BY Lennart Wolff in Opinion | 05 JUN 24
Featured in
Issue 244

Reimagining a Post-Colonial Ivorian Cityscape

Koffi & Diabaté Architectes have developed a new project as an alternative to unchecked and market-oriented urbanization

BY Lennart Wolff in Opinion | 05 JUN 24

This piece appears in the columns section of frieze 244, Built Environment

In Joana Choumali’s mixed-media work As the Wind Whispers (2019), dawn light engulfs the modernist towers of Abidjan’s Cité Administrative. Here, the artist stitches an intri­cate figure-ground composition: a scene of everyday life – compan­ions relaxing in the shade of trees – against the backdrop of the city’s seemingly indestructible buildings made from the 1960s through to the ’80s. Structures including Hotel Ivoire (1963) and La Pyramide (1973) cemented the national aspirations of postcolonial Côte d’Ivoire: unity, independence and modernization. Long after the ‘miracle state’ of the country’s first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, these buildings continue to echo an unfulfilled promise of unbuilding the (neo)colonial relations between periphery and core.

Joana Choumali, As The Wind Whispers, from the project 'Alba’hian', 2019, mixed media work, 80 × 80 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Following recessions, political instability and World Bank-mandated aggressive neo-liberalization, the cranes are once again turning in Abidjan, where the tallest governmental glass high-rise in the Economic Community of West African States is being erected. The recent economic and construction boom has coincided with publications, exhibitions and nothing less than the canonization of the independence period’s so-called tropical modernism. This climate-based architectural regionalism appropriated traditional and vernacular building typologies and techniques, and was developed from the 1950s onwards by the Architectural Association in London (AA), amongst others.

Julia Gallagher, photograph of Administrative, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Courtesy: Julia Gallagher and King’s College London

‘Growing up in a modern house built around shading and natural cross-ventilation, I claim tropical modernism also to be my heritage,’ explains Issa Diabaté, founding partner of Koffi & Diabaté Architectes, when we speak. The office, which operates across the region, often employs clay, bamboo and wooden structures. Working from a part of the world that is – as historian Achille Mbembe described in his 2020 lecture ‘Notes on Brutalism’ – still dominated by an ‘economy of extraction of material wealth and predation of bodies and minds’, Diabaté contends that the scale of individual building projects is insufficient. Instead, he emphasizes the importance of architects intervening in broader systems of urban planning, governance and resource allocation, particularly in an era when housing humanity is intrinsically linked to the very question of planetary habitability.

Ebrah Project, Koffi & Diabaté Development, Ebrah, Ivory Coast. Courtesy: Koffi & Diabaté Architectes

Here, ‘Abidjan’s African Riviera project, a post-independence garden city development plan, profoundly influenced our perspective,’ Diabaté tells me. Conceived by Houphouët-Boigny and a group of architects led by the visionary William Pereira, the never-finished plan was meant to feature abundant greenery, hotels, public housing and schools on a scale now unimaginable after decades of Western-encouraged austerity. However, the project was riven with many of the common fallacies of modernist planning, such as top-down approaches and carbon-intense infrastructure. Diabaté believes that Houphouët-Boigny used architecture to stratify Ivorian society: ‘In one area, only teachers would reside; in another, only doctors.’ Moreover, the imposed orderly arranging of bodies and materials, central to both architecture and politics, in the name of state- and nation-building and development, hardly ever took place on ‘empty land’ but, rather, on the territory of the Ébrié people. Designing around existing villages commanded separation and resettlement, as lead architect Thomas Leitersdorf recalled in a 2002 interview with Eran Tamir-Tawil. Later, AA-trained Leitersdorf would apply the techniques he honed in Côte d’Ivoire to build Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Today, Koffi & Diabaté Architectes are envisioning a markedly different approach with their Ebrah Project, which will use the existing village and its governance structure as its foundation. Radiating from this core of local self-governance will be a development of predominantly affordable housing that reduces car reliance and preserves the sacred forests around the notion of what the firm terms the ‘mutualization of land and wealth’. Emphasizing an understanding of the ‘architect as a citizen’, the Ebrah Project is meant to provide an alternative to rampant deregulated, market-driven urbanization.

La Pyramide, SCIAM and CAISTAB building, 2021, Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. Courtesy: mtcurado / Getty Images 

‘The years of the Ivorian miracle have ultimately been based on a Western vision of progress that resonates until today, exemplified by beliefs such as the superiority of concrete houses over those made from rammed earth. We are working on changing that,’ Diabaté notes. The urgent questions of reparations and repair at the core of architectural production today are epitomized in what Mbembe describes in Brutalism (2023) as a ‘planetary turn of the African condition and the Africanization of the planetary condition’. Here, where the ‘prospects of decline are the most glaring’, he argues, a creative metastasis can build the way towards decarbonization and deborderization of ‘the future of life and thinking’ on the planet. Meanwhile, on the northern horizon, from Mali to Burkina Faso and Niger, the sun is setting on so-called Françafrique.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 244 with the headline ‘After the Miracle State’

Main image: Ebrah Project (detail), Koffi & Diabaté Development, Ebrah, Ivory Coast. Courtesy: Koffi & Diabaté Architectes

Lennart Wolff is an architect and curator. Together with Limbo Accra, he is launching the AA Visiting School ‘Liminal Architecture Lab’, which will take place in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal.