Tuesday, March 22, 2011

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

We welcome guest blogger Matt Jones of MovedtoMonrovia fame for the third installment of his interview, inspired by the must-see Architectural Tour of Monrovia. Thanks, Matt!

All images courtesy of Matt Jones.
AC: What are some of the risks and challenges historic architecture faces in Monrovia?

Coleman or Cooper House, Front Street. Original construction date unknown. Photo November 2008.
Matt: Right now, there is basically no value to any historic architecture in Monrovia, from any era. The city's oldest buildings are its most dilapidated, and would even in a much wealthier city take significant resources (and probably regulatory mandate) to see preserved. I've mentioned several times the loss of the Cooper House on Front Street on Coleman Hill downtown. One day it was just gone, and I asked someone about it and they said, well, maybe a better thing will go there. This is not unique to Monrovia by any means, and there is on-going debate everywhere about the merits of preservation and the incursion of the state into property ownership. Personally I think its a shame, and reflects badly on a society.
The rubble of the demolished Coleman House. Photo January 2010.

Overlaid with this lack of appreciation, which I want to stress is prevalent worldwide, is the weight of this history. This is something I can't fully speak to in the situation of Monrovia, especially as a non-Liberian. Do certain groups see settler houses as a sign of oppression, a bitter reminder of a stratified society? Do they see the huge structures of the state-- the Executive Mansion and so forth--in a similar negative way? As a symbol of state largesse? Do they think of these issues at all? Is there pride, or potential pride in the city's heritage, from all eras? I'm optimistic that the potential for a positive appreciation for this heritage exists. Many non-African societies have adopted an academic or ironic approach to architecture from unpleasant eras--the French honor the monarchical past, younger generations in Eastern Europe often adopt Iron Curtain buildings as their own. I don't think these kinds of conversations take place in a milieu like Monrovia, where decisions are based on essential needs and opportunities. I don't think it rises to a level of aesthetic discourse, I think the cultural defense is a challenging one; I think the economic argument, regretfully, is rather weak.

AC: What can citizens can do to support the preservation of historic Monrovia?

Executive Mansion soon after its completion c.1960-65.
For those Liberians who want to make Liberia a better place, I would encourage them strongly to consider the merits of preservation. First of all, it is everyone's heritage, and not just of one strata of society--it is part of the national heritage of Liberia as a whole. Secondly, I think I could defend a decent economic argument that if Liberia's historic architecture is lost, it will have a negative impact on the country's development. I am completely serious when I assert that Monrovia has the latent potential to be a sort of French Quarter of West Africa-- the place a Lagosian or Accran or Dakarian couple goes for a long weekend, in future years and decades when there is a leisure class of urban Africans. If, in the meantime, Monrovia replaces those settler homes and even, I would argue, its mid-century modernist heritage, the city would be undercutting its most distinguishing built assets.
Postcard showing Broad Street dominated by the brand new Ducor Hotel, c. 1960-65

For the time being, although market forces are surely now and will for some time be against them, there is nothing stopping concerned Monrovians from approaching the government for establishing preservative action. This can take the form of citizen action committees, to raise awareness of the issue and get the conversation going. Eventually, it usually takes real money to be able to wrest control of individual properties from those who don't value them, but I think a public discussion about appreciating Monrovia's buildings would actually do a lot to heal old wounds. Sometimes I wonder if Liberians of settler heritage are cautious about honoring that past too much.

AC: What would you like for Liberians to know about their capital's architecture?

Monrovia from the harbor, around World War I.
Matt: What I hope for, is that Liberians see Monrovia as a beautiful city. It might seem silly to talk about it that way, with its potholes and puddles, noisy generators, barbed-wire walls, overflowing squatter communities, and open trash heaps, its clusters of mud-huts, its ruins. But to me there is no question that Monrovia is laid out on a rather dramatic natural situation, bounded by the ocean and the marsh, interrupted with fierce outcroppings of rock. I think in a number of ways, the manner in which Monrovia has been built over the centuries also make it a nice city. And today, although it is far too crowded for its infrastructure, it is still a great little city.
A German postcard showing Broad Street around the turn of the 20th century.

In terms of its architectural heritage and current additions, aside from what I've said already about preservation, it to decide to make the city beautiful when building, and deciding to build (which means, considering saving the structure that exists). This was the attitude that, by many individually and collectively in previous eras, gave us the tiny but handsome settler capital along Broad Street, and the imposing, futuristic campus of Capital Hill, the serene retreat of the Ducor Hotel, and the sleek playfulness of the LBDI Bank in Sinkor. People designed their surroundings to be pleasant, and something to be proud of. I would hope Monrovians can be proud of their city, and its architecture. That's how you take the best of what you have, and make it better.

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