Architecture: Forms of Freedom: African Independence and Nordic Models
Exhibition of the Nordic Countries Norway, Sweden, Finland at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2014
Fehn’s extraordinary Nordic Pavilion in the Giardini at the Venice Biennale showcased a very enlightening exhibit this year, the mentoring of modern architecture in three newly free southern and eastern Africa in the 1960’s and 1970’s (Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia) by the three social-democratic Nordic Countries (Norway, Sweden and Finland).
How did such a relationship develop? The exhibition curators tell the story (with this writer’s emphasis added…):
“The liberation of Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia in the 1960’s coincided with the founding of state development aid in the Nordic countries, where there was widespread belief that the social democratic model could be exported, translated, and used for nation-building, modernization and welfare in Africa. The leaders of the new African states wanted partners without a murky colonial past, and established solid bonds with the Nordic countries, built on a mutual belief in progress. During a few intense years in the 60s and 70s, Nordic architects contributed to the rapid process of modernization in this part of Africa.”
Peaceful socio-political nation-building exported to countries desiring to shed links to their colonial past via export of aid and extra-national design prototypes. No military.
The exhibit identified two areas of design intervention provided by Nordic nation designers as part of their country’s aid package:
“Building Freedom”: Architectural nation-building by applying Nordic-derived master planning techniques and examples to African cities and regions, along with implementing Nordic prototypes and prefabricated systems for public buildings in those countries.
“Finding Freedom”: National leader-provided input and impetus to create non-colonial national symbols and prototypes, interfaced with Nordic-defined progressive ideas for architectural solutions intended to elevate building design to that of Nordic au currant progressive international style leaders.
The curators noted, “This is the incomplete story of this architectural production, exploring how these works were absorbed, rejected, adapted and transformed”, a careful reaction to the resultant mix of cultural goals and physical artifacts. More commentary presenting the reaction to and retention of these interventions from the new nations’ points of view – then and now – would have been helpful. Examples of extraordinary successful projects were provided, some now beloved icons of independence in several nations. Yet, it appears that mutual anthropocentrism limited success, complicated by emerging new nation leadership not always sympathetic to or intending to adopt “social democratic” systems. Importation of design style neither indicates nor catalyzes freedom and democracy. It is only a symbol and a tool.
Since those heady days, Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia have set forth on their own internally-derived destinies. Their public architecture is as much defined by the European Modernists from the former colonial rulers in Great Britain as Nordic models (and, in Tanzania, earlier German colonialism on the majority mainland area of Tanganyika, earlier Arabic influence in the islands of Zanzibar). Thankfully, it is even more defined by the design culture and physical environment of those nations. Perhaps, at some point, they shed the need to react against an oppressive colonial past by becoming subservient to a Northern European ideology, “…where progressive ideas could be developed as architectural solutions on a par with the international avant-garde.”
Discernment is the key … Absorb, Reject, Adapt or Transform