Monthly Archives: October 2011

Midcentury Modern: Ghana’s Freedom Fad.

CO 1069-46-23. January, 1957. Description: Exterior of the new Central Library in Accra. Location: Gold Coast, Accra, Ashanti, Sekondi, Ghana. Courtesy of The National Archives, UK. Obtained from:

The National Archives’[UK] Africa Through a Lens is a collection of thousands of images from  Foreign and Commonwealth Offices, taken from 20 African countries starting in the 1860’s through the 1980’s. This date range spanned from colonization to the independence of many African nations. Looking at the collections, the indicators of change are apparent. Having the most notable signs of this transition is the Ghana collection. Among early images of chiefs, tribesmen and villages are photographs from urban Ghana in the mid 20th century with signs of modernization through infrastructure, especially architecture.

During Ghana’s transition from British rule to independence, 1951-1957, the emergence of ‘tropical architecture’ began and continued through the 1960s.   In Mark Crinson’s book, Architecture and the End of Empire, there is a section dedicated to this movement in Ghana, although it was prevalent in much of Western Africa, and discusses its synonymy with liberation from imperial rule.  The excerpt below, from Crinson, describes the progression:

CO 1069-43-55. Location: Accra. Courtesy of The National Archives, UK. Obtained from:

“Everything of the colonial period – a period now past, was to be distrusted and even discarded without explicitly acknowledging it as belonging to a colonial past, nor the possibility of a continuing colonial presence or a rising neocolonial future. 

‘Tropical architecture’, it was hoped, was not so much post-imperial as beyond imperialism, part of another world-view all together. It was part of an imagined world where liberation had already happened, without violence and without social unrest, and in which the job now was all to do with modernization, the opening up of another field for architectural territorialization.  As the old modernist rallying cry had put it, ‘Architecture or Revolution’.”

There were two prominent figures who lead the tropical architecture movement in British West Africa: Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew.  Fry and Drew, a British couple, were both leading modernist architects in London. During World War II, Fry was sent to Ghana on a military post. Once the war was over, Fry and Drew stayed to contribute their architectural endeavors in Western Africa and give birth to ‘tropical architecture’.

In this new style, buildings were usually built with cement walls and incorporated elements to cope with the heat and humidity, such as cross-ventilation by the use of pierced screens, verandahs, perforated walls, and wide eaves. The use of African designs in detailing was encouraged, commonly seen banisters and window decorations. Hospitals, universities, museums, libraries, municipal centers, and embassies were some of the likeliest candidates to receive an edifice in the style of tropical architecture.

It should be acknowledged that this revolutionary form of architecture was led by British architects. The colonizing nation’s talent was still dominating planning and creation of the prominent facilities for change while enforcing a European system.  With mostly British contractors using African workforces, the recipients of the largest salaries were most certainly taking funds back to the homeland of their former imperial rule. Despite finding possible flaws with the movement of ‘tropical architecture,’ the sleek, linear structures nestled in the lush Ghanaian landscape were beacons of hope and progress.

The National Archive has hosted Africa Through a Lens on Flickr, so that the public can contribute any information regarding the images since much data is missing. Peruse Ghana, along with 25 other African countries, and look out for the signs of liberation.

CO 1069-43-17. Description: Electricity House, Accra, the new Headquarters of the Electricity Department. Location: Accra. Courtesy of The National Archives UK. Obtained from:

CO 1069-46-9. January 1957. Description: Schoolboys and a teacher in the grounds of the Opoku Ware Boys’ Secondary School at Kumasi, in Ashanti. This boarding school, in its new and modern building, was established in 1952. Location: Gold Coast, Kumasi, Ashanti, Ghana. Courtesy of The National Archives UK. Obtained from:


Crinson, M. (2003). Modern architecture and the end of empire. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate.

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Dreamcatching Sketchbooks.

Black Hawk Ledger, plate 4. Tribe : (Lakota Sioux)- Sans Arc. Courtesy of Plains Indian Ledger Art, obtained from:

When keeping a dream diary, one of the crucial components to its accuracy and enriched content is to document first thing after waking, when memory of the dream is fresh in the mind’s eye.  When looking at Native American Ledger Art, there is a similar sentiment to this concept. As Native Americans were being forced to live on reservations while their culture was simultaneously  vanishing, these sketchbooks created by the Plains Indians illustrated ways of life, ceremonies, war stories and events that were captured at the end of an era, when recollection was most vivid.

Koba-Russell Ledger, plate 14. Tribe : Kiowa. Couresty of Plains Indian Ledger Art, obtained from:

Ledger Art, as it is called since accountant ledgers were often used for these sketchbooks, was created roughly between 1860-1900, when the great buffalo herds disappeared, tribes were forced to relocate to restricted territories, and their children sent to boarding schools.  It was at this time that Plains Indian men artistically adapted from using natural paints on hide applied with bone and paintbrushes, to the confines of notebook sized paper with crayons, colored pencil and water colors.

The Plains Indian Ledger Art Digital Publishing Project  (PILA) has 17 ledger books completely digitized and hosted online to view.  Each ledger is thoroughly documented, with all of its plates presented from front to back cover.  Thanks to PILA, we can take a glimpse into the memory and imagination of the Plains Indians, before their dream was so rudely interrupted.

Rosebud School Album, plate 12; black tailed deer dreamer. Tribe: Lakota (Sioux) – Brulé. Couresty of Plains Indian Ledger Art, obtained from:

Rosebud School Album, plate 16; one horned buffalo bull dancer. Tribe: Lakota (Sioux) – Brulé. Couresty of Plains Indian Ledger Art, obtained from:

Koba-Russell Ledger, plate 20; medicine men dance. Tribe : Kiowa. Couresty of Plains Indian Ledger Art, obtained from:

Bad Eye Sketchbook, back cover. Tribe : Kiowa. Couresty of Plains Indian Ledger Art, obtained from:

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