A Zimbabwean Tale of 2 African Architects: vintage images of Bulawayo and Harare

by Andy Kozlov

Once upon a time, a ride in a CBD-bound kombi in Harare introduced me to an earworm Shona song. I had no idea about the exact meaning of its lyrics. But the phrase “Joina City” made sense to me. “Interesting,” I made a mental note. “A funky song about one of Zimbabwe’s most recent architectural feats!” (See Zimbabwe on exploration of its kombi aesthetics)

If you study architecture in Sub-Saharan Africa chances are you don’t hear much about your peers on the continent. If you study architecture elsewhere – I bet you don’t look at African architecture at all.

African-born architect Denise Scott Brown and her colleague Robert Venturi famously divided buildings as signs into two categories

Okay. This is an overstatement made by somebody who is neither an architect nor an African (But who decides about the latter?) The point remains the same: African creative industries are being overlooked, as a rule of thumb. And architecture is no exception.

For those of African creativity buffs who know how to use Google and have mastered the basics of academic research, the name of Denise Scott Brown, a Philadelphia-based co-author of Architecture as Signs and Systems: For a Mannerist Time, will ring a mbira.

Thandie Newton in Half of A Yellow Sun, a movie based on book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of Anambra State (Photo courtesy of Afripopmag.com)

The Africa-born architect is like the MI 2 star Thandie Newton – of African descent but no-one really talks about it to showcase the good that comes out of Africa. Those who do, by the way, do it among themselves or don’t know how to get the message through in a fruitful way. Although, in the case of Newton, Luso Mnthali questioned the choice of a “bi-racial woman who looks nothing like the people she is supposed to be playing” in Half of A Yellow Sun, a film about the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967-1970. (See Multi-Kulti Ukraine)

From questions of mixed race and Igbo potrayal in film, let me be one of those few talking about the marvellous cutting-edge work of two African architects of  Zimbabwe. It’s up to you to decide whether I am being effective in showcasing the good that comes out of Africa or not.

Books of Zimbabwe collection of Louis W Bolze’s photos: The offices of the Chronicle on the corner of Rhodes Street-9th Avenue with construction work going ahead on the adjoining Parkade and future NRZ building (the tallest in Bulawayo) (May 1944)

I could also talk about Rex Distin Martienssen, who being greatly influenced by Le Corbusier spearheaded a modernist architectural movement in South Africa, or Denise Scott Brown’s late husband Robert. And, I guess, if I didn’t want to get over and done with this post that has been sitting in my WordPress drafts for four months, I would google up some more names of bright Africans, white and black, currently redefining African city and landscapes.

Epworth township in south-eastern Harare with balancing rocks in the background (Photo by Andy Kozlov, 2012)

But we all have our deadlines. So did the Zimbabwean participants of the 2012 Architectural Biennale in Venice held from August 29 to November 25, to which they were invited for the first time in history following the successful art exhibition at the Venice Biennale. (See Zimbabwe sets up the first-ever national pavilion at the Venice Biennale)

Whether Zimbabwean architects missed some deadlines or something else came up in their way to Italy, but Zimbabwe, last time I checked on July 28, was not listed among the participants. Egypt is on that list, as well as Angola (for the first time).

Salisbury (Harare) circa 1969. Taken from the top of Livingstone House, at the time the tallest building in the country (20 stories). The view is looking east along Jameson Avenue. Pearl Assurance building on the right with the big “pearl” on top. Air Rhodesia sign visible just behind it. Mike Clinton’s Reserve Bank tower building came up in 1996. (Photo courtesy of Zimbabwe-born British Broadcasting Corporation Chief Technology Officer, John Linwood)

Pioneered by Beyond Entropy Angola,

The Angolan Pavilion tackles the problem of common ground in the peri-urban areas of Luanda which is the paradigm of the transformation of the entire Sub-Sahara Africa region. The informal growth of African cities becomes a sustainable urban model when the interstitial space between the buildings performs simultaneously as public space and infrastructure for filtering the dirty waters and producing electricity with biomass. This complex space enhances the vocation of the African morphing city. The pavilion is a real-scale prototype of the proposal: visitors walk through a garden-infrastructure and experience the intensity of a primordial space which is not configured, mastered or categorized yet. (See ArchiAfrika 2011 conference: discussing the future of African citiesNavigating African cities through our own unique and diverse mental mapsTop Ranking Cities for Health, Safety and Security List. Scrap it!Steppes book review. Africa Rising: how 900 million African consumers offer more than you think, and On 2 African innovation challenges – in news and architecture)

African architect from Zimbabwe I

An example of African interpretation of high-rise buildings and train station in Bulawayo (Photo courtesy of Robert Scott Brown/ VSBA )

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Raphael Chikukwa, curator of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe largely responsible for Zimbabwe’s first art exhibition at the Venice Biennale, was reflecting in early 2012 when the invitation from Venice came, “A name that quickly comes to mind is that of the renowned architect Vernon Benele Mwamuka who died in 2001.”

By Vernon Benele Mwamuka’s Construction House in Harare (Photo by Andy Kozlov, 2012)
Railway Station, Bulawayo, c. 1898 (a print from Bulawayo’s Changing Skyline 1893-1980 – AD Jack & Louis W Bolze)

Mwamuka was the first black architect in Zimbabwe and he still stands out as one of the most prominent architects Zimbabwe ever produced. In his architectural portfolio, he has to his name the imposing Intermarket Life Centre, Construction House, Kopje Plaza, Old Mutual Centre, the Four Ways Mall in Johannesburg and the Joina Centre building that was completed after his death.

Books of Zimbabwe collection of Louis W Bolze’s photos: The corner of Main Street-8th Avenue with Grindlays Bank in the foreground, then the African Life building and the Colonial Mutual Building. Rhodes Statue by ‘the Empire sculptor’ John Tweed in the foreground (Aug 1944)

Other significant projects that brought Mwamuka praise and respect include Africa University (Mutare), the National University of Science and Technology NUST (Bulawayo), Harare Domestic Airport, Bulawayo International Airport, the School of Hotel and Catering (Bulawayo) and a chain of post offices strewn across

Books of Zimbabwe collection: Bulawayo Airport before Independence (Photo by Robal Studios in Bulawayo)

the country. “We need those who are prepared to stay here and get to grips with Zimbabwean conditions,” he once said. Mwamuka was also vocal and called for Zimbabwean architecture firms to start taking positive steps to employ black architects. Today Zimbabwe has a school of architecture at NUST
thanks to his advocacy.

About the tallest building in Africa

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According to Wikipedia list of tallest buildings in Zimbabwe, there are 12 buildings in the country that stand taller than 70 metres (230 ft).  The tallest building in the country is the 33-storey, 141 m  ABC Building in Zvishavane (Midlands Province). The tallest building in Harare and 2nd tallest in the country is the new Reserve Bank tower at 120 m, followed by Joina Centre.

This is little of an achievement, if you compare Zimbabwe to her neighbor down south. South Africa’s Carlton Centre in downtown Johannesburg at 223 metres is the tallest building in Africa and about half the height of the Willis Tower (the former Sears Tower) in Chicago. In fact,  it was the tallest building in the southern hemisphere when originally completed in 1973.

Vernon Benele Mwamuka’s Joina Centre with low-rise building in the foreground (by Andy Kozlov, 2011)

Carlton Centre is followed by Ponte City, a skyscraper in the Hillbrow neighborhood of Johannesburg, which is the tallest residential skyscraper in Africa. The sign on top of this building is the highest and largest sign in the southern hemisphere. It currently advertises the South African mobile phone company Vodacom. (See Advertising trends in Southern Africa and beyondSteppes In Figures #4: Southern Africa trivia from last yearPhoto exhibit by a renowned international architect features 52 African cities and Popular narratives of Gaborone in Africa’s Switzerland and beyond)

African architect from Zimbabwe II

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Zimbabwean film producer Stephen Chigorimbo of Afriwood oppostite Eastgate (Photo by Andy Kozlov, 2012)

 

 

 

 

 

Member of the Architects for PeaceMichael Pearce now works and lives in Melbourne, where he projected Council House 2, the first purpose-built office building in Australia to achieve a maximum Six Green Star rating. Zimbabwe-stemming Pearce is the guy behind the biomimicry-informed Eastgate Shopping Mall sitting across the driveway from Mwamuka’s Intermarket Life Centre.

Michael Pearce’s Eastgate in Harare is using design methods inspired by indigenous Zimbabwean masonry and the self-cooling mounds of African termites (Compilation by Inhabitat.com)

Designed to be ventilated and cooled by entirely natural means, it was probably the first building in the world to use natural cooling to this level of sophistication. It opened in 1996. From personal experience, the guards at the shopping mall these days have a nasty habit of stopping you from sitting down on obviously designated for this purpose public sitting place on the ground floor of Eastgate.

Eastgate is using design methods inspired by indigenous Zimbabwean masonry and the self-cooling mounds of African termites. Using less than 10% of the energy of a conventional building its size, Harare’s Eastgate is emulated by London’s Portcullis House (2001), opposite the Palace of Westminster.

Drawing by South African Khensoni Mabaso (11 years old then) “The Core of Ponte” was written in 2008 for a benefit concert for the organization Broadway in South Africa. Songwriters were asked to create songs inspired by the writings and drawings by children living in Johannesburg. (Image courtesy of Jeff Blumenkrantz)

Committed to appropriate and responsive architecture, Michael Pearce has specialised in the development of buildings which have low maintenance, low capital and running costs and renewable energy systems of environmental control. He has been closely involved in the development of rammed earth construction for low cost housing in remote locations in Zimbabwe where transport and energy are the largest costs in producing buildings. His projects try to make best use of locally available resources, and include Harare International School Arts Centre, Harare Hindu Temple and Chinhoyi Provincial Hospital as well as a number of constructions in Zambia. In 2003 Pearce was awarded the Prince Claus Award for culture and development, for his work on Eastgate.

The following passage was taken from the Award citation:

Mick Pearce is among the most ingenious critical tropicalist architects practising today. He has had to be. Like Tay Kheng Soon of Malaysia, he is one of the rare architects who are pursuing a solution to these problems in the tropics. Like them, he has designed a large-scale urban project that successfully adapts sophisticated technologies to minimise economic and ecological cost, adapting the global to the identity of the particular region.

Mick Pearce has probably moved further away, than any other architect in the world today, from the lip service the profession usually gives to enhancing sustainability and diversity. His great achievement has been to come up with a truly innovative and successful alternative to the all-glass high-rise that tropical countries tend to import from the North. Perhaps it is no coincidence that such an architect has wide experience of working in the tropics, where ecological, economic and political crises are so pressing and so serious that they demand nothing less than ingenious solutions, not only for the benefit of the local population but for post/neo-colonising world of the North.”

Harare skyline looking north-east from Belvedere Road. Vernon Benele Mwamuka’s Kopje Plaza and Joina Centre can be seen to the right. While Mike Clinton’s Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe building is close to the centre of the image (Photo by Andy Kozlov, 2012)

Interesting analogy is evoked by Mick Pearce regarding early US settlers solving the housing problem in the newly acquired lands by building timber houses on their own, without the central planning. This used to be a huge trend in Harare too. But the Operation Murambatsvina put a halt on the individual construction of the unofficial settlers in Mbare, a township of Harare.

Read novel Highway Queen by Virginia Phiri to sample a  literary interpretation of the slum-clearing campaign that reportedly affected at least 700,000 people directly through loss of their home or livelihood and thus could have indirectly affected around 2.4 million people. Valerie Tagwira‘s  The Uncertainty of Hope is another novel on the topic.

More on architecture from Zimbabwe and her neighbors

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Zimbabwean veteran architect, Mike Clinton, is responsible for designing the glittering Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Karigamombe Centre, Pegasus House, Century Towers, CABS head office, Corner house, BFC Building in Seychelles, Reserve Bank of Malawi.

Countrywide and regionally, he has designed plans for prominent hotels such as the Elephant Hills Intercontinental in Victoria Falls, Zambia’s Ancient River Lodge, Mount Soche Hotel in Blantyre, Malawi, Kuchawe Hotel in Zomba, Zambia, remodeling of the Victoria Falls Hotel , Meikles Hotel among plenty others. (See Zimbabwe tourism trends and prospects) He also did renovations and alterations to Hwange Power Station at the end of the colonial rule as the Ian Smith regime had closed down most sections of the station.

Mike Clinton talikng to The Herald last year:

I am worried that because of the economic challenges faced by the country in the past 10 years not many huge buildings like the ones we used to do are coming up. Certain buildings have finally come up, but it took too long to be built.  Such a slow pace of infrastructural development must have been quite hard for university graduates who ended up with no jobs because the demand for building was quite low.

He also said a lot of buildings in Harare are in need for a facelift. “There has been a marked deterioration of office blocks and factories. At some learning institutions, maintenance has been neglected and windows are falling down and doors missing.”

A private residence in Zimbabwe’s Forrester Estate, an agricultural farmland one hour’s drive north of Harare. Dramatically sited on a granite monolith (kopje) 50 metres above the man-made Gota Dam, the project is fulfilling the modernist aspirations of the clients, landowners and farmers Mr and Mrs Heihrich von Pezold, one of the few white commercial farmers left in Zimbabwe.

Appearing to have sprouted right from the ground like a cluster of mushrooms, the 2012 Wienerberger Brick Award winner Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre is a dynamic cultural hub located on a World Heritage Site at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers on the border of Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. (See UNESCO partners with NHK to produce World Heritage videosBiosphere Connections by Star Alliance, UNESCO and National Geographic and What the world’s only active Somali archaeologist has in common with the Iraqi-British winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize)

Image by Mikhael Subotzky, whose project Ponte City, together with Patrick Waterhouse, is a work of art. He photographed each window, door and TV set of the fifty-four storey building in Johannesburg that has had an eventful history. All of these images have been put together in three massive light-boxes of nearly four meters tall, having similar proportions to the Ponte City building’s.

The center and surrounding park celebrate the indigenous peoples of the area and the structure itself blends into the natural beauty of the mesa. Designed by Johannesburg-based Peter Rich Architects, the domed buildings were built with local materials by unemployed local workers, providing them with skills they carried over to work on their own homes.

You can write to Andy Kozlov on a.kozlov@steppesinsync.com

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10 thoughts on “A Zimbabwean Tale of 2 African Architects: vintage images of Bulawayo and Harare”

  1. Well done Andy. We appreciate your efforts. You ought to be emulated by all of us Africans so that the future generations to not lose out on the weath of history of our continent.

  2. Wonderful photos of buildings built long ago. The Parkade next to Chronicle, the Grindlays Bank were designed by Harvey Bufé Partnership, which became Harvey Bufe Mwamuka Mericuri Partnership in 1991. Bulawayo’s city centre and industrial estates are home to most iconic buildings designed by this practice.
    The gentleman featured with Thandie Newton strikes a mirror image of the late great Architect Vernon Mwamuka, whose works are featured herein. The Joina centre will remain Vernon’s living memory. If he was alive ,he would have changed Harare with the proposed Gateway which would have taken pride of place next to the Reserve Bank.

      1. I could not resist making a comment after all the wonderful years at Harvey Bufé Partnership. The late Colonel K.G.Harvey,Leon .J.Bufe, Vernon Mwamuka and Eugenio Mericuri contributed to my architectural education. Stephen Mutsanya now an Architect also played a very pivotal role during those days at both 10th floor Pioneer House, Bulawayo and 5 Baker Avenue Harare. Hope to carry on with the legacy and contribute with landmark buildings which will showcase “African Architecture”

  3. “Thanks so much! I really like the article. I am currently planning an exhibition on Design in Zimbabwe, and wanted to see if the Shona (African) Kitchen – (it’s architecture) would be a good starting point for a concept. I learnt alot from reading your post.” Reblogged this on Tandazani.

  4. Thank you for the email alert. “African Architecture”, for the time being will not form part of architectural education in Zimbabwe and the world. Its not considered well enough to be part of the world syllabus. For a moment, think about the Great Pyramid of Giza. Closer home, look analytically at Southern Africa’s icon-Great Zimbabwe now Zimbabwe ruins. If that generation had not perished, the ancient city would have been the most developed in this part of the world. I hope students at NUST can get an inspiration from its architecture. Personally, I regard it as great architecture of the past, present and future. One can draw lessons from the ancient city of the Rozvi empire.
    Time will tell if “African Architecture” like Roman, Greek be taught in Schools of Architecture worldwide. Meantime, the best we can do is revist Great Zimbabwe, come up with genuine “African Architecture” which will make the world stop and recognize African Architecture in its purest form!!!

    1. Hie Andy and Simba.

      My name is Blessing Mukome – I’m a young designer-entrepreneur, leader, social media developer, development, computer and historical enthusiast who’s currently studying architecture at a university in Zimbabwe. Have to say, I have been interested by your blog, and I’m keen to know more about the story behind the article. I’m writing a research paper for my architectural degree, and it is focusing on tracing the evolution of Zimbabwean architecture, the architectural development and trends in Zimbabwe since its independence, as well as the relationship between the architecture of Zimbabwe before and after its independence. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to gather adequate documentation of Zimbabwe’s architectural history throughout the times; and your blog is one of the few sources I have come across that has the information that would help me gather some form of comprehensive picture of Zimbabwe’s architecture after independence.

      Wanted to find out if you may have more information or sources of information that I can access for my literature review, case studies or peripheral knowledge that can assist me with my research? Any form of help will be welcome.

      Thanking you in advance

  5. Andy thanks for latest newsletter. In reply to Blessing, you should try the Institute of Architects of Zimbabwe as your port of call. If you have time, invest it by talking to past Architects prior to 18 April 1980. You can try the Zimbabwe Archives Centre as well. Another source is the great and well respected Historian Aeneas Chigwedere. Good luck.

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