinct African values and qualities in art and culture in an effort to take back the cultural authority from former French and British powers. The types of construction projects undertaken in Senegal, specifically Dakar, to a certain extent reflect this vision of a clear Senegalese/African identity that ends up being promoted to the world. Structure A is one example where the project reflects the history and tradition of Senegalese architecture in a strikingly modern and outward-looking way. Located in Dakar, the capital and largest city of the Independent Republic of Senegal, structure A is strategically located in the downtown core of the city, surrounded by an assorted urban fabric, in which informal and formal constructions, and low, mid and high income communities co-exist. Designed in the early seventies by two French architects, Jean-François Lamoureux and Jean-Louis Marin, it was commissioned by the first president, a poet-politician and one of the of the Negritude movement2. The architects went about extracting from the vernacular of cultural and social characteristics of the Senegalese people in order to integrate them into structure A’s modernist designs.

Structure A is described as the product of ‘play’; where underdeveloped Africa was a canvas for ideas as the continent “experienced a period of unprecedented development and aptitude”3 resulting in leaders supposedly feeling inclined to make their country the prominent giant within the continent. The architects of structure A said “the idea was to create forms that would pop from the ground, a sort of symbolic notion for the country now 16 years of age, almost completing the teen years and onto adulthood”4 The physical structure itself comprises four main sections; the Senegal pavilion, functioning as the entry hall; seven regional pavilions, used for exhibitions; exposition halls surrounding the main pavilion; and, the congress centre, which consists of the conference hall and offices. In addition to that, the building possesses dramatic floor to ceiling perforated screens complement the external corrugated roofs and paths between buildings are adorned with ramps and terrain difference. Critics claim “the building asserts itself on the culture and identity of the country and has been said to always be seeking of a reclaim cultural authority from former colonial powers” 5 (whether that is successful or not is a tough route to navigate). However, it is often hard to pinpoint what actually is African architecture, it could be argued that African modernist projects are little known (and) studied. Structure A and B alongside similar structures could be (and probably are) despised by the local population who perceives them as large, unfriendly concrete giants, whose architectural vocabulary remains associated with colonialism, echoing a not too distant painful era, even in 2021. Left to be investigated are these building’s complex historic, political, social and economic contexts, the current state of their architecture, and the possible futures and assets they hold for the current needs of citizens.

Picture D

Nairobi has an important architectural fabric that is rich in cultural, artistic, architectural and religious significance, undoubtedly influenced by foreigners. It could be argued that the political aid that accompanies these foreign influences has resulted in an architecture that expresses imported aspirations and values, as evidenced in the city’s buildings. These buildings are heavily influenced by colonial features which are then modified by local culture, climate, tradition, materials and technology.

For obvious reasons, many project commissioners preferred to avoid former colonial powers when employing architects and opted for designers from countries perceived as untainted by history, such as the Scandinavian countries, Israel and nations of the non-aligned movement such as Serbia. However, critics comment: “No matter where the architects came from, if they came from foreign countries, there was always a political dimension. The political did not always overshadow other influences, but it was always a factor.”6 The turn towards Scandinavian architects can be seen in structure B, designed by the Norwegian Karl Henrik Nøstvik. A striking tower which is regarded by many Kenyans as a powerful symbol of the country’s independence and international outlook, the Conference Centre was the tallest structure in Nairobi when built and still remains one of the most iconic and imposing structures on the cityscape. Nøstvik incorporated many of the recognisable features of Scandinavian modern design but he did so in a way that also adapted his style to the society and climate in which he was building.

Picture E

A light terracotta on the external façade is an expression of traditional Kenyan architectural style, while the use of geometric shapes could be seen as coming straight from his Scandinavian roots. Cylinders, cones and cuboids are intricately interwoven to create a sense of a country building its future. In terms of the climate, Nøstvik ensured the building incorporated both inside and outside space, featuring a courtyard with pools, fountains, gardens and a statue of Jomo Kenyatta, the first President of Kenya, whose influence was key to the building of the centre and indeed to Kenyan post-independence identity.

The authors of African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence explain that “relatively few black African architects had been trained by the early-independence period, so the primary architects of the period were European and Israeli.”7 These architects had experience of building in a hot sunny climate and were seen coming from nations that have experienced a fight for independence from colonial power. Many of the architects came from the former colonial powers but there were also many Scandinavian architects. Even when European architects were commissioned, it was not a case of remote architects designing standardised buildings to be imposed upon African cities.

African architecture before colonialism

The (British) colonisation of the continent began around 1870-1880. And only until then the Western world accorded no place in its architectural landscape. The subject of African architecture was, and indeed still is among many, not considered worthy of recognition.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the widest diversity and range of physical settings. By extension, the architectural forms created on its landscape are equally diverse and complex. The physical attributes of African architecture (in relation to climate) were floors raised high off the ground on platforms to catch the ocean breezes, rectangular buildings found in the rainforest areas for easy adaptation to a cardinal orientation, more suited for the use of cross breezes.

The vast differences in climate also results in differences in light intensity. The tropical forests cover acts as a light filter, dulling the rays of the sun, filtering them into a play of deep shadows so that the sharp corners of rectangular forms are less disturbing to the eye8. Towering forest growth, emerging from the tropical undergrowth, also modifies the heat. Climate conditions the growth of vegetation with the natural resources of building materials. Along the coast of the rain forests, the availability of palm and bamboo dictates the rectangular, carpentered building forms. Trees grow straight and tall, lending their branches for easy alignment that help form Picture F straight vertical and horizontal elements.

The discussion regarding African architecture and how it presents itself is ever-going. I believe conversations that are being held, whether that is online or through education, has touched only briefly on a few of the aspects underlying African architecture. I also believe it is right to question whether the traditional essence which has been recorded is applicable to contemporary architecture in Africa. A number of illustrations could be shown demonstrating that yes, while environments have changed in recent decades, the underlying cultural format continues. As mentioned earlier regarding Dakar and Nairobi, there is driving force that prompts African leaders to erect monumental structures symbolising the newly born viability of African states after independence. Presidential palaces at Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and Aburi, Ghana9 alongside the transformation of Christiansbourg Castle into the seat of Ghana government10, or the Emir's palaces in the Hausa capitals of northern Nigeria11, is no more than a political expression of the acknowledged symbolic role which architecture plays in reinforcing political and social structure.

Norberg-Schulz has suggested that basic to all building, traditional and contemporary, is man's need to establish a meaningful, coherent, and stable image of architectural space, space with which he can identify and relate to, define his existence, and thus remain human.12 The concepts of centre, boundary, path, direction, area, and domain are not only unique to Africa; they exist equally as well in the Western world and other advanced societies all over the globe. What is unique to Africa are the ways in which these concepts ultimately manifest themselves.


Decolonisation is not a simple subject and even its most basic points are a matter of passionate ideological debate. What is agreed is that independence is not a clear matter of super-strict binary opposites: a colonial possession does not become a fully autonomous state with the raising of a new flag. Independence is a process of negotiated detachment. It could even be argued that independence is still taking place, violent and fierce-spirited acts that are individual and worldwide, resulting in unimaginable beautiful outcomes. Picture G


1: Fourchard, L., 2011. Between world history and state formation: new perspectives on Africa's cities. The Journal of African History, pp.223-248.

2: Thompson, P., 2002. Negritude and a new Africa: An update. Research in African Literatures, 33(4), pp.143-153.

3: Clark, A.F., 1999. Imperialism, independence, and Islam in Senegal and Mali. Africa Today, pp.149-167

4: Seda, E., 2015. Datum Antique: Jean Francois Lamoureux and Jean-Louis Marin's Dakar International Fair Grounds. Archi Datum, <>

Hertz,M., 2019. The forgotten masterpieces of African modernism. The Guardian, <https://>

Herd,C., 2018. Liberating Constructions: A new exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil Am Rhein, Germany, explores the boom in modernist architecture in Africa following independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Aesthetica Magazine, <>

Herz, M., Focketyn, H., Schröder, I., Jamrozik, J., Baan, I. and Webster, A., 2015. African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence: Ghana, Senegal, Côte D'Ivoire, Kenya, Zambia.

Prussin, L., 1974. An introduction to indigenous African architecture. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 33(3), pp.183-205.

9: Prussin, L., 1974. An introduction to indigenous African architecture. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 33(3), pp.11-200.

10: Elling, C., 2021. Christiansborg-interiører. Lindhardt og Ringhof.

11: Egila, J.N., Ibrahim, E.G. and Ibrahim, M.A.G., 2013. Speciation of selected trace metals in soil samples from dumpsites in Lafia, Nasarawa State, Nigeria. Journal of Science and Multidisciplinary Research, 5(2), pp.63-73.

12: Nivala, J., 1996. Saving the Spirit of Our Places: A View on Our Built Environment. UCLA J. Envtl. L. & Pol'y, 15, p.1.

Pictures (referenced but unavailable)

C: © Datum Antique Jean Francois Lamoureux and Jean-Louis Marin's FIDAK Dakar Exhibition Centre Benches Blue. Available at: <> (Accessed 20th March 2021). D: © Datum Antique Jean Francois Lamoureux and Jean-Louis Marin's FIDAK Dakar Exhibition Centre Benches Blue. Available at: <> (Accessed 20th March 2021). E: Kenyatta International Centre, Available at: <> (Accessed 20th March 2021) F: A recently constructed Bozo saho or boys' age-set house, JSTOR, (Accessed 24th March 2021) G: Fists in the air, attendees smile at the Revolutionary People's Party Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia, September 1970. Photo: David Fenton, Available at: <> (Accessed 25th March 2021)