Post-colonial party pads! The architects who got Ghana back in the groove

<span>Hosted Muhammad Ali … Black Star Square in Accra.</span><span>Photograph: Victoria and Albert Museum, London</span>
Hosted Muhammad Ali … Black Star Square in Accra.Photograph: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Deep inside the workshops of the Victoria and Albert Museum, a specialist is painstakingly dabbing the back of a torn drawing with a cotton bud. After spending hours carefully removing strips of ageing sticky tape, she is delicately repairing the paper properly, to reveal a dashing modernist building emerging from a jungle. This glamorous courtyard complex features a round pool of water encircling a dancefloor, accessed by little bridges. Above it, a cantilevered glass box hovers on stilts – or pilotis. It has an air of international modernity, like it could be the party pad of a cocoa baron.

When the Ghanaian architect John Owusu Addo sketched this chic vision in the 1960s, he could never have imagined it would one day be on show at the V&A, London’s illustrious repository of British colonial booty. The patched-up drawing will feature in Tropical Modernism, a show that aims to highlight lesser-known figures who took up the colonial architectural style and made it something entirely their own during the early years of independence in India and parts of Africa.

“When we started looking in the archives of the Royal Institute of British Architects,” says curator Christopher Turner, “we often found that catalogues would include the names of the British architects in the photographs – and then just say ‘pictured with African assistants’. We thought it was time we highlighted who these people were.”

The glamorous jungle complex turns out to be the senior staff clubhouse of Knust, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, built in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city in the 1960s. The university’s sprawling campus was one of the flagship projects of revolutionary leader Kwame Nkrumah, who became the first prime minister of Ghana in 1957, when the country gained independence from Britain. Along with music, fashion and the arts, Nkrumah saw architecture as a way to forge the identity of his fledgling nation, as well as the wider continent, which he imagined would one day become a United States of Africa (with himself as president). As his minister of works put it, the new architecture would “serve as a beacon of hope for the oppressed peoples of Africa, and symbolise their faith in the ultimate achievement of their dreams”.

Addo, now 95, features in a film in the exhibition, which charts Nkrumah’s grand plans. He recalls being sent to the Architectural Association in London to study at the Department of Tropical Studies, which had been founded in 1954 by British modernists Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. Their colonial work in India and Africa is the starting point of the show: when Addo returned to Ghana, he taught at Knust’s new architecture school, reinterpreting Fry and Drew’s principles for the era of independence, with an emphasis on local culture.

“It became more about getting students to understand their context,” says Addo, “and the architectural history of Ghana. Traditional forms became part of the curriculum – and part of the course was to do community projects.”

Its teachers, among them the black American architect J Max Bond, argued that postcolonial architects “must assume a broader place in society, as consolidators, innovators, propagandists, activists, as well as designers”. Instead of seeing traditional African architecture as obsolete or inferior, as Fry and Drew had, Knust encouraged the study of local styles and techniques. But Nkrumah’s attitude was also pragmatic. “Where we find the methods used by others that are suitable to our social environment,” he declared, “we shall adopt or adapt them.” So the tropical modernist language Fry and Drew had developed for the hot, humid climate – with overhanging roofs shading open verandas and rooms cross-ventilated by perforated screens – was adopted and adapted. A tool of colonisation became a tool of nation-building.

Nkrumah summoned a number of Ghanaian architects back from America. He commissioned Victor Adegbite to design Black Star Square, a parade ground built in Accra on former colonial playing fields, all pomp and grandiosity. At one end, framing the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Guinea, stands the Independence Arch, a series of three parabolic concrete arches that hold aloft a presidential platform, flanked by stands big enough to seat 30,000 people. The arch, says Turner, symbolised the opposite of a “door of no return”, the castle gateways through which slaves were forced to leave the country.

This, instead, would be a “door of return”, designed to encourage the black diaspora, uprooted by the transatlantic slave trade, to return and help liberate and rebuild Africa. Nkrumah made much of visits from prominent figures, including activist Malcolm X, boxer Muhammad Ali and poet Maya Angelou, hosting their pilgrimages with this dazzling new infrastructure as a backdrop.

“This is the new Ghana Kwame Nkrumah is building,” trumpeted a headline in 1963, above aerial photographs of new roundabouts, airports, hotels and the vast Black Star Square. “A land of freedom with justice where progress and development never cease.”

One of Nkrumah’s most elaborate plans was for Tema, a new manufacturing city on the coast, modelled on India’s showcase city of Chandigarh, which also features heavily in the exhibition. Following the lead of Le Corbusier’s megalomaniacal masterplan, Tema was to be rigidly hierarchical, with a grid of roads in eight different classes, ranging from footpaths connecting rows of modernist houses, to multilane highways. Giant models of its main buildings were paraded down the grand boulevards on floats during Independence Day festivities, turning the architecture into a celebratory symbol.

Tema’s primary product was aluminium, which played an important role in Knust’s architectural experiments too. Dangling from the ceiling of the exhibition will be a big geodesic dome, made of hundreds of folded panels of wafer-thin aluminium. A conservator is busy cleaning it when I visit, ready for the next stage: re-wiring its delicate components back together. For now, it looks like some kind of deflated space module.

“We found it crumpled under a big pile of wood in the attic of the Knust engineering workshop,” says Turner. “So it’s taken a lot of work to get it back to this state.” The university was unaware of its existence but now it has been valued at £42,000. This is primarily due to its connection to the American geodesic dome guru and futurist, Buckminster Fuller, who led a three-week workshop at Knust in 1964.

“We had lectures from Bucky,” recalls Addo. “I didn’t understand much of them. But we put his theories into practice using very thin aluminium sheets to do a dome.” Fuller, who thought his domes were the answer to all of humanity’s challenges, proposed that mud-covered aluminium-framed domes could solve Ghana’s housing crisis. But there was one key design flaw: the mud slipped off when it rained.

Aluminium featured in another of Nkrumah’s most ambitious projects, the International Trade Fair in Accra, created to showcase Ghana’s mineral wealth and investment opportunities to a global audience. The centrepiece was the Africa Pavilion, a huge circular building with an aluminium roof, inspired by the royal umbrellas of the local Akan chieftains. But Nkrumah wouldn’t be around to see it: the fair opened in February 1967, a year after he was toppled by a military coup.

In the film, professor Ola Uduku, head of the Liverpool School of Architecture, says his downfall “sounded the death knell for tropical modernism as a style and as a concept”. It also paralleled the collapse of the economy, as cocoa prices plummeted, leading Ghana to bankruptcy. Many of the buildings in the exhibition have since become entombed in glass, the dawn of air conditioning seeing these beacons of natural ventilation sealed inside carbon-guzzling bubbles. But strip away the shiny skins and these thrilling structures still have plenty to tell us.

“As we look to a new future in an era of climate change,” says Turner, “might tropical modernism, which used the latest science to passively cool buildings, serve as a useful guide?”

At the V&A, London, from 2 March