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Building Africa: how architecture makes states

Most African states are relatively new. Products of late colonialism, many inherited weak institutions and low levels of popular trust from the societies they govern. Yet they have proven remarkably resilient. What holds African states together? And what role do citizens play in building their authority?

Julia Gallagher has found a new way to approach these questions. In her research, she studies state buildings – like parliaments, ministries, presidential palaces, courts, schools, police stations, hospitals and even sports stadiums and churches – to explain how citizens in Africa read their states and how, by engaging with the buildings, they help hold them together.

Julia talked to more than 600 citizens in South Africa, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. Here are some of the stories they told her.

Constitutional Court

The Court upholds South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution which introduced the idea that everyone is equal under the law.

It was built on top of an old prison which was infamous for its particularly brutal conditions. The Court sits in a complex that includes cells and an exercise yard. It is made out of bricks and stairwells from the original prison.

South Africans talk about how this building reminds them that the freedoms won in 1994 were built on a painful racist legacy. The building doesn’t try to wipe out this history, but shows how the new state sits above it – ‘a hospital built on a graveyard’, as one man put it.

Constitutional Court, Johannesburg, South Africa
Constitutional Court, Johannesburg, South Africa
Jubilee House, Accra, Ghana
Jubilee House, Accra, Ghana

Jubilee House is the new office for Ghana’s president. The old one was Osu Castle, a European slave fort and centre of the British colonial regime. The new building references the Golden Stool, a traditional Asante symbol of authority.

Yet despite its bid for local sympathy, the building attracts all sorts of controversy. It’s too big, too ostentatious, built with foreign (Indian) rather than local investment. People complain that they don’t know what’s going on inside, that they don’t feel it fits Ghana’s culture.

Some even say it ignores their history and think the president should still be working at Osu.

Basilique Notre Dame de la Paix

Côte d’Ivoire’s state-built Catholic basilica is the biggest in the world. Modelled on St Peter’s in Rome, it was made almost entirely of imported materials and is reputed to have doubled the country's national debt.

Ivoirians describe it as a miracle and are proud of the admiration it attracts in West Africa and Europe. But they are also frightened that it might be falling down. They describe weeds growing around it and bats living inside it. The building becomes a symbol of the state which appears miraculous on the surface, but underneath is in poor shape.

Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix, Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire
Basilique Notre Dame de la Paix, Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire
Stade Tata Raphael, Kinshasa, DRC
Stade Tata Raphael, Kinshasa, DRC

The Tata Raphael Stadium isn’t really a building – but in many ways that makes it a good symbol of the Congolese state which, say many of its citizens, isn’t really a state.

The Stadium has seen a lot of important state events. President Mobutu used to make public pronouncements here. He also used it to put Zaire (as the DRC was known during his rule) on the map by hosting the world’s most famous boxing match, between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974.

People call it the ‘Congolese Federation of the Discussions’ because it’s where you go if you want to find out what’s really happening – you can’t rely on the state-controlled media to tell you.

Emperor Menelik’s Palace

People in Ethiopia didn’t want to talk much about their state buildings – so much so that I almost began to think they didn’t see them. It’s not surprising they are reluctant to look when some of them are heavily protected by armed soldiers.

But there are ways in which citizens can catch at least a glimpse of where the state used to be – in structures that have been decommissioned and turned into museums. The Palace is one example.

It’s in the new Unity Party, recently opened to the public. People described it as a good day out, where they could see Emperor Haile Selassie’s wine cellars and learn about how the military Derg regime turned them into a prison for political prisoners.

Menelik's Palace, Unity Park, Ethiopia
Emperor Menelik’s Palace in Unity Park, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Want to know more?

Building Africa is a new exhibition, part of Julia Gallagher's research project, African State Architecture. It explores the relationship between architecture and politics, telling stories about presidential palaces, courts, parliaments, a school, a sports stadium, airports and the African Union building itself and explains how they build political institutions and identities around the continent.

The exhibition is based on findings from Gallagher's five-year research project, which has been interpreted by design-teams from Ethiopia, South Africa and Ghana, each one producing an installation that explores local responses to the buildings.

These installations were originally exhibited in Addis Ababa, Johannesburg and Accra. They come together in this final exhibition to show how complex and often fraught political ideas are played out through architecture and popular responses to it.

11 January – 16 March 2024

10.30am-5.00pm, Tuesday-Saturday

Late opening until 8.00pm on Thursdays

Brunei Gallery, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1B 5DQ



Alongside the exhibition, Julia will also be giving a talk ‘Building-States: political authority and architecture in Africa’

22 February 5.00pm Room B103, Brunei Gallery, SOAS. Free registration


In this story

Julia Gallagher

Julia Gallagher

Reader in International Development

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