Red Africa
Building blocs
How Ghana’s architecture was reimagined with a little help from communist Europe

The imperial presence was for African colonies not just a political or economic matter. In the post-war years, European architects and planners were keen to realise their projects on the supposed blank slate of the colony. So keen in fact that, in the words of art historian Bernd M. Scherer, “colonial Africa was transformed into a laboratory for Western modernity.”

The most visible trace of their presence today is in the buildings belonging to the architectural school known as Tropical Modernism. Matching fashionable concrete minimalism to local climatic conditions — balconies, cantilevered windows and open-plan interiors were all common — architects such as Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew were enthusiastic and optimistic proponents of this architecture “gone native” in the 1950s. In Ghana (then the Gold Coast), Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Gambia versions of the same metropolitan design sprung up.

Only when those countries secured independence did styles begin to truly diverge. And this was also when Ghana came to occupy a unique place in African architecture.

The country’s first post-independence leader was Kwame Nkrumah, a Pan-Africanist and “scientific socialist” whose state-building campaigns against tribalism, large-scale industrial projects and alliances with eastern bloc states shaped the landscape of cities like Accra in the early 1960s. Nkrumah’s aim was ambitious: in his own words, “to remould African society in such a way that the humanism of traditional African life reasserts itself in a modern technical community.” Inheriting a state without its own home-grown architects and planners, he turned to the likes of Poland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, the GDR and the Soviet Union for assistance, bringing eastern Europe to West Africa.

The GNCC realised health, transport, and industrial facilities according to designs delivered by Czechoslovakia, the GDR, Hungary, and Poland

Dr Łukasz Stanek, a lecturer in architecture at the University of Manchester who leads a research project on the work of architects from socialist countries in West Africa and the Middle East during the Cold War, and has travelled in Ghana and Europe photographing extant examples of modern architecture, argues that these international collaborations highlight an underexplored thread in architectural history. Throughout the post-war world, states were engaged in mass urbanisation and large-scale modernisation programs. But the Cold War divide has meant that since 1989, certain brands of this “modernity” have come to be seen as uncomplicatedly dominant. Commonplace understandings of “globalisation” as the export of Western culture ignore what Stanek calls “competing networks of world-wide cooperation and solidarity”: how, for instance, Polish, Bulgarian, Yugoslav, Soviet and Ghanaian experts worked side by side.

Under the auspices of the state planning department, the Ghana National Construction Corporation (GNCC), much was undertaken: from housing for poor workers to damming the Volta River, from hospitals and railways to government buildings and public squares. The GNCC realised health, transport, and industrial facilities according to designs delivered by Czechoslovakia, the GDR, Hungary, and Poland, and these countries sent specialists to supervise the construction of the buildings. In an inversion of colonial hierarchies, these Europeans were employees of the GNCC. Stanek cites a Ghanaian architect in Accra who notes that, “it was the first and the last time that a white man had an African boss in Ghana. It never happened before and it never happened after.” Among the most notable constructions of the GNCC under Nkrumah is the vast Independence Square, constructed in 1961 and used to host parades and political speeches, and the development of the State House complex (1965), today’s Parliament of Ghana.

Eastern Europeans imparted their expertise at the architectural faculty of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. Among them were the Czech Jan Skokánek, the Hungarian Charles Polónyi, as well as Yugoslav architects Berislav Kalogjera, Nebojsa Weiner and Miro Marasović, who designed the University’s Unity Hall dorm in 1968.

“It was the first and the last time that a white man had an African boss in Ghana. It never happened before and it never happened after”

It was Poland however that occupied a central role in this socialist exchange. Twenty-six different Polish architects worked at the GNCC during the 1960s, on projects including hospitals, police stations and educational facilities in the capital.

Warsaw itself was in the process of rebirth after having been levelled during the Second World War, and Polish architects brought their experience of large-scale urbanisation with them to Ghana. The planned redesign of Accra’s Labadi neighbourhood in 1965, for instance, was based on the post-war remodelling of the Powiśle district of Warsaw by Grażyna and Jerzy Luba.

For Łukasz Stanek, these Polish efforts demonstrate the dynamic between Ghanaian, eastern European and international socialist interests. “Of course, the programs were coming from those in political power in Ghana and their international advisors, many among them from socialist countries. But the architects gave them particular shapes,” he says. “One can see the work of those Polish architects in continuity with what they were doing before, in late 1950s and early 1960s Warsaw. The way they used concrete, the way they designed details, the way they mixed rough and smooth surfaces.” There were more practical considerations, too: “You have to remember that most of the Poles were coming from war-destroyed Warsaw, and the housing conditions in Warsaw were terrible. It was a shock for them [in Accra] that they had a whole house.”

The parallels between Warsaw and Accra come together in arguably the most significant realised GNCC project for the Ghanaian capital: the International Trade Fair, designed by two young Polish architects, Jacek Chyrosz and Stanisław Rymaszewski. In a recent article Stanek describes the Fair’s pavilions, approaches and exteriors as possessing “a sense of radical modernity, with unadorned walls, sharp edges against the sky, large spans, an abstract geometry of volumes, levitating roofs, rhythmic patterning, and rough concrete surfaces contrasted with plaster walls.”

Despite this “radical modernity” the Fair also makes allusions, as Nkrumah wished, to “traditional African life.” “When I interviewed [Chyrosz and Rymaszewski] they said they had two major references for the round ‘Africa’ pavilion,” says Stanek, “One is the umbrella, a general cultural symbol of power in West Africa, and the other is the baobab tree, also a symbol of prestige in the region. It may look naïve, but I don’t think it is. Nkrumah’s attack on tribalism was reflected in that form: you have a form that relates to the broad iconography of the region, but at the same time it does not refer to the culture of a specific ethnic group like the Akan, Ga or Ashanti.”

Warsaw itself was in the process of rebirth after having been levelled during the Second World War, and Polish architects brought their experience of large-scale urbanisation with them to Ghana.

The Trade Fair is still in use today, with around 2,000 tenants. “Its architects really shaped the landscape of Accra enormously,” Stanek claims. “It was built when the city was reimagining itself. Even if it’s not in the centre, the Trade Fair is an important space for Accra. Rallies took place there before the last presidential elections.”

The connections between nations like Poland and Ghana did not end with the Cold War. Just as Warsaw’s Stalinist landmark, the Palace of Science and Culture, is nowadays hemmed in on all sides by the undistinguished glass and steel of post-modern office blocks and commercial properties, so Ghana’s modernist architectural icons now sit amidst shiny, air-conditioned towers. The global economy can no longer be side-stepped as Nkrumah envisaged. For Stanek, this shift in the urban environment reflects a generational rift common to both countries. “In Ghana I have witnessed discussions over the kitchen table which were very similar to the ones I know from Eastern Europe,” he says. “The father-in-law of my Ghanaian student was much more critical of Nkrumah even if he acknowledged his role in the liberation of the country. For my student, the story of Nkrumah’s modernisation was a more complicated one: even if the immediate effect of some of the industrial projects of Nkrumah that went bankrupt were negative, the long-term effects were positive.” The import of training programs and the spread of technical skills would have a belated but ultimately welcome impact in Ghana.

Planning for the Trade Fair began under Nkrumah in 1962, but by the time it opened in 1967 he was gone, deposed in a putsch led by Arthur Ankrah the previous year. Ironically, his reliance on foreign planners for industrial and infrastructural works was one factor in the financial crash that contributed to his downfall. In an indication of Ankrah’s rejection of his predecessor’s overt socialism, the inaugural Fair featured no representatives of the USSR or the People’s Republic of China.

Polish architects would go on to work in many other states during the Cold War, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, Libya and Kuwait among them. But perhaps nowhere else were they in sync with local workers as they were in modern, independent Ghana.

This special report coincides with the Red Africa season running at Calvert 22 Foundation, from February 4th to April 3rd, Wed-Sun 12pm-6pm, 22 Calvert Avenue, London E2 7JP. Further details at
Text: Samuel Goff