Almost a decade ago, Architect Samuel Opare Larbi wrote an important and fascinating article on the Architectural History of Ghana. This bold and swift survey covered some of the major highlights and it had a lot of ground to cover, not least because so little research had been produced at that point on the history of architecture in WestAfrica.
The past decade has seen a proliferation of publications on ‘tropical modernists’, late colonial architecture, and more specialist studies on educational projects and socialist-country collaborations. Finally, we are beginning to see a celebratory appreciation of these often radical and progressive projects.
Yet, despite the rapid and growing interest, there remains some vast clefts in our understanding, especially in terms of the ‘first generation’ of qualified Ghanaian architects. Design233’s recent article on John Owuso Addo is part of our quest to rectify this gaping silence and to begin a series of biographical and contextual articles on the Ghanaian design pioneers.
The task is far from straight-forward as the sources and references that are essential to write even recent histories are not readily available. Archives are notoriously vulnerable if they were kept in the first place, and the other mediums such as professional journals and magazines rarely feature the works of these freshly qualified professionals. Rare examples survive such as a serendipitous photograph, or perhaps a scribbled note, rather than a dedicated and systematic reportage. For example, the photograph showing eminent modernist Edwin Maxwell Fry alongside one of his assistant architects illustrates the point. Who is this well-dressed and earnest collaborator? We know more about the building depicted on the drawing (Opoku Ware school in Kumasi) than we do about the person responsible for designing it.
The problem of ‘the archive’ when researching African history is not a new one. Records, if they were kept at all, quickly deteriorate in the hot and humid climate, and there is less inclination towards preserving the past when there is so much work to do elsewhere.
Despite these difficulties, the glimpses of evidence and surviving details make for an intriguing and important quest to build up a fresh repository and biographical database on Ghanaian architects from the mid-20th century - even if it is based only on snatched photographs and chance finds, to begin with.
I began to research the history of architectural training in Ghana, as well as considering the careers of architects who studied abroad, figuring there might be more records and material. I was surprised that there had been plans for an Institute of Architecture, Planning and Design at Achimota School in Accra (designed by Walter Frederick Hedges 1920s), with the ambition of utilizing local crafts and techniques from across West Africa.
The intention was to locally produce high quality and less expensive products rather than relying on poor quality, yet expensive, imports. The school was eagerly funded by the United Kingdom (U.K.) Colonial Office in an attempt to stimulate new trade possibilities and markets. The fledgling school was visited by Henry Morris, on behalf of the Colonial Office. Morris was responsible for establishing and promoting adult education in England as well as procuring the finest architectural solutions. For example, he recruited Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and leading modernist Maxwell Fry to design the Impington Village College in Cambridge. He had a similar ambition for Ghana, and strongly suggested that Achimota should aim to become a Bauhaus for West Africa. Morris wrote that, "It would be wise to adopt the method which Gropius employed at the Bauhaus – the dual method of training whereby the designer was taught by a craftsman-technician and by an artist-designer, working together".2
The ambition for a radical and progressive design school, built on local crafts, techniques, decoration, and tradition could have made a profound impact on Ghana’s creative development. But sadly, this was not to be. When the School’s Art director, Herbert Vladimir Meyerowitz (1900-1945), a Russian émigré passed away and Morris’s report was dismissed by the Colonial Office, these creative ambitions came to an end. The U.K. Colonial Office became more interested in larger-scale industrial solutions (as seen later on in the Volta and Tema) rather than artisan and design-informed innovation.
Most architectural projects continued to be delivered by British designers employed as consultants or working for the Public Works Department (PWD). Yet, a large number of projects were also being designed by local ‘draftsmen’ who were denied access to taking professional exams and subsequently Government-sponsored commissions. In response, they founded the Gold Coast Architectural Society as early as 1935 with the aim of "advancing the art and science of architecture…[and] to enable members of the society to submit to Government, in a constitutional manner, matters affecting the profession and to enlist the sympathy of the Government for the protection of the same".3
John Buckman (b. 1879) appeared as a leader in establishing the society, which was met with some disdain in official colonial correspondence – ‘there is not a single African architect in the colony’. But that was the entire point. The Society sought to produce a strong collaboration that could petition and lobby, whilst also undermining the colonial monopoly of recognizing only ‘qualified’ architects from the UK. Buckman was very much aiming to ‘disrupt’ the establishment and was clearly an entrepreneurial spirit intent on building a significant business empire.
He trained as an engineer in Sri Lanka, and was awarded an M.B.E. in 1928 for his services to the Public Works, Surveyor of the Supreme Court, and valuer to the British Bank of West Africa. He also helped to build several of Adisadel College's buildings in Cape Coast. He created a successful career that blurred many professional boundaries and specialisms. He was an engineer, architect, surveyor, and contractor, as well as dabbling in the decorative arts and signwriting, featuring in both the RedBook of West Africa and the whimsical PenPictures of Modern Africans. Little more is known about the Society, and it seems Buckman’s vision for a ‘home grown’ professional society faded.
After the Second World War, a major building boom occurred in Ghana, with significant projects centered around educational provision, libraries, community centers, as well as commercial offices, banks, and headquarters. These projects relied extensively on British architects, and they formed a society in 1954 called The Gold Coast Society of Architects. Although this was more of an informal social and networking club (meeting at the International Club on Knutsford Avenue, Accra), it held considerable power over architectural commissions and work distribution.
However, with political independence rapidly approaching and the election of Kwame Nkrumah as Prime Minister in 1951, opportunities began to emerge for Ghanaians to pursue professional training and qualifications to help rebuild and reimagine the new nation.
Peter Nathaniel Kwegyir Turkson was one of the first to pursue architectural studies in the UK, sailing from Ghana around 1949 to Liverpool where he enrolled at the School of Architecture. This was before the Department of Tropical Architecture was established at the Architectural Association. Perhaps Turkson had encountered the eminent modernist architect and planner Edwin Maxwell Fry in Ghana who recommended his old school. The shipping links between West Africa and Liverpool may have also influenced his decision to study in the city, plus it had by that time a major international reputation with many students from across the British Colonies and Dominions.
Turkson was born in Cape Coast in 1923 and educated at Achimota and later Engineering College where he obtained a BSc. in Engineering. Nothing survives of his time in Liverpool other than a single bound document, his B.Arch Thesis, carefully retained for almost seventy years in a former library store in the city’s docklands.
The subject matter of Turkson’s thesis was highly symbolic and revealing. Clearly, he had his sights set on contributing to the country’s ambition for independence, choosing to design a new Parliament Building for Ghana, located in the capital Accra. The proposed Legislative Assembly would provide a new debating chamber for the 75 elected members, as well as being an emblematic gesture of the new emerging democracy. The problem of designing such a building must have been something of a hot topic at that time with Le Corbusier tackling a similar commission for the new Indian city of Chandigarh that was widely publicized at the time.
Turkson selected a site located on the coast road between Christianborg Castle and the mercantile district adjacent to the old Secretariat and Barnes Road. It was close to the Supreme Court (Public Works Department 1922), and along with the new library (Nickson and Borys 1954), electricity showroom (architect unknown, early 1950s), and community centre (Fry and Drew 1951), would have formed part of a cluster of important civic structures.
Turkson wanted a design that was ‘classic in character and at the same time distinctly modern in feeling and detail…[exhibiting] the spirit of modern times’. He cited the monolithic St. Andrew’s House in Edinburgh (designed by Thomas S. Tait in 1935) as a suitable precedent, as well as noting his attendance at the seminal 1953 Tropical Architecture Conference at University College London, where he discussed his ideas with the speakers. It was a difficult combination to reconcile – being at once a monumental and grand gesture, coupled with the lightweight approach of ‘tropical’ design in hot and humid climates. Furthermore, Turkson wanted to include decorative elements that responded to the history of Ghana, along with local materials and art. He credits Eva Meyerowitz, (Herbert Meyerowitz’s artist collaborator and wife) for her help in researching the decorations and historical crafts, so clearly some of the ideas they were attempting at Achimota continued to resonate and impact their students despite the unsuccessful attempts at creating a new design institute there. The Thesis included an image of the Akyeame (Linguists) with their gold-decorated staffs, a motif that Fry and Drew had also utilized on the nearby Community Centre.
Turkson’s solution proposed using a ‘sandcrete’ (laterite soil mixed with cement) block wall along with a brise-soleil frame of fixed vertical and horizontal fins. Topping the structure and reflecting the chamber below was a reinforced concrete dome clad in copper, whilst some of the walls would be clad with faience finish. The plan was symmetrical forming two courtyards with a central drum for the debating chamber and library above. It resembled London’s Festival Hall designed by Robert Matthew for the 1951 Festival of Britain, whilst the concrete fins of the brise-soleil and distinct loggias below reflect many large-scale projects being completed in West Africa at that time, not least the work of Nickson and Borys at the nearby library, the Public Works Department architect A. G. Paton’s Ambassador Hotel, and Thomas Penberthy Bennett’s Kingsway Stores for the United Africa Company (UAC).
The dome gave Turkson’s project something of a civic importance (perhaps even pomposity) that it really did not need, but clearly, he was trying to imbue the design with a grand gesture befitting of the country’s ambition, and it aligned with Nkrumah’s desire to beautify the city and create large nationalist monuments. The dome predates Denys Lasdun’s much more timid aluminum attempt on the same street at the National Museum in 1957.
After his studies Turkson returned to Ghana in time for the independence celebrations joining the Town and Country Planning Division (TCDP) in 1956 and becoming Regional Head at Kumasi. By 1961 he was appointed the first Ghanaian Chief Physical Planning Officer and became responsible for establishing planning offices in various regional capitals. He remained in the service until his retirement in 1978. Known for his efficiency, the Building Inspectors in Kumasi’s City Council threatened to go on strike because of his detailed scrutiny of their building plans.
In terms of his professional practice very little evidence survives; but of the projects we do know about, he was actively engaged in some important developments. One of his early projects after qualifying was delivering the new Ashanti Sports Stadium in 1958. The project was funded by the UAC, who contributed £65,000 towards the Independence Monuments Appeals Fund, with further finance from the Ashanti Regional Development Committee.
In the 1960s, he participated in the Volta Resettlement Symposium, convened by the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), and with an impressive list of international delegates. They visited the newly constructed core houses at Nkakubew and New Senchi and discussed housing policy on delivering inexpensive housing.
At the same time Turkson was also collaborating with the cohort of Eastern European technical experts recruited in the socialist post-independence era, such as Grażyna Jonkajtys-Luba and Jerzy Luba on projects such as the Labadi Slum Clearance.
On a much larger scale, the 1964 Seven-Year Development Plan produced by Turkson’s department, TCPD, set out a national vision for economic growth and infrastructure investment. The plan envisioned a series of growth areas aided by the installation of electrical power supply, new transportation networks, and improved sanitation to stimulate long term growth.
In addition to practicing as a planner, he retained his architectural affiliations and became a founder member of the Ghana Institute of Architects in 1963, helping to form the professional body that it remains today.
About the Writer
Iain Jackson is an architect, writer and a professor at the Liverpool School of Architecture.