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INTERVIEW Designs on a brave new world

LUKASZ STANEK talks to Michal Boncza about the role of East European architects, planners and building contractors in creating new urban environments in the postcolonial Global South

“I REMEMBER very well these Eastern European architects, because it was the first and the last time that a white man had an African boss in Ghana.”

That’s the opening sentence of Lukasz Stanek’s new book Architecture in Global Socialism, uttered by a Ghanaian architect who had worked as a draftsman at the Ghana National Construction Corporation in the 1960s.

It typifies a work which challenges cold-war preconceptions of the roles played by those from Eastern European socialist countries who worked collectively to urbanise and develop the Global South during the Soviet era.

Fresh from his tour of Poland and Germany to promote the book, Stanek tells me that he hesitated over its title because his intention was not to convey the sense of “an overarching, unitary process,” as only one chapter discusses an attempt to implement the socialist development model in Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah.

It was a model, he says, based upon the “adaptation and modification of Soviet precedents to the local conditions.” But in most other places, “actors from Eastern Europe practiced global collaboration without expecting their local counterparts to implement a particular model of socialism.”
Stanek cites Iraq to demonstrate how Eastern European architects and their local partners benefited from the differences between the political economy of state socialism and the emerging, global market of design and construction services.

This was the case too in countries with governments generally hostile to socialism such as Nigeria, he asserts, where Eastern European companies were invited to stimulate competition between foreign enterprises.

Hence socialist and decolonised actors collaborated both within and against official frameworks of socialist internationalism, and the book’s title might be considered subversive because, quips Stanek, it “refuses to comply with the ideological purity which is often expected from the use of the term ‘socialism’.”  

Asked why Western narratives on post-WWII architecture have studiously avoided any reference to what took place under the auspices of the socialist countries or the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) from the 1960s to the 1980s, Stanek explains that in that period many Western architects and construction companies who worked in the Global South competed, and sometimes collaborated, with Eastern European companies.

But Western chroniclers of architectural relations between the Global North and the Global South have couched this experience “in the highly problematic terms of a ‘shared’ colonial heritage or simply by following the foreign work of Western European and North American architects during the postcolonial period,” Stanek stresses.

This exclusionary focus reflects “a more general conceptualisation of architecture’s world-wide mobility as ‘Westernisation’ or ‘Americanisation,’ a conceptualisation that became hegemonic after the end of the cold war.”

Urbanisation in the Global South during the second part of the 20th century speaks volumes to Stanek about what decolonisation meant for the spatial reorganisation of everyday life.

He points out that the socialist countries and the Non-Aligned Movement promulgated a more equal redistribution of resources and benefits within the world economy. They promoted the economic sovereignty of the formerly colonised countries and the acknowledgements of their cultural and scientific heritage.

These goals could be translated through architecture and planning into the collaborative construction of industrial facilities and infrastructure for welfare distribution such as housing, education, health and culture, along with the preservation of local architectural heritage for the purpose of nation-building, pedagogy and tourism.

Western cold-war narratives about Global South countries often referred to them as to Soviet “pawns” or “proxies” but Stanek is adamant that “even where the Soviets were spending generously, whether in Sukarno’s Indonesia or in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, the final decisions concerning specific projects were taken by the local administrators.

“When the Soviets presented the design of neighbourhoods in the cities of Accra and Tema in the 1960s to Ghanaian architects and decision-makers, the latter requested modifications. The Soviets reluctantly complied.”

Stanek says that at least from the 1970s on, indebted Soviet satellite countries were keen to export whatever there was market for, including design and construction services. As a result, they were even more amenable and flexible, which may explain “why in the countries I worked on, non-Soviet architects, planners, and contractors had more impact on the urbanisation processes than the Soviets.”

In the immediate post-colonial era, architecture and planning were central to the economic and social development in the newly independent countries “and in this sense they were crucial for delivering on the promises of independence,” Stanek points out.

They were expected to produce new spaces, in which the people would recognise themselves as members of a new polity. “This required a more profound transformation of cities, in particular those until then racially segregated,” Stanek says.

“It also concerned the question of architectural heritage, both precolonial buildings – which needed to be appreciated – and colonial structures, which needed to be appropriated into the spaces of the new states. The development of the Osu Castle and the State House in Accra are cases in point. Architecture and urban design were called upon not just to develop the new countries but also to decolonise them.”

Stanek is clear about this process: “In purely professional terms, decolonisation would mean the emergence and emancipation of local actors in architecture, planning and construction; as well as in architectural education and building regulation.

“This process was prepared during the late colonial period. For example, officials in British West Africa were pursuing programmes of ‘Africanisation,’ which promoted the increasing participation of local, typically elite, actors in politics, economy, and culture, including architecture and construction.

But it also reinforced the hegemony of British construction firms as well as professional organisations such as the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

“After independence, many Africans have questioned, to paraphrase [black US writer and activist] Audre Lorde, whether the master’s tools would dismantle the master’s house. This is why the presence of Eastern Europeans was a game changer.

“It was an empowering experience for African and Asian professionals and decision-makers because it challenged the hierarchies of power and prestige inherited from the colonial period.

“From British archives, independence often looks like a restriction of access of British architects and contractors to the former colonies and the removal of British professionals from important positions in administration, design, and education.

“But when seen from Ghanaian or Nigerian archives, these processes look very different – architecture was envisaged beyond the colonial precedent. It was not a question of exchanging British solutions for Soviet ones but their comparison and adaptation for the purposes of the newly independent states.”

Education was to play an important role, naturally, but how does Stanek view the process? He cites the Zaria School of Architecture, the first in Nigeria, organised according to the British model during the late colonial period, with a curriculum that followed the requirements of the RIBA.

But by the mid-1960s, after Nigeria’s independence, this curriculum was contested by students and lecturers. Among them was Ekundayo Adeyinka Adeyemi, later head of the Zaria School, who argued that its pedagogy should be aligned with regional and national development goals.

The revised curriculum was attentive to vernacular architecture and drew on the research developed by the school’s staff, including many Eastern Europeans.

I ask Stanek which buildings have stood the test of time. “I am most intrigued by buildings and ensembles which have been re-appropriated in unexpected ways after their construction, he replies, “often against the intentions of their designers and commissioners.”

He cites the International Trade Fair in Accra, designed by Polish and Ghanaian architects at the Ghana National Construction Corporation during the Nkrumah period but which opened only in 1967 after he was toppled. Today it has become a site of economic activities, religious services and political rallies.

Another is the National Theatre in Lagos, one of the most recognisable buildings in Africa’s largest metropolis, designed and constructed by a Bulgarian company for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (Festac) in 1977.

It now houses cultural institutions, including a gallery of modern art, while some of its conference halls and two cinemas have been rented out for events and parties. It is a large compound in the centre of Lagos and is also used by ordinary Lagosians as a transportation hub, with food stands, a makeshift mosque and trees offering shade in a peaceful environment.

Stanek is adamant that global connections after WWII “cannot be reduced to what has been called ‘globalisation’ – the US-backed, global spread of economic and political phenomena. Globalisation was just one among many possibilities of world-wide collaboration and solidarity.

“This does not mean that the processes that my book describes were necessarily emancipatory. But these exchanges resulted at times in unexpected ways of thinking about cities.

“They continue to provide inspiration and, sometimes, resources for urban interventions alternative to those being imposed today on Accra, Lagos, and other cities, which are growing rapidly, often at the expense of their most vulnerable inhabitants.”

Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War is published by Princeton, £50.


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