In November 2021, the African Futures Institute (AFI) in Accra invited Ghanaian architect, Kofi Essel-Appiah as guest speaker for the evening. Working from his firm PREDIOS in Accra, his professional work reflects a mix of experiences from his diverse background, travels and international collaborations. One of his works, ‘The Monologue’ (a seven-storey apartment block in Cantonments, one of Accra’s upmarket neighborhoods) was the subject of a thought-provoking presentation, in which Essel-Appiah ignited the question most culture-oriented architects and designers love to philosophize endlessly about: the relevance of expressing ‘African’ cultural identity in architecture in today’s global world. This article analyses Essel-Appiah’s work in an attempt to spark a conversation on expressing African cultural identity in contemporary architecture.
The front facade of the Monologue, a contemporary expression of geometrically composed quadrilaterals, rectangular compounds, and trapezoids, was inspired by the patterns on a piece of Kente cloth, a popular product of a traditional art form of weaving in Ghana. In the architect’s search to give the building some form of cultural expression, he chose Kente’s geometric pattern, and through a process of abstraction, he settled on the design for the facade which could be interpreted by architectural critics as ‘modern.’ At this stage, its authentic cultural identity fades into obscurity and the facade assumes a universal modernist cubist feel. This article raises the question of how literal or abstracted cultural expressions in architectural design should be in order to reflect an African identity in architecture.
Kofi Essel-Appiah’s parametric transformation of Kente into the modernistic facade for the Monologue reflects current debates in the field of African philosophy on Particularism versus Universalism. His design evolution process allows us to examine the design from two extremes: the literal forms of art on one side and their abstracted versions on the other.
Essel-Appiah's debate echoes the arguments in Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu’s book ‘Cultural Universals and Particulars’. By ‘Universal’, Wiredu means a generalist position based on what is common to human nature and not necessarily aligned to anyone's particular culture or identity. ‘Particulars’, on the other hand, are positions that identify with ethnocultural identity. During the talk, the audience was divided along these lines. A universalist’s question to the audience during the talk was whether it was necessary for contemporary design to project a cultural or regional identity in art or architecture.
One cultural ‘particularist’ view expressed during the debate was that the desire to seek an authentic African image or identity was, firstly, an internal natural desire to seek the truth of our essence and, secondly, a natural response to reverse attempts to subjugate African identity through colonialism. Philosophy has no sole definition, but Hilary Staniland, a professor of Philosophy defines it generally as an analysis of an idea, event or action, or phenomenon, by critically examining arguments, situations, actions, issues, and factors surrounding the idea in a logical process to confirm the validity of the idea and its claims. Olatunji Alabi Oyeshile, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, explains further that African philosophy focuses on attempts by African philosophers to make its culture relevant to the African and needs thorough creative, critical examination and logical methodologies which are not peculiar to the Western culture.
Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Uruka identifies four trends in African philosophy: ethno-philosophy, philosophic sagacity, universalist professional philosophy, and nationalist-ideological philosophy. The debate generated by Essel-Appiah’s work reflects two of these trends: ethno-philosophy and universalist philosophy.
Ethno-philosophers believe that all African philosophy should be drawn from the pure unadulterated confines of African culture, thus drawing on theories from past glories of history, cultures, folk tales, myths, poetry, proverbs, customs, and traditions of ethnic societies. This is what a second commenter in the audience would describe as ‘loving our own’ and may encompass traditional arts and crafts. For the reader's references, the late Senegalese president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and renowned Ghanaian philosophers Anthony Appiah and Kwame Gyekye subscribe to this approach. For the ethnocentric architect, the usage of African themes and symbols as underlying concepts, and inspiration as an approach, is essential to design.
Universal philosophers, however, do not fully subscribe to the hard lines of ethno-philosophers. Even though they acknowledge the importance of ethno-philosophy to African identity, and believe in scientific ways of reasoning in African philosophy and firmly reject myths, legends and spirits as part of African philosophy, do not consider borrowing concepts from the West a ‘sin’. Among them are famous names like Kwesi Wiredu, Paulin Houtondji, Peter Bodunrin, and Valentin-Yves Mudimbe. For a universalist artist or architect, African works of art or architecture do not need to have an underlying ‘African’ concept or even look overtly African.
The universalist view, supported by Okeke Agulu and Okwui Enwezor, professors in Contemporary Art Studies, suggest that contemporary African art has joined the global world. The African identity of today has shifted from a geographical basis towards a more global, multi-cultural identity based on socio-economic and political conditions. To them, contemporary African art of the ‘new Africa’ does not subscribe to “rigid borders, outmoded hierarchies and anthropological certainties” or to “ethnocentric positions and affiliations”. Agulu and Enwezor would probably describe the Monologue in terms such as ‘new African’ or Afro-cubist’ without regard to the original inspiration of Kente patterns. To the ‘particularist’’, the design should visually acknowledge its source of inspiration; but to the universalist, the design should acknowledge itself and not particularly its source of inspiration. To look at both sides of the debate, our analysis starts by examining Kente itself.
The production of Kente falls within the textile weaving arts of West Africa – Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire in particular. Its origins go back to an Ashanti folklore of the "spider-weaver" and a keen observer who, by studying the spider’s art of spinning webs, was enlightened to build the first loom to produce the first Kente cloth from cotton yarn. A more probable, less mythical account is that it originated in the 17th century when a man named Ota Kraban travelled to Gyaman or Kong (now in Côte d’Ivoire) and brought back the first loom, setting it up at Bonwire, a town now famous for its Kente fabrics.
The word ‘Kente’ comes from ‘Kenten’ meaning ‘basket’ in the Akan language. In the cultural context, Kente embodies history, oral literature, ethics, social values, religious belief, and political thought. It is a garment of bold colors. Blue, green, magenta, red, and yellow are typical colors used in different combinations and patterns with each color embodying virtues and symbolism. As a symbol of prestige, wealth, and status, in the past, Kente was reserved for royalty and nobility and worn on socio-sacred occasions such as marriage, puberty, child-naming ceremonies, and other special communal occasions such as festivals and historic events. Kente is internationally known, especially in the United States among Afrocentric sections of the African American society and the diaspora who celebrate Kwanzaa, an African American pseudo-religious celebration based on traditional African harvest. It is an annual celebration of gift-giving to signify African unity, community, heritage, and culture, as well as creativity. During the season, families decorate their households with objects of traditional African art and colorful cloth as a symbol of Black awareness and consciousness.
From Kente to the Monologue Facade
For the design of the Monologue, the architect chose Kente as the source of inspiration for its clear, cultural dominance among the rich textile traditions of Ghana. His fascination with Kente was not only for its geometric patterns but also with the loom itself which, in action, presents a strong sense of dynamics. The architect describes the lateral and vertical movement of the pattern heddle and shuttle by both hands and feet of a traditional weaver as ‘visual rhythm’.
In his own words Kofi Essel-Appiah describes the facade: “The front façade which faces west, though seemingly random, follows a poetic pattern, a “concrete” crystallization of a screen composed of simple masonry white walls and glass inspired from the Ghanaian Kente fabric.”
As an architect, Essel-Appiah believes in making bold facades or building envelopes that respond to the local climate and weather. The Monologue’s western and eastern facades, naturally control solar incidence by utilizing the tools of the ‘brise soleil’. The inspired use of this ‘Kente brise soleil’ allows abundant natural lighting and also serves as a sun shading device, preventing direct solar ingress into the internal spaces and balconies. They serve as sun breakers diffusing light and shading the recessed windows. The resultant facade is reminiscent of the brise soleil by British architects in the1960’s, whose tropical modernist buildings in West African cities were designed in response to the climate.
With this in mind, he takes Kente through six stages to arrive at the facade.
Stage 1: The examination of the various patterns of Kente and the selection of a portion to use.
Stage 2: Formal analysis of composition and extraction of lines.
Stage 3: Development of preliminary pattern and the elimination of colour.
Stage 4: Computerized abstraction of shapes.
Stage 5: Conversion into the concrete structures by geometric paracentrics.
Stage 6: Engineering and construction of the finished product.
The architect’s design process reveals a link between the particulars and the universals through a process of geometric abstraction paracentrics. The resultant facade is a unique cubist composition derived from the Kente pattern.
Uncovering the Secret of the Masters
Essel-Appiah’s design approach unearths the hidden links between famous works of the globally known modernist master architects and artists of the early 20th century and traditional sub-Saharan African sources of inspiration. This is revealed in new investigative research by art and architecture theorists and scholars. African-American scholar Melvin Mitchell, a staunch Black culture advocate has posited that some of the work of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier shows clear signs of West African influence (Steyn,2014).
This echoes Sigfried Giedion’s writings on Space, Time and Architecture (Giedion, 1941) in which he confirms Le Corbusier’s frequent visits to museums in Paris such as the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro from 1917, when he sojourned in Paris. The museums, at the time, had extensive sections of African art. Le Corbusier himself, in 1964, unwittingly revealed his sub-Saharan inspiration when he proclaimed, “ seek out primitive men, not for their barbarity, but their wisdom”.
South African research professor Gerald Steyn investigates Mitchel’s claim. Even though there are no written records to ascertain the influence of West African art on his work, Steyn looks for comparisons between Le Corbusier’s voluminous sketches and images of African art available in museums and archives at the time and discovers some striking similarities. His statements and remarks also reveal, as Steyn suggests, that there is a great possibility that African art, artefacts, and traditional construction comprised a secret conspectus that provided him with formative ideas for his architecture and urbanism.
Another academic professor, Garth Rockcastle in 1987, claimed that "The primitive was appropriated by some members of the architectural avant-garde via cubism…More suggestive, however, was the impact of the primitive on the structure itself, most evident in Le Corbusier’s work, where the traces of the primitive mask were incorporated into architecture through the exploitation of the “free plan".
Unlike architecture, the link between modern art and its traditional African inspirational sources is no secret. The great modern artists admit, in words and writing, their fascination for African art, which drew large crowds curious to see exhibits from the ‘dark’ continent in museums throughout Europe in the early 1900s. French scholarship on African art’s impact on the Cubist and modern art movement abound. The Cubist art movement began in 1907 led by Picasso and Parisian painter Georges Braque. Information from ethnographic researchers who had spent considerable time in the Colonies in Africa reached print houses in Europe. This popularized lectures on ‘primitive art’ held in town halls across Europe. Artists flocked to these lectures and exhibitions for new inspiration. The works of Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and French painter Henri Matisse, two of the world’s great painters, were influenced by African masks.
African American scholars Anthony Browder and Michael Brown (1992) write on the African influence on Western civilization. They assert that there are several cities and monuments in the United States that were influenced by Nile Valley architecture and symbolism. Browder cites the Washington Monument, built in 1884 as a memorial for the founding father George Washington, which has the form of an Egyptian obelisk. The seated figure of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial has an uncanny likeness to the seated figure of Pharoah Rameses II at Abu Simbel in Egypt. The USA has numerous examples of cities and towns with ancient Egyptian names such as Luxor, as well as modern architecture based on the Great pyramids, such as the Memphis Pyramid, a 32-story glass-covered pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee.
These examples of the works of the world’s most influential architects and artists demonstrate that the fascination of artists and architects of the Western world tapping into cultural resources outside their own is not new. Essel-Appiah may just be scratching the surface of a goldmine of art as inspirational design resources yet to be fully tapped by African architects. In another vein, the American architects of these structures on American soil, which mimic symbolic monuments of African civilizations, did not have the portrayal of African identities in mind, but drew on them as symbols of power and enigma. The question remains: How relevant is it for design to overtly acknowledge its cultural source of inspiration in today’s universal multi-culturally diverse world?
The making of the architect
Kofi Essel-Appiah’s journey in the making of himself as an architect is common to many particularists who have had the opportunity to experience the universal world. Essel-Appiah was born and raised in Ghana by Ghanaian parents and spent much of his childhood and early adulthood in Accra. In his early twenties, he had the opportunity to study Architecture at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This was unlike many of his colleagues, who studied at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, United States of America (USA) or Great Britain. His experience introduced him to the world of Black Hispanics, thus exposing him to other Black histories and cultures apart from his own. As a student, he joined a knapsack travel group to Peru and Bolivia to discover other great civilizations, such as the Inca, and the tropical ecological ecosystems of the Amazon Forest.
As a professional, Essel-Appiah has toured the world with his camera and developed a vast library of images from his travels to many cities in Europe, Asia, America, and Africa. Through his firm PREDIOS in Accra, Ghana, he is a partner to the award-winning international architectural firm Pitagoras Group, based in Portugal with offices in Brazil, Colombia and Mozambique, which employs a multi-national mix of architectural professionals. All these experiences led to a discovery of himself or, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger would put it, "carving out one’s unique and authentic place in and approach to the world". (Heidegger,1962).
Having travelled the world, Essel-Appiah uses the word ‘Freedom’ to describe his approach to his work. ‘Freedom’ to choose sources of inspiration from both a particularist and universalist approach, to explore all one’s experiences and draw inspiration from them, is core to Essel-Appiah’s design philosophy as an architect. He describes this deep desire in his soul to express something of his own culture in his work but not to be bound by it. To Essel-Appiah, freedom is a process that allows one to experience the world outside one’s cultural definition. For ‘the Monologue’, abstraction by using geometry as a universal tool allows a continuous dynamic process between particularism and universalism, between vernacular and modern.
In conclusion, Essel-Appiah’s Monologue presents a new thought, best described as liminality in design. Liminality, in general, refers to a state of in-betweenness, that is, a state that is between two defined identities. In the insect world, the cocoon stage, a seemingly static stage that internally encases a period of transition and transformation, marks a liminal state between a caterpillar and a butterfly as two distinct identities of one insect. That liminal stage has an identity of its own that it is neither a caterpillar nor a butterfly. Similarly, liminal design may not be overtly particularist or universalist, but represents a new identity of the ‘in-between’. The freedom to embrace any point in between the two extremes as a process becomes itself an identity. The freedom to draw inspiration from both particularist and universalist sources to create new forms becomes a new identity. In today’s world, technology allows us new design freedom to break barriers using a myriad of methods and approaches, with which we can explore ranges of expression of identities between particular or universal extremes.
More About Kofi Essel-Appiah
About the Working from his firm PREDIOS, Kofi Essel-Appiah has delivered a wide-ranging portfolio of projects. Some of his key achievements have been the roles of lead local consultant of the Japanese Embassy in Ghana, and the Golden Tulip Hotel, Kumasi location; project consultant for the World Bank project for Ministry of Food and Agriculture. He was also the consultant’s design team leader and project development manager for the record-breaking “COVID 19” Ghana Infectious Disease Centre at Ga East Hospital in Ghana. Essel-Appiah chaired the Board of the Commonwealth Association of Architecture (CAA) for the recently acquired revalidation of the Bachelor of Science in Architecture and Master of Architecture programs of the Department of Architecture, College of Art and Built Environment (CABE) of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi (KNUST), Ghana. He has developed international collaborations and partnerships with the European award-winning firm, PITAGORAS and sits on the boards of the Architects Registration Council (ARC) and the Ghana Green Building Council (GHGBC).
About the Writer, Arc. David Kojo Derban
Arc. David Kojo Derban is a registered architect in Ghana, and principal architect of Ethnik International Ltd., an architectural, project management and research-based firm in Accra, Ghana. He is an M.Phil. candidate at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon. His interests are in architecture, urban history and art.
Adebayo, A., Iweka, A., Ogunbodede,B., & Igwe, J. (2013). Architecture: The Quest for Cultural Identity. FactaUniversitatis - Series: Architecture and Civil Engineering, 11(2), 169–177.
Africa, S., & Afrique, D. (1990). Reviewed Work(s): The Invention of Africa by V. Y. Mudimbe Book Reviews. 15(2), 119–131.
Archie, M. M. (n.d.). An Afrocentric Critique of Mudimbe’s book, the invention of Africa: Gnosis, philosophy, and the order of knowledge.
Bird, C. S.,& Fernandez, J. (n.d.). V.Y. Mudimbe. (1988) The Invention of Africa-Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (African Systems of Thought). 1–255.
Bodunrin, A. P. O. (2018). The Question of African Philosophy. 56(216), 161–179.
Browder, A. T. (1992). Nile Valley contributions to civilization. Washington, DC: Institute of Karmic Guidance.
Enwezor, O. & Okeke-Agulu, C. (2009). Contemporary African Art since 1980.
Fayemi, A. K. (2011). Cultural Universals and Particulars in the Philosophy of Kwasi Wiredu: Some Comments. Thought and Practice: A Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya, 2(2),19–47.
Fayemi, A. K. (2011). A critique of cultural universals and particulars in Kwasi Wiredu’s philosophy. Trames, 15(3), 259–276.
Holy, L., & Mudimbe, V. Y. (1989). The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge. Man (Vol. 24, Issue 2).
Karjalainen, H. (2020). Cultural identity and its impact on today’s multicultural organizations. InternationalJournal of Cross Cultural Management, 20(2), 249–262.
Le Roux H. Tropical Architecture/ Building Skin. Bauhaus Imaginista: Moving Away. Edition 3
Oyeshile, O. A. (2008). On Defining African Philosophy: History, Challenges and Perspectives. Humanity &Social Sciences Journal, 3(1), 57–64.
Padilioni J. (2017). The History and Significance of Kente Cloth in the Black Diaspora
Pantazis, E., & Gerber, D. J.(2019). Beyond Geometric Complexity: A Critical Review of Complexity Theory and How It Relates To Architecture Engineering and Construction. Architectural Science Review, 62(5), 371–388.
Pennisi, N. (1912). Picasso and Africa: How African Art Influenced Pablo Picasso and His Work. Palm Beach StateEducation College.
Sergiu, B. (2010). M. Foucault’S View on Power Relations. Cogito-Multidisciplinary Research Journal, 1(2004), 1972–1977.
Rattray,R. S. (1923). Ashanti. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Sherman, G. L. (2009). Martin Heidegger’s Concept of Authenticity: A Philosophical Contribution to Student Affairs Theory. Journal of College and Character, 10(7).
Steyn, G. (2014). West African influence on various projects by Le Corbusier. 29(2), 135–151.
Steyn, G. (2013). The manifestations of African art in Le Corbusier’s architecture. 28(3), 133–155.
Wiredu, Kwasi (1996). Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective. Indiana University Press.
Curnow, K. (2018). Chapter 2.3 "Rules" for Traditional African Art. The Bright Continent: African Art History. Chapter 2: Analyzing and Discussing African Art.