The politics of the day in Africa have seen drastic changes pre, mid and post-colonial period. The continent’s politics today favors political elites, organizers and experts visavis 19th century world politics that leaned towards beef and brawn. This has seen an adept communication over the years of political ideologies in brunt iconism and symbols of power, culture and identity foremost in art and architecture. To fully comprehend this we have to perhaps crane our necks and look further into the historical connotations of power, art and architecture towards shaping cultures and identities.
Architecture occupies and shapes the socio-physical context and influences perceptual nature of human behavior. It organizes human spatial actions and transmits feelings to users who can associate and drape the building with meaning. The world over, architecture has been used to transmit intellectual meaning, express religious beliefs and political practices of a society through its physical and visual form. It has been used and manipulated by ruling bodies throughout history to support specific regimes. It is used to mediate forms of political power in order to propagate political ideologies.
This principle has occurred in many modern states throughout the world where political regimes relied greatly on art, architecture and culture to project the idea of legitimization. A resulting provocation of the nationalist emotions in the realm of the masses, this was usually meant and still is, aimed at maintaining their status and position in the society. Irrespective of the regime of the time the common goal is to use architecture as symbol and conveyance of dogmas to assist in gaining the populist support. In Russia’s Bolshevik state for example, the young socialist state monopolized liberal artistic patronage that fostered free talent development by providing equal opportunity to all. However with the rise to power of Stalin, freedom of expression and socialism were supplanted by the idea of architecture as a vehicle for new political principles.
Functionalism, simplicity and experimentation gave way to socialist realism. The freer styles of the West were regarded decadent bourgeois formalism. The Nazi regime did not favor the modern movement; it considered it too free and too individualistic. It went for more traditional styles that expressed the flamboyant majesty of State and Party. It developed a dreadful integrity to the Nazi ideal of the superman; harsh, heavy, severe, brutal, physically powerful, and spiritually dead.
Main political ambition in modern states and particularly the newly independent countries is to utilize architecture for the purpose of unifying the masses, and representing the achievements and gaining acknowledgement. Between the 1950s and 1960s, most African countries that had gained independence tried to integrate and unify the population to follow one ruling body by making various programs such as the usage of icons in the form of buildings to promote the idea of nationalism. There was political urgency at the time to create these symbols that were localized in detail and meaning. Due to limited expertise at the time having just come off colonialism, African leaders resorted to foreign assistance including expertise from politically correct nations like the Nordic amalgamations and Israel. The works of Israelites Arieh Sharon and Zalman Enav and the unreserved Norwegian Karl Henrik Nøstvik, amidst numerous other endeavors across the continent are visible evidence of these inclinations. The intended purpose of these works may have changed but one cannot overlook the initial intentions of such works.
We are seeing a resurgence of African states increasingly relying on their architect elites towards massive urban planning policies and development plans. Architects like Kunle Adeyemi have had their tests at the transitioning urban growth in cities like Lagos and have had their intellectual and physical discourse incorporated into city and government plans.
This marks a postmodern return of wit, ornamentation and reference with an innate sense of problem solving. It remains to be seen whether interpretation of the traditional architecture is the only hope of the African states to stamp their political and intellectual and whether the thirst of interpreting local traditions and symbols in official architecture will with time bear fruit to a new renaissance period of enlightenment.
The fact remains however that liberal democracies today are not governed by a homogeneous ruling class and is much harder to pass the different ideologies in architecture. There is still plenty of evidence of tempting stereotypes of official/political architecture in stilted or monumental styles. But the accepted responsibilities of the state in the fields of town-planning and of those social services requiring buildings have offered great opportunities to designers of many kinds. The interactions of the African states and private architects make possible a marriage of planning and experiment which has put public institutions in the van of architectural evolution.
Politicians in Africa are increasingly willing to listen to advisers who apply information obtained from planners and architects. We expect and hope that these new ideas will propagate cohesion and portray the African vernacular at different scales, levels of meaning and cultural uniformity and still be in the good books with the current regime.