Abundant concrete, stark lines and monumental scale: the buildings pictured here bring to mind the masterpieces of Soviet modernism, or else the African avant-garde of post-independence Ghana, Kenya or Ivory Coast. Yet these otherworldly structures were the products of Portuguese architects in colonial Angola; they capture the spirit of a country and a population on the brink of emancipation but beholden to foreign power, simultaneously at one with and adrift from international trends.
In 2011 Portuguese writer and director Miguel Hurst initiated the Archive of Historical Cinemas in Africa project with the aim of highlighting this ailing branch of African urbanism. In the years since he has worked with photographer Walter Fernandes in Angola, documenting the nation’s remarkable cinematic architectural heritage, trying to understand how, in Hurst’s words, “Angolans lived, and how they can live again.”
Hurst’s and Fernandes’ work offers an uncanny glimpse into both the country’s real, lived past and the future as it was imagined in the febrile intellectual atmosphere of the late colonial period.
The irony for Angola was that the shadow image of political and cultural freedom that these cinemas afforded was not carried into the post-colonial period
In response to the independence movements sweeping Africa from the 1950s onwards, says Hurst, “the Portuguese regime made plans to reorganise their colonial cities, with the integration of all sectors of society as the principal factor. So building cinemas meant the construction of public spaces for the mingling of the heterogenous communities.” An agglomeration of Tropical and Brazilian Modernisms with European styles inherited from the likes of Le Corbusier was imported into the Angolan urban environment. “The introduction of light and air, the creation of shadows and natural ventilation of the buildings were some of the typical references,” Hurst says. “The evolution of Angolan architecture from the ‘30s to the ‘70s followed the logic from closed to open spaces.”
This opening up of space was, though, a symbolic gesture. Whilst the cinemas were designed as public spaces, in reality this was a colonial architecture intended to recall political upheaval elsewhere, as well as the Soviet Union’s Cold War role as cheerleader for African independence. Hurst says: “Angolan modernism was born under the colonial umbrella. In the rest of the continent – Ghana, Kenya, Ivory Coast – modernism was largely an African decision. That makes a very big difference. Maybe not in terms of logic or the material used, but in design and philosophy.”
“The architects came from Portugal. There were no schools in Angola. It was the schools of Lisbon and Porto that built Angola until independence in 1975.”
The irony for Angola was that the shadow image of political and cultural freedom that these cinemas afforded was not carried into the post-colonial period. From 1975 until 2002, the country was torn apart by civil war, as former independence movements and American and Soviet interests collided following the withdrawal of the Portuguese. At best, these cinemas screen propaganda films produced by this side or the other; from 1992 until the 2000s, however, not a single film was produced in the country. Hurst describes the situation today as “the struggle to reconstruct a ‘what might have been’ industry.”
But this also allows for hope that the mixed message of freedom and community that the cinemas initially carried might be resurrected: that, as Hurst says, the current climate of reconstruction and preservation of architectural gems might lead once again to “the creation of a modern Angolan identity.”