(Post)colonial architectures: The Balme Library, University of Ghana

By Victoria Okoye

The Balme Library is the main library of the University of Ghana – designed by colonial architects, built during the colonial period, and linked to its colonial influences. Yet the library’s present and evolving usages, adaptations and functions demonstrate ways in which colonial structures are reappropriated in postcolonial contexts. In July 2018, as part of an African Studies Association of the UK-funded workshop on architecture writing in July 2018, KNUST architecture students Emmanuel Owusu Banahene and Benedict Acheampong, and KNUST land governance and policy masters student Azupogo Urbanus Wedaaba and I explored the Balme Library’s design, history, and present everyday usage. Over the course of two days, we learned about the library’s history, design, and international influences, as well as the user demands informing the library’s more recent extensions and adaptations. In this article, I use our observations and learnings to situate the library within a (post)colonial design context.
On the first day of our visit, Gabriel Etse, the head reference librarian, led us through the library, section by section. We began our tour from the Africana Library and Africana Rare Book Room, part of the original library, where walls of books reach from floor to ceiling, each bound with histories from across the continent and its trans-Atlantic connections. We saw the weathered works of Frantz Fanon, Wangari Maathai and other African and African diaspora authors, tucked in wooden shelves, and cooled by cross ventilation facilitated by the wide-open glass doors on each side of the room. Splayed out on desks were even older books, their spines as long as my arm, their covers and pages browned with age and wear. I thumbed through Voyage à la Côte Orientale d’Afrique, a book of hand-drawn maps, landscapes and portraits from 1840s East Africa. Next to it lay the 1960 edition of Atlas of the Union of South Africa. Through the room’s open doors entered sunlight and a slight breeze, which brought along with it the everyday sounds of the university campus – a broadcast from a local radio station, snippets of students’ conversations, the rise and fall of a car engine as a vehicle passed by. Somewhere closer, we could hear the hum of an air conditioner at work. As we continued the tour, moving from this original section of the library to newer extensions, we considered the library’s historical trajectory, from its initial design conception by colonial architects to the recent adaptations and revisions to reclaim the institution and its functions for the local and immediate purposes of its users.

Education as part of a ‘colonizing structure’

Western education was central to the colonial project and a tool for perpetuating colonial logics – such as the production of native intellectuals who were ‘permeated by colonialism and all its ways of thinking’ (Fanon 1961: 15) and the role of ‘cultural imaginaries’ who reproduce  and operationalize colonial occupation and its re-writing of social and spatial relations (Mbembe 2003: 25-26). Valentin Yves Mudimbe described the domination of physical space, local economies, and the ‘reformation of natives’ minds’ as the three complementary components of Europe’s ‘colonizing structure’ in Africa, which served to reproduce and extend colonial modalities (Mudimbe 1988: 15).

In the 1940s and 1950s, with the end of the colonial era on the horizon in West Africa, the British empire intensified its investment in education, designing and constructing primary and secondary schools, vocational colleges and universities across the region and also in the Caribbean (Uduku 2006). Amid a growing independence fervor, education became an important “development” priority. Samuel Opare Larbi, one of the Ghana’s earliest western-educated architects, linked Britain’s investment in education to the Gold Coast’s anticipated independence and the need for local experts who could manage, administer, and facilitate the transition from colony into an independent nation (Larbi 2013). Architectural historian Tim Livsey, in his book Nigeria’s University Age: Reframing Decolonisation and Development, argued similarly that universities, along with parastatals and marketing boards, were essential institutions created in late colonialism to support the colonies that would soon become independent nation states (Livsey 2017). These educational institutions were modelled after British spaces of learning, in terms of curriculum, language and modes of instruction, and these institutions were linked to British degree-granting institutions. It appeared the educational initiative was less oriented toward self-determination, independence, and decolonial options, and rather toward strategies for continual colonial relationships. These new institutions would facilitate newly independent nation-states’ participation in the capitalist forms of production that we recognize today in our globalized world, argues Marion von Osten in her essay on colonial modern worlds (von Osten 2010). Today, school buildings, universities, campuses remain powerful symbols of authority and often reinforce local perceptions of the prestige of western knowledge, power and proximity to it (Uduku 2000).

Colonial architects and architecture

Architecture professor Ola Uduku has distinguished between the European modernist architects “who were designing the buildings” during the colonial period and the colonized subjects who were “being built for” (Uduku 2006: 400-401). With the exception of a small number of foreign-trained local architects, the “who” who were designing the buildings during this colonial period were European architects. The colonial government had installed and contracted these architects across the empire. They were trained in European institutions and carried with them experiences and influences from designing in colonized locales. Such was the case for Austen Harrison, lead architect for the University College of the Gold Coast’s design: He had gained his architectural experience designing government institutions in British colonies, controlled territories, and in Britain itself: the British Representative’s residence in Amman (1926), the Rockefeller Archeology Museum in Palestine (1930-38) as well as a series of government buildings in Jerusalem (1931, 1935, 1938) and Jaffa (1938), a post-war reconstruction and town planning scheme in Valletta, Malta (1943-45), and Nuffield College at Oxford (1938-58) (Fuchs and Herbert 2000). Tim Livsey writes that the “ornamented style” Harrison employed in designing the university reflected these influences from his work in the British colonies and mandates (Livsey 2017).

European architects working in colonial contexts re-created European architectural styles, borrowed ideas across locales, as well as experimented with new forms (and often in combination). British architect Maxwell Fry, known for his tropical modernist designs, said that the architecture imposed in the colonies was “a kind of apparatus of thought” gathered from training, professional experiences, and architects’ exchange of ideas from their work in colonized locales (World Microfilms Publications Limited 1979). This “apparatus of thought” extended not only to the design of specific buildings, but also to the design of whole built environments, city and town plans. While these designs were not always a direct repetition of English style, they did represent an Anglicized vision projected by the English onto the colonized, a colonial idea of what these colonized territories should look like (Bhabha 1994: 89-90).

The result for the Balme Library is that many of its most distinctive features are drawn from influences outside of the local Ghanaian context. White-washed walls; interlocking, brownish-red clay tiles lining the roof of the library and university’s other early buildings; a pagoda-like clock tower rises from the building’s center via multiple tiers with eaves; and across the library’s ground and first-floor levels, black louvers open to reveal jalousie windows. These features, represented in the original architectural drawings for the library, were shared with other colonial-era educational institutions designed and built by English architects in the Gold Coast (now Republic of Ghana), including the S.H. Amissah Building at Wesley College of Education, a teacher training college in Kumasi (1922) and Achimota School (1924):

The front elevation architectural drawing for the Balme Library, produced by Harrison, Barnes, and Hubbard (1955).
S.H. Amissah Building at Wesley College of Education in Kumasi (photo credit: Enoch Appiah Jr)
Achimota School (photo credit: J. Acheampong)

.Moving forward: Local adaptations

However, within and after this foreign imposition also exist important spaces and opportunities for local agency. In the essay “Architecture and Thought,” postcolonial and cultural theorist Homi Bhabha asserts that like a written text, a building has authors as well as readers: Buildings are non-static, physical spaces of relation where designers (authors) and users (readers) produce an evolving, sometimes contested, narrative of social change (Bhabha 2007). Likewise, in her critique of colonial architecture, Marion von Osten asserts: “The appropriation of colonial infrastructure’s leftovers – its existing buildings, public spaces and territories – articulate personal needs and practices,” (von Osten 2010). In the years since Ghana’s independence in 1957, the University of College of the Ghana undergoes its own process of transformation, and Harrison’s design aspirations are translated to the present, local realities and meanings of the building’s users through their own adaptations.

During our tour, Gabriel explained to us that the library has made a number of extensions (as well as adaptations to existing library spaces) in response to pressing needs to accommodate an increasing student population, advanced technologies, and evolving library user demands from both students and staff.

The Balme Library’s original floor plan, a 2×3 open weave grid design, featured internal gardens and open-air courtyard areas. Enclosed rooms connected to one another via open corridors and internal gardens and courtyards. With the library’s expansion a few years ago, the floor plan grid was extended to accommodate additional indoor spaces as well as additional courtyards and gardens.

Architectural drawing for the Balme Library’s ground floor


Aerial view of the present-day building (source: Google Maps)
The Balme Library’s open corridors and internal gardens and courtyards facilitate an indoor experience inside the library’s main doors, by maintaining a constant connection between the indoors and outdoors. 

Air conditioning units were installed to cool the air indoors but required outdoor units affixed to the library’s façade, metal “burglarproof” security bars have been fixed to windows and metal mesh fixed to the percolated (honeycomb) outer walls, a metal retractable door reinforces the library’s main entrance, at the library’s anterior, glazed windows have been used, and accessibility ramps at the front entrance provide increased access for persons with disabilities. These design shift have created different ambiences within the building. In contrast to the Africana resource section, which felt open and naturally sunlit, the Knowledge Commons (the designated space for undergraduate students at the ground level) and the Research Commons (limited to masters and PhD students) were closed, controlled spaces. Both commons spaces are climate-controlled environments with air conditioning and predominant artificial lighting, desktop computer stations, and technology-equipped group study rooms. One of the library’s newest extensions, the Ghana-Korea Information Access Center, is a multi-functional conference and study space, funded by the Government of South Korea. The air-conditioned center’s computer lab, with its desktop computers and videoconferencing facilities, sealed window blinds depicting faraway cityscapes of skyscrapers and superhighways from Korean cities contribute to a distinctly different sensory environment.

These appropriations – the adaptations, adjustments, extensions – mark new, redefined sites of enunciation of the “modern” in Ghana’s architecture. It is these sites of enunciation – the specific interventions of adapting and extending the Library for its present-day uses – that highlight examples of reclaiming the library and demonstrating that its heritage, which is colonial in origin, continues into the present.


Homi Bhabha (1994). The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge.

Homi Bhabha (2007). “Architecture and Thought.” In Intervention Architecture: Building for Change, edited by Pamela Johnston. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Limited.

Ron Fuchs and Gilbert Herbert (2000). “Representing Mandatory Palestine: Austen St. Barbe Harrison and the Representational Buildings of the British Mandate in Palestine, 1922-37.” Architectural History, 43, 281-333.

Felipe Hernández (2010). Bhabha for Architects: Thinkers for Architects Series. London and New York: Routledge.

Samuel Opare Larbi (2013). “Architectural History of Ghana.” Design233. Accessed August 2, 2018. Available online: https://www.design233.com/architectural-history-of-ghana/

Hannah Le Roux (2003). The Networks of Tropical Architecture. The Journal of Architecture, 8:3, 337-354

Tim Livsey (2017). Nigeria’s University Age: Reframing Decolonisation and Development. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ola Uduku (2000). The Colonial Face of Educational Space. White Papers, Black Marks: Architecture, Race, Culture. Edited by Lesley Naa Norle Lokko. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ola Uduku (2006). Modernist Architecture and ‘the Tropical’ in West Africa: The Tropical Architecture Movement in West Africa, 1948-1970. Habitat International, 30, 396-411.

Marion von Osten (2010). “In Colonial Modern Worlds.” In Colonial Modernity: Aesthetics of the Past, Rebellions of the Future, edited by Tom Avermaete, Serhat Karakayali and Marion von Osten. London: Black Dog Publishing.

World Microfilms Publications Limited (1979). “Maxwell Fry: Learning from the Tropics.” Produced by Monica Pidgeon in association with Leonie Cohn. Available online: https://www.pidgeondigital.com/talks/learning-from-the-tropics/play/

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