Tuesday, March 15, 2011

MovedtoMonrovia on the city's architecture (Part I of III)

A few weeks ago, I came across MovedtoMonrovia, a site developed and written by friend and fellow entrepreneur Matt Jones. His Learn 2 Speak Liberian English entertained me for a solid morning and his blog was full of great content, but it was the Architectural Tour of Monrovia that encouraged me to invite him to share more with us. Introducing Anonymous Country's first ever guest blogger! Thanks again to Matt for being so amenable to all my questions, and for the great images. 

All images courtesy of Matt Jones.

AC: How would you summarize Monrovia's architecture?

Matt: Generally speaking, I would separate Monrovia into four categories, that don't necessarily account for all of its built environment, but that encompass the most interesting and important layers of the city, which exist side by side.
National Museum (former legislature) Broad Street. Photo October 2009.

The first is the 19th-century settler architecture, the oldest buildings in the city. The majority are residential; about the only remaining non-residential structure is the National Museum on Broad Street, which had been the Legislature in previous eras. The Masonic Lodge might be a part of this, but its at a totally different style and scale than any other example of settler architecture, and I don't even know when it was first built. This is a heritage very unique to Liberia and one of the city's most singular assets, and something I talk a good deal about on Moved2Monrovia.

Postcard from Monrovia, c. 1970s. On the top left is the Executive Mansion, bottom left shows the EJ Roye Building dominating the vista of the harbor.
Secondly, there is the mid-20th century architecture, first emerging in the boom-time "Open Door" glory days of the Tubman Administration, from 1950s, with occasional additions up to the Doe years. These remain the city's largest buildings, originally built by international design and construction firms to house a greatly expanded state apparatus: the Capitol Hill complex remains the single biggest intervention the country's built appearance; this joined other ministerial buildings on Broad Street, as well as others like City Hall, and JFK Hospital, and especially that surreal manifestation of a one-party state: The E.G. Roye tower, the True Whig Party's foray into real estate speculation, which I understand used to have a lovely auditorium, but I've never seen it.

Episcopal Church Plaza at Ashmun and Randall Streets, formerly a branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank of New York, built in the 1960s. Photo May 2009.
Relatedly, the international-standard commercial edifices of that period, chief examples being the Ducor Hotel, and several office developments in the center of town, such as the former Chase Manhattan Plaza at Randall and Ashmun Streets.

Postcard of Ducor Hotel atop Snapper Hil, with President JJ Roberts Monument at left. c. 1960s
I own copies of, or have seen, a great number of the photographs that survived from this era, and I have also talked to a number of older Liberians about this, and of course read whatever history I can find. Monrovia was something quite unlike anywhere else in West Africa during in these decades: it was the most orderly, most impressive, most modern city in the region, and a proud symbol of Africans successfully governing themselves just as colonialism was ending. 
The EJ Roye Building, a vacant shell, and on the right the never-completed National Bank Tower. Photo November 2009.
By global, not just regional standards, Monrovia was a remarkably wealthy city, with a 5-star hotel and a Pan Am hub launching daily jets to New York, a local branch of Chase Manhattan Bank of New York, an Embassy Row on Mamba Point with representatives of all the world's great powers. Its hard nowadays to even imagine that era, when Accrans and Conakrians would come to marvel at Monrovia, but those buildings are almost entirely still with us. An adjunct to this category might be that only-in-Liberia class of never-occupied buildings from the later Doe era: the National Bank Tower and the Ministry of Defense, among others. 
The never-occupied National Bank Building, the tallest building in the country. Ashmun Street near Johnson Street. Photo November 2008.
Not very much was built between then and the present, the post-Taylor period, what might be called the "Ellen-boom" which only really got underway in about 2008--the new hotels and supermarkets, the massive new Chinese Embassy, the National Election Commission and other new state construction, and the enormous Nigerian megachurches. Most of this is totally forgettable, but there are a few commendable attempts to enhance the city. I like the LBDI Bank at Sinkor, designed by my friend Sylvanus O'Connor of AEP. He's very creative. Its very uplifting to see new construction around Monrovia, but most of it I just don't find very compelling--and most of it is not designed with any sort of aesthetic respect for itself or its surroundings. These have appeared mainly to answer the service and consumption needs of NGOs, the UN, and ex-pats, and most of time the only intention is to create guarded, air-conditioned office and residential space. 
New Office Building, corner of Newport St and Sekou Toure Avenue, Mamba Point. Photo March 2010.

 LBDI Bank, Sinkor at Tubman Blvd and 9th Street. Designed and built by AEP Consultants of Monrovia. Photo March 2010.
Lastly, what might be called the informal layer, created mostly in the late 20th century, is critical to recognize, and to achieve an understanding of Monrovia. This is what is often called 'architecture without architects.' This is West Point, which is similar to, if more crowded than, it was half a century ago, but also the areas that were mostly uninhabited before the war, both large and small: Fiamah, Wroto Town, Behind JFK, Jallah Town, Plumkor, Jorkpentown, Gaye Town, Chugbor, Slipway, and so on in a great arc around the entire city, from Chocolate Factory, north of Somalia Drive, to Thinker's Village on the eastern fringe of Paynesville's sprawl--quite aside from the tiny infills of squatters all across the city, from Mamba Point to Sinkor. Even before I came to Monrovia for the first time, I would fly over these territories on Google Earth, trying to make sense of them. I've been lucky to spend a lot of time in them since then-- some very dear friends of mine live in Gaye Town, another family in Fiamah.

Gaye Town section of Old Road Sinkor. Photo November 2009.
This is where at least one quarter of Liberia, and the majority of the city, reside: living in mat huts or handmade concrete houses across the metropolitan area. This isn't talked about very much, although I know many Liberians both in public service and private enterprise who are very aware of this situation and wish to address it. These small, marginal enclaves are microscopic compared to the scale of slums in other African cities, but it is hugely important to recognize that Monrovia is a city for 200,000 people with a population of at least 1,000,000. This is where the challenge is for Liberia, and for designers of all types trying to improve lives of African's urban dwellers.

The top of Redemption Road, looking west over Barclay Training Center and Mamba Point. Photo Jan 2010.


  1. Great Interview. This should be a book of Liberia. Thank you Matt Jones for your hard work my brother.

  2. I agree! Matt, I see a great coffee table book in the future...

  3. Thanks again Elie, and I'll get to work on that book!


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