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Did you make it to the eighth episode of “The Young Pope,” the one which sees our saintly Jude Law bring his pontifical dog-and-pony show to a country called Africa? Astounding, in 2017, that you can still get away with this: the anonymous land ruled by a military dictator, where children are starving, dust rises in the heat and there isn’t a skyscraper or cellphone in sight. (“The Young Pope” was actually shot outside Cape Town, which has no shortage of both.) You would not know, from most Western media, that Africans live in a whole range of places, bucolic or bustling — and that Africa is urbanizing faster than anywhere on earth.
The United Nations projects that, by midcentury, more than half of Africans will live in cities. A string of them — Lagos, Nigeria; Kinshasa, Congo; Cairo — are already more populous than New York. Yet African cities remain poorly understood in the West, which gives a particular urgency to “Architecture of Independence — African Modernism,” a captivating study of the development of modernist building in five African countries: Ivory Coast, Ghana and Senegal in the continent’s west, Kenya in the east and Zambia in the south.
The show was initially organized by the Vitra Design Museum in southern Germany, and it’s on view now at the Center for Architecture in Manhattan. Through dozens of case studies, from apartment blocks and government ministries to universities and convention centers, “Architecture of Independence” uncovers not only the unsung splendor of African cities but also the contemporary lives of schoolchildren, office workers and street vendors of today’s Dakar or Nairobi.
The nations studied here won independence between 1957 and 1964, and a massive timeline maps their economic gyrations, stumbles toward democracy, and soccer successes from liberation to the present. With independence came construction, from private and public sectors alike. In these countries’ capitals, International Style architecture became a marker of new nationalist ambition, whether in Abidjan, the economic engine of Ivory Coast, which built high rises resembling those of La Défense in Paris, or in Lusaka, where a new building for Zambia’s National Assembly comprised a long concrete block supported by dainty pilotis. […]