Aug 28, 2023

The Architectural Identity of the State House

Known as the state house, the presidential palace, and an assortment of other terms — the building that hosts a country's seat of government is usually quite architecturally striking. Frequently opulent, grand, and sometimes imposing, the state house is intended to function as a visually distinct marker of a nation — an extension of a state's identity. In the African continent, a landmass that had seen a significant part of it colonized by European nations, this identity of statehood, in an architectural sense, is complex.

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There is the 1960s and 1970s Modernism found in places like Ghana and Senegal, as newly-independent nations sought to express a markedly different architectural aesthetic in an age of liberation. Similar architectural approaches are found throughout the continent, in addition to the subsequent prevalence of a globalized "International" style.

But what about the state house? These structures in a host of African nations are remnants from colonial times, now of course populated by an African political class. They are apt representations of the complicated identities in the built fabric of nations, and of how the most politically significant building in a country is often a story of reappropriation.

In Tanzania, although its capital is Dodoma — it is the State House in Dar es Salaam that has historically been the premier venue for matters of the state. Overlooking the Indian Ocean, its architecture is influenced by the Arabic style found on Africa's East coast — an unsurprising characteristic as the architect commissioned to design it was based in Zanzibar at the time.

The State House was completed in 1922, soon after the British government took colonial control of the area known as Tanganyika. The Zanzibar-based architect was John Houston Sinclair, who in Zanzibar had designed in an Arabesque style interlaced with classic elements the Shangani Post Office and the Sayyidieh Market building. The State House, in a stylistic rendition of the Swahili architectural style, features pointed arch windows and doors, together with smooth plain-white exterior walls. In 1961, the new independent Tanzanian government would continue using the building as the seat of government, its architectural style — not out of place in Zanzibar's Stone Town and indeed, Dar es Salaam's older structures, reflecting a stratified history where colonial-period architects looked to the immediate rich architectural Swahili context for inspiration.

In nearby Kenya — also under British rule — 1907 saw the construction of its present-day State House, designed by English architect Sir Herbert Baker. Prolific in colonial India and South Africa, the Nairobi Government House, as it was known then, was very much an expression of a European style, featuring a protruding entrance topped by a plain triangular pediment and held up by neoclassical-style columns. There is less of a contextual architectural approach in Baker's State House, and today, it still functions as Kenya's governmental administrative and operational headquarters.

But there are times when the memories of imperial conquest are too enmeshed with the built fabric in colonies. Ghana is a particular example. Osu Castle, also referred to as Fort Christiansborg, was built in the 17th century on Accra's coast. Switching ownership between Denmark, Norway, Portugal, the Akwamu people, and the British, the castle was under heavy security, housing residential quarters, a bell tower, cannons and saluting guns. This heavy security was due to its status as a venue of economic importance, as a key site that sustained the slave trade. The years between 1694 and 1803 saw the castle facilitate the exchange of ammunition, guns, and liquor for enslaved Africans, who were kept in the castle's dungeons.

Ruled by the British government under the umbrella of the Gold Coast, 1902 saw the castle function as the main administrative hub of Ghana's colonial government, before becoming the residence of President Kwame Nkrumah in 1960, when Ghana was formally declared a republic.

Having served as the seat of Ghana's independent government for almost fifty years, 2005 saw a fierce parliamentary discussion ignited, as ministers debated on if the castle should remain with its governmental function due to its unsuitability for modern office tasks, but more crucially, due to its extensive history as a slave-holding fort. This led to the construction of the Jubilee House in 2008 in Accra, built on a site that was previously home to a colonial government building. Designed in a Post-Modern style seemingly referencing the furniture of the Akan peoples, this would act as a new seat of government, unencumbered by the difficult history present in Osu Castle's walls.

In the post-independence and contemporary context, it makes sense, as national budgets are spent elsewhere, for the post-colonial State House to be the same building that served that function during the colonial period, as in Kenya and Tanzania. It is also interesting, as in Ghana, to see an approach that rejects a colonial-period structure for governmental purposes — in part due to the exploitative history of a building.

The latter situation — building a new State House — necessitates the spending of vast amounts of money, raising questions on sustainability, and raising public debate, as it can be viewed by citizens that those funds would be better spent elsewhere. The State Houses of Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania tell the broader stories of how the architecture of these buildings is very much entangled with the identity of the nations themselves.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 12, 2022.

Matthew Maganga Editor's Note: