The last British Governor of Gold Coast, now Ghana, Sir Charles Noble Arden-Clarke, opened the Accra Community Center on 15th March 1951, handing it over to Kojo Botsio, the newly appointed Minister of Education and Social Welfare, ‘in trust for the people of Accra’. The project had initially been discussed and planned just after the Second World War following the recommendations of the Colonial Social Welfare Advisory Committee, and their 1944 report on Community Centers. The Committee announced, ‘the Government proposes to establish ten Social Centers to provide social amenities for Government employees in the districts.’
The newly created Colonial Development and Welfare fund was to help pay for the venture, with a focus on ‘education and health than with recreation.’The community centers would become spaces for adult education and skill building, as well as places to discuss ideas on how to improve housing, sanitation, and childcare. They would also be used for dances and musical recitals providing more respectable venues for the popular Highlife music scene than the more raucous nightclubs and bars elsewhere.
It was the mercantile firms rather than the government, however, that fully subscribed to the community center concept, and several donated funds to build new facilities. The businesses sought to enhance their public relations from these buildings, and they were used as a means of ‘giving back’ and demonstrations of the companies’ commitment to the workers. They also allowed the firms to direct and oversee the leisure activities of their employees. Whilst the underpinning intentions may have been to ‘improve’ and elevate education and cultural standing, there was a clear paternalistic aspect in seeking to direct the workforce to wholesome, approved, leisure activities.
Several new halls and centers were built in the late 1940s including two by the chocolate manufacturers, Cadbury Brothers, at Suhum and Berekum, described ‘as a contribution towards the scheme of mass education’. The Colonial Secretary for Development, Edward Norton Jones, approached the United Africa Company (UAC) to enquire if they would consider supporting a new center for Accra. They agreed to donate £20,000, provided, ‘a professional community centre leader or social worker - was guaranteed’ and that, ‘the venture should bear the Company's name in some form’. The final costs soared to £32,000 with the UAC board agreeing to increase their donation to match the increased expenditure.
The architects for the center were the renowned modernists Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, with South African born Theo Crosby as the architect-in-charge for the project. Fry and Drew were based in London, but had been active in West Africa during the war initially as planning advisors, and immediately afterwards designing various schools and colleges, and the new university campus at Ibadan, Nigeria.
These projects served as models for the community center, but rather than occupying a large remote plot, the center was creatively compressed into a small urban campus. Arranged around two courtyards, the center piece was a large assembly hall framed by a cantilevered concrete entrance portal.
The courtyard provided a gathering ante-space for the assembly hall, as well as being used for informal events and meetings. A small evaporation pool was positioned to one side providing additional climatic comfort, whilst a sapling (planted to commemorate the opening by Governor Arden-Clarke) would become a welcome parasol as it grew to full stature.
The assembly hall was of a similar type that Fry and Drew had recently completed at Aburi Girls School and Amedzofe, but unlike the schools, the center was to have a specially commissioned mural by the renowned artist Kofi Antubam. Antubam was taught by the Russian émigré artist Herbert Vladimir Meyerowitz at the West African Institute of Industries, Arts and Social Science (at Achimota) as well as at Goldsmiths, London. He treated the elevation as a giant ‘canvas’ for a mosaic mural depicting four figures with a script proclaiming, “It is good we live together as friends and one people”.
In a rapidly changing society with increasing migration away from rural settlements and local allegiances, the mural poignantly pleas for unity and comradeship. It was also a fitting backdrop for the All-African Peoples’ Conference that took place in the Center in 1958, providing a place where diverse people could assemble, exchange views and ideas, and build new futures together. Antubam’s equally suggestive depictions of everyday life and community also adorned the newly built Accra library and the Ambassador Hotel (now demolished – but was Antubam’s work saved?)
The UAC was eager to become involved in this type of project to help counter the problems they faced in the late 1940s after a bitter trade war with A G Leventis PLC (founded by Anastasios George Leventis) and accusations of limiting imports and price fixing. A local boycott was arranged of all businesses connected to the Association of West African Merchants in 1948 in protest at the cartel on staple goods, such as flour and cement importation, the latter becoming increasingly sought-after for post-war development. The boycott, coupled with discontent from returning servicemen over housing, pay, and prospects, created a volatile environment that was further intensified by Danquah and Nkrumah’s political agitation.
Rioting broke out in Accra on 28th February 1948 and the UAC headquarters in Accra, Swanmill, was looted and torched. The UAC was clearly trying to respond to this discontent, and to present a more benevolent image through the Community Center, and other sponsored projects. The Community Centre featured on a UAC Christmas card – ensuring every customer, contact, supplier, and politician was fully aware of the company’s philanthropy.
Other businesses followed the UAC’s approach, and in the mining town of Tarkwa in the Western Region of Ghana, another community center was built, again designed by Fry and Drew, and funded by the African Manganese Company for the Tarkwa Urban Council.
The plan was similar to the Accra center in terms of having a courtyard and large assembly hall with smaller ancillary facilities wrapped around the perimeter. The sloping site offered further opportunity to create a celebratory entrance with a staircase cutting through the rubble-stone plinth.The main assembly hall façade is composed of a large concrete brise soleil sat on circular columns with a curved roof sweeping down towards the rear. The facade treatment of solar shading coupled with air-flow was utilized on the newLeventis store in Accra (also designed by Fry and Drew), whilst the arced roof motif was also used at Opoku Ware assembly hall.
The Community Center’s refined elevation invokes Fry’s work inChandigarh, especially the Sector-11 Girl’s College Library and Type-9F housing in Sector-22. The large concrete rainwater gutter also channels Le Corbusier’s projects in India such as the MillOwners Association, Ahmedabad.
The Tarkwa Community Center in Tarkwa presents a compact and carefully resolved composition and, compared to the Accra building, shows a greater level of refinement and resolution in its detailing. The assistant architect was Geoffrey S. Knight who was also site architect for the Kenneth Dike Library at Ibadan University in Nigeria. He was clearly an accomplished designer trusted by Fry and Drew to oversee their most prestigious commissions in West Africa.
Whilst the Accra and Tarkwa centers display a modernist architectural agenda with climatic design drivers, elsewhere different approaches were pursued. The Consolidated African Selection Trust (CAST) funded the new community center at Kyebi in the Eastern Region of Ghana in 1954. CAST operated gold and diamond mines across West Africa, and selected Kyebi for their community center because it was the old region capital of Akyem Abuakwa. The center adopts a somber and formal composition, more akin to the colonial style buildings (such as the Scottish Mission School at Akropong, Eastern Region) and the polite formality of the smaller Kingsway Stores.
The architect of the Kyebi Community Center is not known, and only a single photograph of the building from the 1950s survives in the UK’s National Archives. The loggia, rounded windows, and unyielding symmetry suggest a government ministry or embassy rather than a welcoming and open public facility, but behind the formal frontage is an expansive and much more relaxed outdoor gathering space for evening films and performances.
Out of the larger towns and in these more remote locations, the community centers played a much wider civic role. They were by far the largest buildings in the vicinity, and began to set the agenda for nearly all of the town’s communal and social activities.
The construction of community centers in the early 1950s was part of a development aspiration that ran alongside more formal education provision, skill building, and artistic expression. Encouraged by paternalistic government policy, but funded by large businesses, they reflected the changing political landscape in the advent towards independence. Whilst providing purpose-built facilities for everyone to enjoy, the community centers were also a major marketing apparatus for the global corporations. They offered a chance to shape the social agenda, as well as to deliver an architecture that reflected their corporate image and branding aspirations.
The Accra community center now stands empty, dilapidated, and with an uncertain future as the new Marine Drive development gathers pace and construction work has commenced on site.
It would be appropriate for the community center to feature in these new development plans – not limiting new ideas, or as a memorial to colonial-era business – but as a small testament to the underlying values that these buildings sought - that of community, coming together as friends, and the pursuit of education, culture, and knowledge creation.