Who Decides How the City of Accra Should Look? The Architect or the Client?

By Selorm Abla Afeke   

“Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness” Frank Gehry

For the architects of the Ecobank headquarters in Accra, one of the main concepts for the design of their building was for it to blend comfortably with its surroundings and look like it will stand the test of time, according to the Project Architect Michael Ashiboye. The Ecobank building blends perfectly into the upcoming Accra skyline of tall structures mostly made of glass. A skyline that leaves the ordinary person on the street wondering if they are still in Accra.

This leads to the question of my title – What is Accra becoming? Is it a typical “African city” or an alien city that might actually scream New York in about 50 years to come? Who decides what Accra should look like as a city? The clients or the Architect?

Renowned African architects like David Adjaye and Francis Kere have commented on the importance of designing buildings and cities in African countries with respect to their context and surroundings. The architecture of a place is supposed to speak about the values of the people of the place. Contemporary cities have seen great changes in the way they appear and the stories they tell, and Accra is no exception.

Accra as an African city is one of such cities that is changing drastically in its skyline and look over the few years. There is a clear difference between the Accra of the 50s and the present Accra which might actually in essence be a good thing as it shows that the city is growing and maturing in itself. Could Accra be growing to reflect itself as a city that portrays African values or just evolving to look like any other contemporary city in the world?

Ecobank Headquarters, Accra, Ghana (Photo Credit : Kuukuwa Manful)

Approaching the Ecobank headquarters for the first time evoked a sense of mixed feelings which could have been due to its intimidating nature or the unique use of materials and shapes. It is a building that seems to tell a story about the future of Accra. A future that may possibly seem foreign to the ordinary Ghanaian person. The Ecobank building is a multistory building that is mostly made from glass, aluminum and steel. Although this is a building in the tropics where the use of glass is mostly frowned at, there were some interesting concepts behind its use in this building. According to the lead Architect Augustus Richardson, the materials were used to give both the sense of security and transparency that could give the client a form of assurance about his or her investment and at the same time satisfy the clients brief. He further commented that, “It is not about the type of the material used but how well it is used and adopted to fit within its context”.

This leads to my second question – who influences the look of a city, clients or the architects? It is rather unfortunate that although there are master plans for the city of Accra, they are not being implemented leaving the city and its fate to designers and clients. As a nation, we have to decide exactly how the city should look like and what is allowed or not. The city is made up of various different buildings with different clients and designers which makes the city more diverse in its look and appearance. Each of these buildings should influence the overall identity of the city. Though every project is different in terms of the requirements on the table and limitations, with a master plan, design can be carefully approached to contribute significantly to the city appearance.

Clients approaching design may be better informed, and the architect can develop a building that actually picks up the spirit of its location. Others might lean entirely on the architect for more direction as to how to achieve the design. In both situations, the relationship between them is a crucial factor to realizing the project successfully. Who then has more influence in how these buildings finally shape out and fit in the larger city?

An architect as a professional is believed to have the power to actually influence the design of a building so it accurately depicts and blends nicely with its surroundings. Clients can be advised and directed as they may want designs that may not be entirely feasible in the context. It is rather unfortunate clients tend to play down on the abilities of designers and as such tend to impose what they want and think the design should be, says Architect Augustus Richardson. This tends to limit the Architect and what he or she can bring on board to contribute to the character of growing cities.

The Ecobank building as a “state-of-the-art building” according to Michael Ashiboye, gives an inkling as to what Accra will look like in the future. And although the building seems comfortably settled within its environs, it also contributes towards an aesthetic trend that some may see as foreign. In what direction are we moving as a nation? This question will be difficult to answer as there is no plan for the city of Accra. Several parts are being developed with no greater vision for the whole area. It will be more prudent for designers to develop the entire vision for growing cities and it is only then that clients will be made to conform to the made guidelines.

Architects as designers in city contexts should create designs that meet the needs of their clients, whilst creating environments that feel familiar to ordinary people, whereas clients have the mandate to trust their selected architects to give them the best design solutions.

Design is an iterative process that involves various stakeholders who contribute their quotas to ensure the realization of the project. The client and the architect are stakeholders that play vital roles in this regard. It is key for the architect to be able to shape the dreams of clients to tell stories that are familiar to their contexts and surroundings and promote the identities of the places and cities in which the buildings are situated.

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