The period after the Second World War saw many West African nations fighting for and gaining their independence from Western colonizers. After over a century of occupation and exploitation in the region, newly independent states commissioned public architectural works in an effort to advance the crafting of new national identities and to assert their economic and cultural prowess on the international stage. West African Modernism became a new language and an experimental ground that pushed political, cultural, and aesthetic notions of contemporaneity in the region.

Since the post-independence period, West African Modern architectures have evolved dramatically to reflect the contexts and communities that surround them. The public has found ways to appropriate each site to suit their needs when original programs and operational strategies conceived for these sites have become defunct. Aziza Chaouni Projects’ (ACP’s) architectural practice has been working to understand the particular histories of three publicly-owned Modern complexes in West Africa erected during the post-independence era in order to revitalize them through adaptive reuse, working to address public needs while maintaining their cultural heritage for future generations.

The ACP team has been involved in the development of conservation management plans of three major Modern architectural heritage complexes from the post-independence era in Francophone West Africa:1 The Sidi Harazem Thermal Bath Complex in Morocco, Centre international du commerce extérieur du Sénégal (CICES) in Senegal, and La Maison du Peuple (The House of the People) in Burkina Faso. All three embody different trajectories defined by their sociopolitical contexts, however they share several similarities;

  1. Morocco, Senegal, and Burkina Faso are all Francophone countries in West Africa who have historic, economic, cultural, and diasporic ties to France;

  2. All three sites represent a form of “Situated Modernism,” blending the International Style with local vernacular architecture;

  3. As projects from the early era of independence, they were experimental grounds for crafting new national identities;

  4. Today, each site now houses different activities to what the architects originally intended;

ACP has been developing plans for the rehabilitation of these complexes as well as tools to enable codesign with site owners, community stakeholders, young creatives, and others to address each site’s complexities. These efforts work to build recognition of the inherent significance and potential of these sites while reimagining their use.

As part of these efforts, ACP has been engaging with local stakeholders to build a library of oral testimonies around each site; to raise awareness, reveal unknown histories, and to empower communities to share their stories. Through “Modern West Africa: Recorded,” we reveal three modern masterpieces through the voices of stakeholders, shedding light on the complex and understudied aspects of Modern heritage in Africa.

Critically, many publicly-owned Modern sites in Africa from the post-independence era have been reappropriated and are still in use. In Senegal, CICES has become a green lung for a neighborhood that grew within the original borders of the site. Maison du Peuple transformed from a legislative assembly building in Ouagadougou to a popular venue for cultural events and a public square. At the Sidi Harazem Thermal Bath Station in Morocco, local villagers have built their own markets in the absence of adequate commercial infrastructure while the touristic facilities largely remain empty. These sites have come to answer public needs that are not addressed by authorities with jurisdiction. The continuous use of Modern West African sites discloses their inherent resilience and the crucial social and economic roles large public facilities can play in rapidly-changing and growing African cities. Lessons can still be learned from these works, such as their inventive use of locally available materials; their use of laterite stone, PVC tubes, textiles, mosaics, etc. However large heritage assets require maintenance plans and innovative operational and financial models to ensure that their multifaceted heritage, public value, and public access are protected.

There is no universal approach to Modern heritage conservation in Africa. New conservation methodologies must be developed to address the particular conditions of each site: lost archives, development pressures, mixed public perceptions, reappropriation by local actors, the emergence of informal economies, poor infrastructure causing safety hazards, the architecture’s monumentality, technical challenges of rehabilitating exposed concrete, changing climatic conditions, economic and operational burdens on public owners, a lack of technical expertise around Modern conservation practices etc. Despite these challenges, many of these sites hold a particular nostalgia to the publics that have interacted with them, representing the optimism and identity nation building of early post-independence eras. Aziza Chaouni Projects’ work often involves building a historical record through the collection of personal memorabilia and oral histories to fill critical knowledge gaps about the past, and to speculate towards future possibilities. The generation of people that can provide first-hand accounts of the development, construction, and early operation of each complex is quickly disappearing, and their histories must be captured quickly. Our work has also included building capacity locally in Modern heritage conservation through partnerships with communities and academic institutions; empowering a new generation of creatives, designers, and thinkers to explore and build the futures of their cities. 

Modern buildings are also largely unrecognized (and therefore underprotected) in the field of architectural heritage. On the UNESCO World Heritage List only rare exceptions are made for the works of Le Corbusier, Auguste Perret and Frank Lloyd Wright–solely western citations. African heritage designations are generally reserved for natural, intangible, or ‘ancient’ built works with no exception–leading to a lack of recognition for the built heritage of Africa in the Modern (and particularly post-independence) era. Post-independence Modernism in Africa is an architectural genre that reveals a set of nation-building strategies that resulted in the development of aesthetic languages and construction techniques which claimed to define contemporaneity in Africa. These works also disclose the complex impact of the African artisan on the Modern movement, through inspiration, appropriation, or collaboration. Yet, our involvement in the conservation of these Modern sites would not be possible without Western philanthropic foundations such as the Getty Conservation Institute and World Monuments Fund. Unpacking these histories is key at a moment where Africa faces another period of reckoning - characterized by shifts in identity, global power, demographic changes, ecological crises, etc.

The emergence of West African Modernism and the transnational exchange of ideas during the colonial and post-independence periods has not been thoroughly investigated and is not well understood. The driving factors that may have fostered these exchanges are the colonial professionalization of the architectural field on the continent (and subsequent reliance on foreign experts), mandatory military or civil service requirements for French nationals that brought them to the African colonies, colonial industrial pipelines and trade, the growth of international development/aid institutions, a global post-war construction boom, a revolution in the use of reinforced concrete, and perhaps most importantly - a search for aesthetics that represented the progress, development, modernity, and vernacular of each newly independent nation. Africa was also seen as a space for architectural experimentation,2 largely free of the bureaucracy and building code of the French system3 as well as the trauma felt in Europe after the Second World War. There are many lessons to be learned about the inventive use of local materials in African Modernism – PVC tubes, local stone, mosaics, copper, wood, textiles etc. In many cases, locals who received a Western-style education (and became recognized by the formalized profession) made critical contributions to the early Modern movement in West Africa: Pierre Goudiaby Atepa (Senegal), Cheikh Ngom (Senegal), Demas Nwoko (Nigeria), Abel Isaac Traoré (Burkina Faso), Wango Pierre Sawadogo (Burkina Faso), Elie Azagury (Morocco), Abdeslem Faraoui (Morocco), and others.5,6  

Architectural Modernism must also be understood in relation to contemporaneous art movements such as Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, which borrowed from African artisans themselves.Looking beyond ties between France and its former colonies, architects such as René Faublée (Maison du Peuple - Burkina Faso) named the Japanese Modern movement as a key inspiration,8 including Noguchi tables in the original furnishings of Maison du Peuple.

Although Faublée never visited Japan, his home and office libraries included many books on Japanese art and architecture, representing the increasingly wide networks of architectural exchange in the postwar era. The prolific French-Moroccan architect, Jean-François Zevaco, was subscribed to the Japanese architecture magazine Shinkenchiku (now known as the Architecture and Urbanism Magazine). Zevaco drew inspiration from Japanese architecture’s elegant wood joinery and seamless integration with landscapes, both clearly evident in his design for the Sidi Harazem Thermal Bath Station.

In this sense, the Modern movement globalized architectural theory and production, influencing a generation of African architects, contractors, and tradespeople. Many were trained or influenced by Western educational institutions and their graduates. Both the formative decades of situated Modernism in Africa during and after the colonial era and the impact these projects had on the subsequent lives of cities, designers, artisans, and citizens require deeper study.

Modern West Africa: Recorded is a film that juxtaposes three case-studies as told by key stakeholders: Centre International du Commerce Extérieur du Sénégal (Senegal, 1974), The Sidi Harazem Thermal Bath Station (Morocco, 1960-65), and Maison du Peuple (Burkina Faso, 1965). Aziza Chaouni Projects is developing/ has developed conservation management plans for the aforementioned sites. The COVID pandemic has significantly stalled progress towards the formal protection of The Sidi Harazem Thermal Bath Station and CICES - it is our hope that this film brings attention back to these sites and the communities impacted by them.

1. “Modern West Africa: Recorded” includes Morocco in the region of West Africa in an effort to highlight similarities in the sociocultural and historic developments of architectural styles of former French colonies in the region. Historically (prior to French colonization) Morocco has had critical economic, cultural, and religious ties to other countries on the western side of Africa. This is also an effort to counter the colonial effort to divide and flatten Africa into distinct egions (see: Berlin conference 1884-5). French colonial governments used various colonies as testing grounds for development logics, resulting in cross pollination of the various strategies between colonies in French West Africa, and resulting in an arterial approach to power and governance.
2. See: Cohen, Jean-Louis, and Monique Eleb. Casablanca: Colonial Myths and Architectural Ventures. New York: Monacelli, 2002.
3. Herz, Manuel, Ingrid Schröder, Hans Focketyn, Iwan Baan, Alexia Webster, and Léo Noyer-Duplaix. “Henri Chomette: Africa as a Terrain of Architectural Freedom.” Essay. In African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence: Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Zambia, 271–81. Zurich: Park Books, 2015.
4. Demas Nwoko received training in set design at Le Centre Français du Théâtre in Paris. 5. See the work of MAMMA Group of building an archive of architectural Modernism in Morocco:
6. There are several notable exceptions in this generation of West African architects including John Owusu Addo (Ghana).
7. “African Art: The First Form of Cubism.” The Collector, April 18, 2023.
8. From interview with Michel Faublee, January 2023.