Friday, March 18, 2011

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

This is Part II of a three-part series where I interview MovedtoMonrovia's Matt Jones about the city's architecture, inspired by his Architectural Tour of Monrovia. Thanks to Matt for being such a good sport!

All images courtesy of Matt Jones.

AC: What do you think are some of the most interesting buildings in Monrovia?


Ducor Hotel in its heyday, c. 1960s.
Matt: They say that cities like Berlin and Rome suffer from too much history, and if Africa had such an example of this, I think it might be Monrovia. Monrovia is a small city, heavy with history, which as part of two centuries worth of "layering" that I spoke of above, has produced some remarkable buildings. 

The Ducor is obvious, and might not be my absolute favorite, but it is classic. A rather talented international architect, Neil Prince, who specialized in deluxe hotels, designed the Ducor, and I think he did an incredible job of delicately overlaying the complex upon an absolutely tremendous natural setting on the crown of Snapper Hill, with the pool and tennis court on their own terraces. The whole setting--the panoramas of the ocean and city, down to the winding approach, recalls Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. I wonder if its popularity as an expat pilgrimage is not the post-failed state irony of an abandoned luxury hotel, but the intricacy of the spaces themselves. I hope the hotel's imminent reconstruction preserves this harmony with the location.

Ducor Hall at Snapper Hill end of Ashmun Street. Photo January 2009.
For the best of Old Monrovia, I really love the Snapper Hill end of Ashmun Street, the block right around Ducor Hall, which is a delightful little mansion and still has a few stained glass windows. Its a wonderful little corner of the city, overlooking the harbor like some New England whaling town's procession of captain's homes. 
 Laundry drying on rocks behind the Star Radio Building, Snapper Hill. The Masonic Temple is at right background. Photo July 2009.
I totally love the abandoned French Embassy on Mamba Point, which is a magnificent example of tropical modernism, and has a very accomplished interaction with the huge basalt rocks on the site. They must have had some sweet poolside diplomatic receptions back in the day. Its gorgeous, I hope it is refurbished one day. It would make an awesome house or small hotel. This might be the handsomest building in the city.
Abandoned French Embassy, UN Drive at Benson Street. The two wings of the modernist residence envelop the pool. Photo May 2009.
If Monrovia is post-colonialism's Rome, then surely the Ministry of Defense in Congo Town must be its Colosseum. Repeating my observations from the Moved2Monrovia architectural tour, I find the duck-billed porte-cochere a fantastically idiosyncratic gesture, especially for a military complex. The courtyard of the structure is an amazing space. There is a sort of meeting area on the top floor which is thoughtfully done. I'm not completely comfortable with the original intentions of the building, and I don't want to be seen as celebrating its vacancy in a detached way, but its a very interesting spot to visit.
The never-occupied Ministry of Defense in Congo Town, with its duck-billed port-cochere. Photo August 2009.
The National Bank Tower opposite the EJ Roye strikes me as a very handsome monolith of raw concrete. It would make a great occupied building--especially if converted into apartments. I hope its deemed structurally sound and someone develops it. I think it would say a lot about Liberia's progress if its tallest buildings ceased to be skeletons.
 A courtroom of the Temple of Justice under refurbishment, March 2010. Originally built by an Italian contractor in the 1960s.
I could go on. The Ministry of Justice, which I believe was designed by Italians, is a very oddly shaped building, but has some truly stunning, modernist courtrooms, which totally changed my opinion about the place--I was lucky to have a tour from a friend last year who was in charge of refurbishing this wing, which I did a post about. The Ministry of Education on Broad Street is sort of an overbearing structure in a sorry state, but I love the open, high, colonnaded gallery shielding the sidewalk, where the daily newspaper and book vendors are. That is a very successful urban space.
Ministry of Educationon Broad Street, with its large, sheltered sidewalk gallery.
AC: What is your favorite African city, from an architectural perspective?
Dakar, Senegal. Photo July 2009.
Dakar, Senegal. Photo July 2009.
Matt: That's another tough one to answer, but I think for all the reasons above I would say Monrovia for sure. First of all, I have only been to a handful of African cities--Nairobi, Accra, and Dakar--which are each very different. Dakar is a very romantic city; Accra is like a miniature L.A. in Africa-- I love spending time there, but its very different from Monrovia.

Many of the African cities that I am most curious about, I haven't been to. High on my list is Lagos--a world unto itself, one that has been written about a lot by sociologists and architects like Rem Koolhaas in the last decade, and one that will be, in whatever form, one of the 21st centuries largest concentrations of humanity. Kinshasa, for the same reasons. Conakry and Freetown are supposed to have dramatic natural settings. I would also like to see cities like Kampala and Yaoundé, laid out over hills. I have seen a lot of video footage of Maputo which puts it high on my list. The planned capitals of Abuja and Yammassoukro would be interesting.

It's a great question because there aren't a whole lot of people who embellish an appreciation for African cities, which are most often the results of mercantile trading, colonial administration, and post-colonial politics, and often manifest the dysfunction and inequality of the state and economy, so their tough to love aren't really set out to be pleasing--but I find them fascinating.

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