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Policies, people, projects. School building as development aid in postcolonial Sub-Saharan Africa

PhD Thesis in Architectural History, under the supervision of Johan Lagae and Maarten Van Den Driessche, Ghent University, October 2017
Kim De Raedt
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Kim De Raedt, Policies, people, projects. School building as development aid in postcolonial Sub-Saharan Africa, PhD Thesis in Architectural History, under the supervision of Johan Lagae and Maarten Van Den Driessche, Ghent University, October 2017

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1This dissertation started from the ambition to contribute to the mapping of post-World War II architectural globalization. Africa played a central role in this phenomenon, with intense exchanges of architectural expertise and practices taking place from the late colonial period onwards. Yet comparatively speaking, Africa remains surprisingly absent in the canon of architectural history, with authoritative survey works of twentieth-century architecture still addressing the continent only marginally or not at all. The focus of the present research was specifically on the postcolonial period, more particularly the 1960s and 1970s. The momentum of hope brought about by decolonization was accompanied by an unbridled belief in progress. It also propelled efforts to improve the living conditions of formerly colonized peoples. This translated as ambitious development plans to modernize the continent, including, among other things, large-scale building projects. Given the precarious economic state of most countries in Africa when they obtained self-rule, such building programs were often initiated and implemented with the help of development aid organizations, which are the focus of this dissertation. Since the expertise required to carry out elaborate building projects in Africa was almost impossible to source locally, these development aid agencies mostly hired foreign architects to design and execute them. This triggered a phase of very intensive architectural globalization in the 1960s and 1970s.

2So far, historical studies have mainly investigated the impact of various forms of bilateral aid on the transnational circulation of architecture and urban planning expertise in the postwar period. They have emphasized the geopolitical context in which these flows occurred. On the other hand, however, the role played by multilateral organizations, whose motivations for doing development aid were multilayered and at times quite ambiguous, has been largely overlooked. Three actors were particularly influential, from their inception: the European Development Fund (edf), unesco, and the World Bank. Each operated through an extensive international network, and with considerable budgets. Hence, they were very effective, for better or for worse, in shaping the built environment in which the everyday lives of people in Africa unfolded from decolonization onwards.

3This dissertation focuses specifically on the involvement of these three organizations in the field of education, between the late 1950s and the end of the 1970s. This period corresponds with the first wave of intensive investment in the construction of new school buildings in Africa. Since, in all sectors of society and the economy, there was an urgent need to train African personnel to take over from the former colonizers, education featured very high on the agenda of new, democratically elected African heads of state. In accordance with the importance attributed to the development and expansion of education, from the late 1950s onwards, the edf, unesco, and the World Bank assisted so-called “underdeveloped countries” in the construction of many hundreds of rural primary schools, in setting up nationwide secondary school programs, expanding vocational and technical education, and establishing several higher education institutes to train the new generation of African teachers, administrators, medical assistants, building engineers, etc.

4When development aid agencies agreed to finance a building project in a recipient country, a bureaucratic machine was set in motion, characterized by a complex and multilayered decision structure. Within this structure, the designer was but one of many actors who intervened in the elaborate process of negotiating, planning, and carrying out a development project, alongside government officials, policy makers on the donor and the recipient ends, project supervisors, building engineers, local construction inspectors, etc. The school buildings that resulted therefore cannot be understood as the clearly discernible product of original intentions and creative processes—as architecture historians are used to deal with. Rather, these constructions were the outcome of an intricate web of (geo)political conditions, economic mechanisms and socio-cultural considerations, elements from the prevailing architecture culture, and the expertise of architects, who themselves were usually part of a larger office structure that operated according its own logic.

5Acknowledging the importance of this kind of bureaucratic architectural production, and discussing it in a critical, sensible way, without dismissing it merely as an instrument of power, is a major challenge to architectural historians. This dissertation argues that a first step towards overcoming these difficulties is to break away from the conventional methodologies of architectural history. While we know that the European Development Fund, unesco, and the World Bank were involved intensely in school building practices in Africa, we have hardly any idea which buildings they financed, let alone who designed them. Therefore, rather than taking architectural subjects or objects as a point of departure, this research starts from the institutional players per se. This approach makes it possible to draw a comprehensive map of architectural production in the context of international development aid. This bird’s-eye perspective brings out certain patterns and logics in the relationship between development aid policies, school building projects, and the people making them happen.

6These three elements form the body of the dissertation, and have also served to separate it into three distinct chapters, each with its own specific methodology, heuristics, and conceptual framework. The first chapter, Policies, is based on a close reading of the archival sources of the three aid organizations, complemented with oral accounts from a large number of people who occupied key positions in the networks of development aid. It describes the structures of institutional knowledge and power within the three organizations, as well as the reasoning behind them. More specifically, this first chapter maps the specific “agenda” of each organization: its (geo)political ambitions, diplomatic interests, economic incentives, and socio-cultural concerns. This agenda strongly influenced the development policy making, which defined how and why aid was provided, and to which countries. Consecutively, my analysis traces how those official policies translated into specific ideologies regarding education and school building. In doing so, the focus is inevitably shifted—at least initially—from buildings (which we are familiar with as architecture historians) to the bureaucratic practices that defined a framework of conventions within which buildings eventually came into being.

7The second chapter of the manuscript, People, investigates the role of designers in this new environment. The emergence of international development aid corresponded to certain transformations within the architecture profession. New approaches to financing, new types of commissions, new working conditions, and a new professional profile altogether—the global consultant—were introduced. The aforementioned institutional archives enabled me to identify a number of these consultants, and whenever possible, I interviewed them and/or their former colleagues and family. I combined the insights I obtained with a study of archives and/or documents that had remained intact after their long careers. Together, these sources yielded a fairly accurate picture of what development aid meant within the scope of the career of these architects or architectural firms, and how it impacted their architectural visions and knowledge. But also, and perhaps more importantly, we can observe how these offices ensured their professional survival by adapting their organizational structure and modus operandi to the logics of international development aid.

8The last chapter, Projects, merges the first and second chapters, Policies and People, to examine three actual building projects through a different lens. First, the impact of institutional policies on school building practices is explored. Notwithstanding the fact that those policies imposed strict conditions and a rigid framework on designers, each global consultant came with his own particular training, background, and architectural expertise. He or she belonged to a specific professional community, and developed his or her own specific understanding of certain prevailing architectural tendencies and movements. In order to map this interplay, it was necessary to gain a more profound insight into the then-contemporary architecture culture. For this, the dissertation relies on the aforementioned archives of, and interviews with, the designers involved, combined with information obtained mainly from architecture journals of the period. We observed that many architects designing school buildings in the context of development aid conformed to the constraints imposed by institutional policies and agendas, yet succeeded in transcending those constraints by relying on ideas, principles, and tools pertaining exclusively to the discipline of architecture. Indeed, because they were deeply connected to the prevalent architectural culture, the work of most of these consultants contributed in a meaningful way to the ongoing debate about school architecture at the time.

9In other words, although this research discusses the intricate relationship between the “policies,” the “people,” and the “projects,” it deliberately treats them as autonomous and equal themes. This approach reflects the methods of development studies, more specifically development anthropology. The latter discipline is mainly interested in the impact of development ideologies and policies on concrete development projects, and the influence of various actors—institutional and individual—on the process. Taking inspiration from such a different field of study for research in architectural history yields interesting new insights into our own discipline. In what follows, I will briefly discuss one crucial observation from each chapter.

  • 1 Akira Iriye, Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contem (...)

10First of all, in the literature, development aid is often depicted as a crucial instrument in the Cold War. The focus is on the ideological polarization of this period, when the Soviet Union and the usa, but also the former colonial powers in Europe, the Scandinavian countries, Israel, China, and Japan were vying to emerge as key international players. In the common narrative, development aid is portrayed as an instrument in the hands of these actors to obtain the loyalty of newly independent African nations in order to strengthen their international position. Architecture is then described as a reflection of this. Multilateral development aid agencies, on the other hand, represent a group of countries. This means first of all that their agenda surpassed purely ideological or geopolitical motives, and secondly that architectural models, ideas, expertise, and knowledge could be sourced from a much wider pool. As Akira Iriye, an eminent scholar of international relations, has argued, international organizations such as the World Bank, the edf, and unesco emerged in spite of the Cold War, not because of it.1 Thus, they opened up possibilities for new, unexpected partnerships and collaborations, transcending the Cold War divide.

11In other words, when looking through the lens of multilateral development aid in the postcolonial era, we witness an extreme form of architectural globalization. Contrary to the context of the colonial period, and to that of bilateral development aid, this is a globalization that is not limited by national borders, language, culture, ideology, or religion. Multilateral development aid offered a platform to test, conceive, or develop a varied range of practices and ideas on a massive scale, and also to transfer that experience to other contexts.

12Secondly, taking the multilateral development aid agencies as a point of departure teaches us something about architecture as a profession and a disciplinary practice. Architectural production in the framework of development aid is a process defined by a complex decision hierarchy in which architects appear in many other roles and positions besides that of designer per se. This is reflected directly in the variety of profiles that we encounter in the context of development aid. Alongside the consultants, architects also operated as policy makers, project supervisors, design and building inspectors, etc. While their influence is not directly legible from the built environment, these professionals often had a significant impact on the way in which policies eventually translated into actual architecture projects.

13The term “consultancy” itself also needs to be deconstructed. Development aid was, and still is, an extremely bureaucratic environment. What’s more, projects are often of a very large scale. For these reasons, a strict division of architectural labor was gradually introduced into development aid projects. Architectural commissions were no longer entrusted in their entirety to one architect or architecture office. Rather, a project was split up in limited “work packages” such as project programming, planning, design, technical calculations, and site supervision, and assigned to different individual consultants. From a practical point of view this was more feasible, since most consultants did not reside in Africa. Architects and architecture offices strove to adapt to these new working conditions in different ways. They fine-tuned their organizational structure and modus operandi to the operational mechanisms of development aid, for example by specializing in terms of their affinities and expanding in size, working in teams, setting up local satellite offices, etc. In the process, authorship in architecture became increasingly shared and ambiguous. This compels us to revise and question the image commonly upheld in architectural history, of the architect as a creative genius, operating autonomously in a political and economic vacuum.

14In the third chapter, finally, we demonstrate that the confrontation with Africa seriously affected the emerging discipline of school building. In the early twentieth century, school building, in contrast to housing for example, was not an autonomous discipline per se. It was mostly an affair of Ministries of Public Works, mainly staffed by engineers. Innovations and evolutions in school building were relatively limited and isolated, and defined by new ideas in other domains such as demography, health, hygiene, and education. After World War II, school building received a new impulse. On the one hand, progressive prewar views on education became more prevalent, with pioneer educators and development psychologists convening around the question how to adapt learning methods and procedures to the specific development, behavior, and environment of the child. This movement went hand in hand with a shift in architecture. The dogmatic, functionalist thinking of the pre-World War II modernist movement had to make way for a more humane architecture, taking into account people’s social, cultural, and psychological needs. Within a time frame of about a decade, these two movements increasingly came together. All across the world, groundbreaking ideas were developed regarding the shape, constellation, and composition of classrooms. Even the basic concept of what education and educational space are was being questioned and rethought.

  • 2 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Lond (...)

15In other words, in the 1950s and 1960s, school building gradually became an autonomous architectural discipline. This timing is very significant. Right at the moment when architects began to appropriate the matter of school building, development aid agencies started to concentrate on it as well. When the young discipline of school building was confronted with the specific context of a decolonizing Africa, it acquired a new dimension. Ideas developed in the context of the global revolution in education and in Europe’s postwar reconstruction were transposed to Africa. At the same time, architects were confronted by challenges that were specific to the emerging nations in Africa. Newly-independent countries faced the difficult task of nation building, in which education played a crucial role. First of all, education was seen as an instrumental factor in the “mental decolonization” of the African population. At the same time, it was indispensable for stimulating popular political and economic participation, and for promoting certain political ideals and cultural, social, and economic models. In other words, the aim was to create “imagined communities”—a term coined by Benedict Anderson—rooted in tradition and authenticity, yet progressive and forward-looking.2 Thus, designers of school buildings in Africa suddenly faced a whole set of new questions: not only how to design in an educationally responsible way, within a budget and on schedule, but also how to give expression to these “imagined communities.” Designers responded by taking an explicit position on an architectural spectrum, defined on one end by an imported, technologically advanced, Western architecture capturing the revolutionary ambitions of new nation states, and on the opposite end by an architecture referring strictly to local or traditional building materials and techniques, customs and architectural patterns, supposedly expressing the “authentic” identity of the target community.

16In other words, to conclude, it is clear that the story of international development aid and school building is not just one of exporting architectural expertise from the West to the South. Rather, this dissertation argues that it is more pertinent to conceptualize Africa as one of the crucial places in the world where the evolving discipline of school building took shape in the decades following World War II. In that sense, the peripheral role assigned to Africa in the history of twentieth-century architecture is, this dissertation argues, at least partially unjustified.

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1 Akira Iriye, Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002, p. 6.

2 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1983.

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Kim De Raedt, « Policies, people, projects. School building as development aid in postcolonial Sub-Saharan Africa », ABE Journal [En ligne], 12 | 2017, mis en ligne le 26 janvier 2018, consulté le 21 janvier 2019. URL :

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Kim De Raedt

PhD in Architectural History, architect-engineer, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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