Monday, October 28, 2013

Former American Embasssy

Have you ever noticed there is an entire sequence of "former American embassies" in Accra? (I won't even broach the geopolitical significance.) People still use all of them as landmarks, even though half the time there's a mix-up: "No...the *other* former American embassy!" The first of these, now the Ministry of Women and Children, is — along with the Scott House and half of KNUST — one of my favorite buildings of Ghana's original run of "Tropical Modernism". (There's another former American embassy site behind Design House, near Dankwa Circle.)

Image source: US State Department

Image source: Peter Tolkin Architecture with Mabel E. Wilson - "Listening There" / Studio X

It was designed by Harry Weese, an architect whom otherwise I've never heard of but has done some fascinating work. In Place Journal, Ian Baldwin suggests that Weese's relative obscurity, compared to his contemporaries like Rudolph and Kahn, may derive from his having never taught at Yale (I find this especially interesting because the design cabal of the Ivy League continues to define who gets deified and who doesn't, often independently from the quality of the work), or the fact that his production was more diverse — in style, form, program and geography — which made it harder to encapsulate or describe in an easily marketable brand, and therefore harder for critics and scholars to explain and theorize:

"Weese avoided specializing in a single building type, and his work covers an astonishing range of scales and programs, from transit systems to townhomes and hotels to corporate headquarters. The commission that first put Weese on the map, in 1958, was the U.S. Embassy in Accra, Ghana, a handsome rectangle of offices with projecting bays of louvered mahogany. It is elevated on white tapered columns around a central courtyard, leaving the entire ground floor accessible — too much so for the security concerns of later decades, which forced the embassy to relocate. It is now, in something of a rebuttal to Weese's postcolonial critics, a Ghanaian government ministry." [Places]

The building looks like a disaster today, a half-forgotten icon of a different era: when Maxwell Fry, the father of Tropical Modernism, said "“I have practiced architecture at a time when architects were full of hope and optimism — at a time when we felt that the changes in planning and in architecture would change living conditions and improve the world. A time when there was great hope for the future.”1 A half-century later, the battery of air conditioners of different ages and makes, together with the long-drained pool, underscore the tension between a modern architecture that references aspects of vernacular tradition (wood, natural ventilation, courtyards and open access, etc.) that ultimately finds itself in juxtaposition with users that aspire to a different form of modernity (glass, air conditioning, enclosure and artificiality).

1. Jane Drew, "Recent Work by Fry Drew Partners and Fry, Drew, Drake and Lasdun," Architectural Design, May 1955, 139. via: Mabel Wilson and Peter Tolkin, Place Journal.


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