Accra’s architectural history is disappearing

Tue, 20 Mar 2018 Source: Nico C.M. van Staalduinen

No politics, business or corruption this time, just architecture and history:

I was born in a city in the Netherlands with a rich architectural history and as a young boy in the Netherlands, I enjoyed visiting the museums and roaming about in the old city center of my hometown.

Leiden is/was one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands with complete areas within the city still in its original state. If you remove the modern city lights and traffic signs some areas look as if they are a few hundred years old.

You will understand that, with these memories of my youth in mind, I also appreciate the architecture of the past in Accra.

Accra is the home, not only of colonial but also modernist-post colonial architecture.

I always compare post-colonial architecture to Jugendstil architecture in Europe.

By the time Europeans during the 1960-1970s started to appreciate old architectural buildings, Jugendstil was still a young style with buildings between 60 and 100 years old. The reason that Jugenstil buildings hardly survived was that they were not yet old enough to be recognized (and saved) as official historical monuments, so although still in good condition at that time many were broken down as buildings “out of fashion”.

For that reason, let’s start with the disappearance and, not yet disappeared and the total neglect of these buildings. A few of the most recognizable buildings of the post-colonial architecture are:

The George Padmore library, the Independence Arch, the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (now Gender but it used to house the American Embassy) the Trade Fair buildings, the former Ghana Export Promotion Authority buildings in Accra, the round HFC bank building at Quick shrank road (Accra) are so much neglected that I fear they will be broken down soon. Our national museum is bound to be transferred to the new development of the Accra Seaside project between the Osu Castle and Art center, I wonder what will happen to the old museum which is also a relic of post-colonial modernism architecture in Ghana.

Several modernist private houses of the 1960s spread over Labone (fifth Circular Road) and other parts of Accra designed by black American architects and Eastern European Architects of Socialist countries assisting Ghana in its development are at the brink of being removed.

I don’t really fear for Ghana Post Office, The Supreme court or Usher, Osu and James Town forts because the last are on the UNESCO list of worldwide recognized monuments and landmarks, but we need to keep them in a good state and preserve them for future generations.

There are many other buildings we need to protect, some of the old cinemas like Palladium and Rex, the Korle-Bu hospital has so many added “pimples” to their historic buildings that they are hardly recognizable anymore and the beautiful wooden buildings on stilts of Ridge hospital which deserved renovation have been replaced by a modern building without considering architectural past just like the buildings that were known as the Cocoa Affairs court.

I fear that the wooden police barracks of the Accra Central police station will disappear at the next wave of modernization of our city, just like the Jamestown Lighthouse might disappear because maintenance on this seaside building has been neglected for decades whilst we all know what the salt can do.

The lane leading to Osu Castle used to have the (almost) complete history of colonial houses, starting at complete wood, to stone pillars and top wood, all with their verandas to complete block build houses. Many of them have been “rehabilitated” by adding pillars that don’t fit to the architecture or by closing the veranda’s to create extra rooms on the verandas.

A beautiful and historic building: the Former House of the Speaker of Parliament opposite the Accra Stadium has been replaced with a new building of the Royal Bank. When I was building my private house in colonial style in Aburi I went regularly to that house to take pictures of the details such as pillars, staircases and ornaments only to find out one day that my beloved building was gone and all that was left was rubble.

Sea view Hotel not the most beautiful building in Accra but with a history of being the first hotel in Ghana is gone, part of the old Ghana Port Harbor Buildings in Jamestown are gone, the Old Parliament House is gone, The Cocoa Affairs Court is gone, Ridge Hospital and many houses on stilts on Ridge are gone simply because project developers use their large plots to build apartments for expatriates and what is left are many more empty apartments than I have ever seen expatriates. Former public servant houses and Military buildings, in Cantonments and on other locations have disappeared without any protests of anybody. Close to Ghana Post Office on the Asafoatse Netteh Road was a beautiful, one in its kind colonial structure with cast iron pillars instead of stone. Many of these buildings are left in a slightly different style in former Portuguese colonies, but this one was unique and build during the British time. Another building just as beautiful has been redecorated by GLO Telecom with aluminum sheets around its colonial style pillars.

Many Colonial buildings on Kojo Thompson road, Nkrumah Avenue have disappeared or have been so mutilated that they are hardly recognizable. It’s not much better in Adabraka or Tudu.

Accra/Ghana needs to wake up and declare many of these buildings, national monuments limiting possibilities of adding shops and other extensions and removing them completely.

At least we should have guidelines for renovation and preservation of our architectural history which should be an integrated part of the development of Ghana as a tourist destination.

Jamestown between Usher and James Town fort including the old Kingsway building can be developed as a tourist area, just like Cape Town did with the collapsed Victoria and Albert harbor Front, today housing one of the most beautiful tourists, outing and shopping areas in the world.

The way it looks now I fear more and more iconic buildings will disappear in the next twenty years and we will start regretting that after 40 or 50 years just like many European countries did, it’s time for action now.

Let's save Ghana’s architecture!

Columnist: Nico C.M. van Staalduinen