Professor Arc. John Owusu Addo, affectionately called ‘Prof.’, is one of the last remaining modernist architects of Ghana. At 94 years old, Owusu Addo is as sharp and witty as ever and his long-standing legacy covers the breadth of some of the country's most iconic buildings. In the circles of architectural education, Owusu Addo is credited as the first native and black head of department of the architecture department at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). The pinnacle of his legacy is the breadth of knowledge and firsthand experience of the development of modern architecture in Ghana, which predates the colonial period through contemporary times and the lessons we can draw from them as Africans in today's rapidly globalizing world. To honor him, we journey through his life and works.
His beginnings were a humble one, born on May 30, 1928 in the rural village of Akwadum in Ghana. His family, the royal Apempoa family, migrated from the Ashanti region in 1875, following a dispute with the Ashanti king. At the time, Akwadum was a beautiful, serene farming village near Koforidua, the capital of the eastern region of Ghana. The family had kept their traditional profession as cocoa farmers and also cultivated subsistence crops, which included cassava and yams. Owusu Addo muses that in 1934, one could not practice sustainability more than in the villages.
His childhood was spent in one of the 60 compound houses making up the village, built in the style typical of rural forest Akan architecture, made up of an aggregation of rooms around a courtyard. Walls were constructed of earth and rendered with cement plaster, with corrugated tin roofing sheets and matching gutters, which collected rain into metal barrels. Owusu Addo remembers watching with keen interest as mud was kneaded with the feet in a pit, molded into six-inch balls and arranged in rows to build thick walls of the village dwellings. The practices of sustainable, communal, and cultural living were ingrained in him from a very young age.
The compound houses he grew up in and around are some of his greatest influences. Traditionally, in the Akan culture, the courtyard in this housing typology has many sociological functions and is the main space for family activities. In these homes, most daytime activities occur in the courtyard: washing, drying, cooking, pounding of ‘fufu’ and open-air cooking. Aside the courtyard, the ‘Pato’ is another important component of the traditional compound house. It is a covered space, closed on three sides and overlooking the courtyard. This acts as the living room where guests are received, deceased relatives are laid in state at funerals and where arbitrations are held. As traditional belief has it, the entrance or ‘Ntuonum’ to every courtyard home has a spiritual function of neutralizing evil spirits which accompany people who do not enter the home ‘in peace’. The ‘Ntounum’ is always open to welcome fresh air breeze.
Painting a picturesque image, he reminisces about his childhood, recalling how his father would leave home early in the mornings to go to his cocoa farms, while the children ran off to the village school which was held in the Methodist missionary church. Life in the village as a child was fun; playing with friends with makeshift footballs made of gum in the wider alleys between the houses; little girls getting their hair braided by their mothers and the older girls, playing ‘Ampe’ and ‘Oware’. In a chat with him, he remarks how in those days, most children had active fingers for the crafts, as most toys and play objects were hand and self-made.
Young Owusu Addo’s first encounter with public British colonial era architecture outside Akwadum was at the age of eight, when he had to be taken to the Koforidua Hospital for a foot injury that had become infected. After several weeks of orthodox treatment, when his foot was not healing, a friend of his father’s introduced him to a local healer. With the herbal treatment used by the local healer, he was on his feet within a week. He highlights that it was during the time of recuperation and the moments of idleness, when he could not be out playing with his friends, that he discovered his love for model-making. He developed a knack for building toy cars out of empty tins, wood, and his mother’s kitchen knife. Years later, this love for building toys would come in handy in architecture school.
John Owusu Addo, started school at the late age of nine, going through the British colonial education system. Following the sad passing of his father when he was in standard five, the teenage Owusu Addo moved to Koforidua, the capital of the Eastern province of then Gold Coast, to live with his older sister and brother-n-law.
Koforidua in the 1940s was a thriving and bustling town of brisk commercial activity with iconic buildings, some of which still house the original companies: SCOA, UAC, UTC (Basel Mission), G B Ollivant and the British Bank of West Africa (now Standard Chartered Bank). The train station was a high traffic area, being the primary means of transport to Accra or Kumasi. Bungalows for British expatriate workers were set in a very quiet, serene area with a golf course. He later learned that the early British colonial era building designs were responses to the tropical climate. Roofs were steep, hip, or Dutch gable with ventilation copulas and wide eaves for sun-shading They also exhibited classical features that included symmetrical façades with colonnaded verandas or wraparound shaded walkways.
Following his completion of standard seven in Koforidua, Owusu Addo was admitted to the Kumasi Wesley College Teacher Training College in 1944. Kumasi was a much bigger city than Koforidua. It had the residences of the great Ashanti king, the Asantehene, and was the administrative capital of the Ashanti region. While in Wesley College, he was drawn to a very peculiar bungalow with distinct architecture. He would later learn that it was designed and built by famous British architects, Maxwell Fry and his wife Jane Drew, who also designed Wesley Girls High School and Prempeh College, both in Ghana.
After four years at Wesley College, he gained admission into the highly reputed Achimota Specialist Training College in Accra, where he studied arts. There, he came across a book by Sir Bannister Fletcher on architecture, which talked about Egyptian and Roman architecture, and instantly became interested in the subject.
Art students of Achimota often took field trips into the city center to sketch the city. John was drawn to the imposing Accra Supreme Court building with its classical Greek ionic columns. As trainee students, touring the buildings of early colonial Accra included the Indo-Mughal styled Accra Post office, the classical Bank of British West Africa, the Romanesque Accra Railway Station and the ecclesiastical English Anglican and Methodist cathedrals with their red brick exteriors, gothic windows doors and tower clocks that stood as testaments to British imperial presence. The old city of Jamestown and its iconic lighthouse and harbor cast shadows on old Accra’s slave trading past with the presence of three 17th century stone slave forts: the British James fort (1673), Dutch Ussher Fort (1649)—now a prison— and the Danish Christiansborg Castle (1662), which was the seat of the British government and residence of the governor of the Gold Coast. These spiked Addo's interest in historical buildings.
Training as an art teacher at Achimota School was not only a privilege, but also had a purpose. The prestigious institution was set up in 1928 to train teachers to teach children of the African elite both the British and African ways of life as compliments to each other. Here, John studied the broad range of traditional arts and crafts which included painting and carving in addition to literature and other classical studies. His hopes of studying architecture were met with disappointment, as the university college did not offer architecture as a course. As a result, he decided to pursue history at the University College.
In 1952, he transferred to the College of Art in the new University of Science and Technology as an art teacher. As fate would have it, it was here that, while visiting with a friend who worked in the main library, he came across the Gold Coast Gazette newspaper. He encountered an advertisement for interested applicants in the study of architecture in London, U.K. After applying, he was called for an interview and subsequently awarded a scholarship to study in England.
The trip from Takoradi to Liverpool took 12 days by an Elder Dempster vessel. For the next five years, he attended the Regent Street Polytechnic, now the University of Westminster. Here, his early model-making skills kicked in. He recalls the highlights of his experience here were the field trips to Paris, Rome and Vienna. While in London, Ghana gained independence in 1957. In 1958, he interned with Kenneth Scott in London and obtained his RIBA certification in November that year. In February 1959, he returned to Ghana with his love, Doris Owusu Addo (née Sarkodee-Addo), a lawyer, who became one of the country's judges.
In the early years following independence, Accra was bursting with new buildings, signaling the modern age and forming the golden years of architecture in Ghana. A new airport, the Independence Arch, the Accra Museum, and the new state hotels were all built during this period. The new government chose the international style, aptly renamed Tropical Architecture by its proponents, Fry and Drew, and other British architects who worked in Ghana at the time.
In 1960, he found work with Kenneth Scott in Accra building the police headquarters on Ring Road, part of the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital and some residences, including Scott’s own home, a famous piece of modern architecture of the time to date. At the time, the big names in architecture were Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, James Cubitt, Kenneth Scott, and Nickson and Boris, who built the Accra Library. There were a few pioneering Ghanaian architects who decided to form their own institute, separate from the predominantly European and American-comprised Ghana Society of Architects. The Ghana Institute of Architects was formed in 1959, with its first members being T. S. Clerk, P.N.K. Turkson, Victor Adegbite, O.T. Agyeman, J.S.K. Frimpong, Professor.John Owusu-Addo and others being W.S. Asamoah, E.K. Asuako, A.K. Amartey, Adu Donkor, K.G. Kyei, C. Togobo, and E. Kingsley Osei.
Back at the University of Science and Technology (UST), now Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), the campus was being transformed into a site for experimental building, with housing in the international style. In 1961, John Owusu Addo was convinced by the Vice Chancellor of UST to leave active practice to assist in building the new school of architecture, however, he opted to work at the University Development Office led by Yugoslavian architects, Miro Marasovic, and Nikso Ciko, who were part of a foreign relations program by the Nkrumah regime to source non-Western expertise to help convert Ghana into a socialist state.
With Marasovic, they designed two iconic buildings on the campus: Unity Hall in 1963 and the Senior Staff Club House in 1964. Unity Hall's design was inspired by the Unité d’habitation by Le Corbusier, one of the founding fathers of the international style. Towering above the trees, it consisted of two nine-story blocks of 448 rooms with a courtyard between them and a modernistic dining and kitchen overlooking the courtyard, making it the largest residential hall and the first of its kind. It was built two years before the massive 12-story Job 600 project built for the Organization of African Unity (OAU) conference of 1965. It was also exemplary of the modern international style with its façade of long concrete horizontal bands and ventilation grills.
Exuding modernism, Unity Hall stood on massive columns, elevating it and liberating the ground floor for communal spaces. It utilized multiple staircases and lifts that led up to the open terrace on the roof. Unlike the other halls of residence designed by British architects, the rooms were double banked with naturally ventilated corridors between them. Upon entering the foyer at the ground level, one was led, via a covered walkway, into the spacious entrance courtyard that continues to function as an area for socializing and interaction throughout today. The dining hall, the Junior Common Room (JCR), game room and senior common room were on the first floor, while the kitchen was in the basement. With its international hotel-like appeal, it became—and still is— a symbol of aspiration of the new age of technical education in independent Ghana and has earned its place in West African history of modern architecture, with John Owusu Addo famed as its co-designer.
The unique Senior Staff Club house, another collaboration by Marasovic, Ciko, and Owusu Addo, sits in a serene part of the campus, functioning as a respite for the lecturers. Designed as a lightweight square box that obeys all the characteristics of modern tropical architecture, it sits on pilotis that welcome the breeze and frees the ground floor below to create space for the kitchen, outdoors sitting and entertainment areas, as well as a reflective pool. The recreational spaces are located on the second level, with high ceilings accentuating the feeling of spaciousness. Clear glass doors open onto a wraparound veranda, enclosed by mosquito screens and wooden egg-crate brise-soleil. From this level, one has 360-degree views of the surrounding arboreal environment. It is complete with a bar, several lounge areas, dining, small conference rooms, and a recreational hall.
Comparing working with the British versus Eastern Europeans, Owusu Addo describes the British as followers of principles and rules, as majority of the top architects were in fact high ranking ex-British World War II veterans. This was evident in their straightforward, rigid approach to modern design. In contrast, the Eastern Europeans were state civil servants and tended to be more exploratory and interactive, seeking new ideas from the locals in a collaborative spirit rather than a hierarchical imposition and application of theories and principles. Hence, their designs featured a more futuristic feel for their time.
The university campus soon gained its reputation as an experimental yard for tropical modernism in the early 1960s. This was most evident in the prototypes Owusu Addo and the development office designed for staff housing, some of which were so successful that the designs were requested for by several companies and individuals across the country. The University Type, or UT homes, were most popular for their modern look, clean lines, open plan interiors and kitchens, which took into account the sociological factors of tropical African contemporary living. The three-bedroom, two-story UT homes (1961) for senior lecturers could be described as the ‘tropical Bauhaus’- a cubic form with recessed upper balconies, wide fenestrations for ventilation and a mono-pitched floating roof. Attached to it was a garage and two-bedroom outhouse separated by an outdoor cooking area enclosed with a concrete masonry brise-soleil wall.
In 1963, Owusu Addo finally joined the faculty of the School of Architecture under the headship of John Loyd. The following year, he accompanied a group of students on an exchange program to the Architectural Association school of Architecture in London to complete a six-month course in tropical architecture, later returning to propagate the new gospel of architecture.
The ‘3SA’ house type on the university campus was another successful model for growing families, featuring a compact three-bedroom home with a study, garage, kitchen yard, and outhouse. The entrance porch is covered with part of the roof open to let in sunlight in the otherwise darker interiors of the dwelling.
During the mid 1960’s, Owusu Addo’s career began to rise and he became associate professor in 1964 and the chief architect at the development office after Marasovic. He became one of the most respected and revered personalities on campus and around Kumasi and Accra. In Kumasi, an off-campus project he is most known for is the Asuoyeboah SSNIT flats, three-story multi-family dwellings of rectangular and square forms ingeniously attached by shared corridors and walkways while still achieving privacy for each unit. Balconies and elevated yards provide a sense of privacy yet enable interaction with neighbors.
Owusu Addo bemoans the fact that, from the early 1970’s, the new trajectory of architecture was toward high-maintenance designs, or designs that were not responsive to the climate, with facades of glass and artificially controlled interior climates. Projects built in the name of modernity began to assume less tropical attributes.
In 1972, he put his signature on Accra with the Cedi House project– a 13-story office block in central Accra by the Agricultural Development Bank which housed the bank, the Ghana Stock Exchange and some departments of the Bank of Ghana. Cedi House as a post -modern building was a symbol of technology’s increasing control of building facades from the narrative of modernist design as a response to climate. It was the first building in Ghana to have an underground car park with two levels underground. Unlike its modernist predecessors, which had low horizontal orientation, it rose like a stout tower sitting on a broad raised rectangular base as the ground floor. Its facades were characterized by horizontal bands of glazing between concrete strips protected by motorized vertical sun shading devices on the east and west and horizontal shading devices on the north and south.
In the mid-1970s, Owusu Addo began to expound his true message as an educator. To him, the aspirations toward modernity were misplaced in the context of the nation’s true economic state. He called Ghana a place of contradictions, a place where modernity in architecture was practiced and taught in the university while the majority of the population still needed basic services and majority of the country had poor living conditions.
As head of department, Professor Owusu Addo initiated and introduced to architecture education the powerful ideal of social responsibility in architecture. His sentiments were recorded earlier in 1966 as dean of the department of architecture. In a 1966 special edition of the ARENA, the Architectural Association journal on campus, he wrote a piece called “Aspirations” with African American architect Max Bond. In it he says:
Unless the role of the architect is based on our real needs, we run the risk of running into the usual architect poses, which are similar to a jeweler creating fine adornments, very nice, very pretty buildings which are out of social context. Architects who are too lazy to consider social context are creating pastry. The architects become stars and heroes using twice as much concrete and building more for less (to reverse the slogan). What is for America and Europe, we simply cannot afford.
From then on, conscious efforts were made to the architecture curriculum to include local building traditions to help students design for the African context. The course content included field trips into communities all over Ghana to acquaint the students with real life social problems in rural and urban settings. This helped to imprint in the minds of young architects that architecture should be about development of communities planned in informed social, cultural, and traditional contexts. This was the only way to make architecture relevant to society and to the world.
As an educator, Owusu Addo has worn the tallest hats, as the Chairman of the Commonwealth of Architectural Education (CBAE) between 1981 and 1984, Board Chair of Education Research and Technology for the Africa Union of Architects in 1982 and 1990, and as a visiting lecturer to a number of architecture schools across the continent and globe. In 2005, his achievements in architecture education were crowned with the prestigious national decoration of the Order of the Volta award for outstanding service to the Republic of Ghana.
Professor John Owusu Addo is a man true to his roots. Throughout his academic life, he promoted traditional and tropical principles, the use of building with local materials, and the consideration of tradition in social life in architectural design. His love for his culture is so exceptional that he became one of the most respected advisors to the Golden stool on matters of development. As a close aide to the Ashanti and New Juaben kings, he designed palaces for the royal Juaben Stool and the Manhyia Queen mother’s residence.
He is a family man, sharing four children with his wife Doris. He designed their home in Ridge, Kumasi as an example of the tropical design ideals he upholds, exhibiting wide eaves, deep verandas, courtyards and cross ventilation. An avid golfer, the house is strategically sited, overlooking the Kumasi Golf Course and is within walking distance of it.
At 94, Professor John Owusu Addo has seen it all and done it all in a way very few have been privileged and blessed wth. He started out as a teacher in rural Ghana, studied and taught art, studied in Great Britain, practiced as an architect and educator in a Ghana divided between capitalist and socialist interests, and has seen Ghana transition through the colonial era, independence, military, and democratic stages. He has seen Ghana boom and bust. Through it all, he has remained true to his roots, an observer of everything Akan. Few are blessed to have such a range and scope of experiences in life.
The lesson we learn from this gift and legacy of experiences is summed up in his own words:
"Always remember that you were a Ghanaian before you became an architect. No matter how diverse the influences along the way, be guided by these three aspects of life: the sustainable, the communal, and the cultural. They mark the true path of the African."
About the Writer
Arc. 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. His interests are in architecture, urban history and art.