Postwar Colonialism - Liquid, Crystal, Concrete: Arts in Postwar Britain

Postwar Colonialism - Liquid, Crystal, Concrete: Arts in Postwar Britain

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Paul Mellon Centre and online

16 Bedford Square

London

WC1B 3JA

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This event is part of the conference series 'Liquid Crystal Concrete: The Arts of Postwar Britain 1945–1965'

About this event

Wednesday 13 July

6pm–7.30pm | Paul Mellon Centre and online

Postwar Colonialism: Iain Jackson and Rixt Woudstra

Modern Architecture in West Africa: Schools, Sculptures and Magazines

This paper is concerned with modernist architecture in “British West Africa” produced in the aftermath of World War Two and the independence period of these countries.

These experimental and often provocative structures were designed for climatic comfort, as well as becoming didactic vehicles for ideas sharing ideas of a modern and liberated Africa.

The paper will discuss attempts at forming a “Bauhaus” Art School in Accra, followed by various commissions of libraries, community centres and museums that attempted to blend the most radical architectural designs with decoration, murals and sculptures. The West African context seemingly presented a “blank canvas” for newly qualified architects eager to “experiment” in ways that would be impossible in Britain. Whilst these buildings were often presented as symbols of an emerging nationalism and expectation of liberation, they also reveal the ongoing neo-colonial methods, with many relying on the patronage of multinationals such as the United Africa Company.

Finally, the paper will discuss how these projects were reported and shared, especially through the high-brow magazine Nigeria, which regularly featured extensive articles written by the architects on the latest designs.

The result was a diverse and extremely fertile context that reveals an often-overlooked set of important structures responding to a period of political flux and cultural exchange.

“A feeling of warmth”: Tropical Timber, Modern Interiors and the United Africa Company in Postwar Britain

In 1960, the new, modernist headquarters of the United Africa Company (UAC), one of the leading British trading businesses extracting palm oil, cocoa and other raw goods from West Africa since the late nineteenth century, opened near Blackfriars Bridge in central London. While the structure’s grey concrete and glass exterior appeared cold, inside the architects used a strikingly large variety of gleaming tropical timbers. The doors, floors and panelling, as well as most of the furniture, were made of honey-coloured idigbo, pinkish makore, fine-textured guarea, reddish-brown sapele and deep-brown African mahogany – all logged by one of the company’s subsidiaries, the African Timber and Plywood Company, in Nigeria and Ghana. Although an exceptional example, it was certainly not the only building containing exotic timbers in postwar Britain; tropical wood could be seen in and on the outside of university building, civic centres, housing estates, sport facilities and offices.

Scholars have explored how Jamaican and Honduran mahogany, sourced by enslaved workers, left an imprint on British domestic interiors and furniture design in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. Less well known, however, is that “empire timber” – and later, “world woods” – continued to permeate British design and interior architecture well into the twentieth century. This talk focuses on the commercial activities of the UAC in Nigeria and Ghana during the 1950s and ‘60s and considers how tropical timber was deployed to soften or provide a decorative element to modernism, often perceived as cold and austere. Moreover, examining tropical timber and tracing where and by whom it was logged, how it was processed, sawn, shipped and sold, enables us to see how British postwar modernism was dependent on imperial and neo-imperial networks of extraction and colonial labour.

Iain Jackson is an architect and historian at the Liverpool School of Architecture. His research is concerned with late colonial and “tropical” modern architecture in the global south and West Africa in particular. He is currently working on a Leverhulme Trust-funded project to investigate the architecture of the United Africa Company, in collaboration with Unilever. This research stemmed from an exhibition and catalogue on the mercantile architecture of Accra, co-curated with ArchiAfrika in 2019.

Jackson co-authored an extensive monograph on the architects Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, that included their works in West Africa and India, and he also co-authored a publication on the works of Herbert J. Rowse as part of the Twentieth Century Architects series published by Historic England and The Twentieth Century Society.

Jackson also has a research interest in “self-taught art” and “visionary environments” and co-authored a monograph on Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India. His survey drawings of the Rock Garden are now held in the permanent collection of the John Michael Kolher Arts Center, and he curated an exhibition on Nek Chand at the center in 2018.

Rixt Woudstra is an historian of modern architecture and material culture, with a specific focus on the effects of British colonialism on the built environment. She is currently an Assistant Professor at New College of Humanities in London and a postdoctoral research associate at Liverpool University’s Department of Architecture. In Liverpool, she is part of a Leverhulme-funded project exploring the architectural and urban history of the United Africa Company in British West Africa. She is joining the University of Amsterdam as a tenure-track Assistant Professor in the summer of 2022.

She completed her PhD at MIT and is working on her first book based on her dissertation, titled Designing Stability: Modern Architecture and Anti-Colonial Protest in “British” Africa, 1945–1957. Her research has been supported by fellowships and awards from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, Harvard University’s Center for European Studies and the MIT Africa-Program.

Image Credit: ATP Timber Pavilion, Lagos International Trade Fair 1962 (c) United Africa Company Archive at Unilever

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