Re-functioning “Tropical Architecture”: Anti-colonial Constructions in Chinese-built Architecture in Africa, 1960s-70s

An FTC office building, photo by the author

The China-Africa engagement has been a heated topic of debate for the past decade, not only in academia, but also with the general public. Such engagement is nothing new and can be traced back to the early 1960s. The Third World became a geopolitical force in global politics following the 1955 Bandung Conference, also called the Afro-Asian Conference, held in Bandung, Indonesia. Twenty-nine African and Asian countries that had just achieved (or were about to achieve) national liberation from the colonial or imperialist rule organized independently to stand for solidarity—for the first time in modern history. Socialist countries started large-scale aid programs for newly-independent countries. After the 1960 split with the Soviet Union, China proposed a different blueprint for the Third World than those offered by the West or the Soviet bloc. Africa, in the climax of its struggle for national liberation, identified China as suitably non-capitalist, non-Western, non-white, formerly (semi-)colonized, and dominantly agrarian. Strong ties of friendship were quickly made between various African countries and China in attempts to jointly reconstruct the polarized Cold War pattern. Guided by the Maoist foreign policy of proletarian internationalism, thousands of Chinese technicians and workers traveled to Africa to help build the young nations. Up until the very end of 1970s, more than 500 projects were undertaken in a majority number of African countries. Such massive assistance, seen as part of a “gift economy,” was reworked in the 1980s, along with the Chinese “Reform and Opening-up,” as mainly market-based practices which gradually evolved into current models of Chinese investment in Africa.

My discovery started with several unexpected black and white pictures taken in the 1960s-70s of Chinese projects built in Africa. What astonished me were the modernist features and tropical-looking structures, which were totally “exotic” to Chinese architectural ecology at the time. It pushed me to explore through an architectural lens what had happened on the ground in the China-Africa encounter.

People’s Palace (Palais du Peuple), Guinea, designed by Chen Dengao, 1965
The National Police Headquarter, Sierra Leone, designed by Luo Renxiong and Wang Tianxi, 1976

Despite the fact that China and Africa (especially its eastern coast) had not been entirely disconnected in the pre-modern era, the scattered and weak ties between them were undiscernible when China and Africa were brought back together in the modern imperialist world system. Lack of knowledge was a major obstacle. For the Chinese technicians who had just arrived at the working sites in Africa, the most pressing question was to learn how to design and build in an unfamiliar tropical climate. The high temperature and humid conditions required specific techniques of “passive cooling” to make structures suitable for human wellbeing. The knowledge brought from the West in the early twentieth century, or later transplanted from the Soviet Union, figured the vast tropical area as “uncharted land” in the Chinese technicians’ world map. In 1961, chief architect Chen Dengao was appointed to Guinea with his team to study tropical architecture; he published [a report entitled] “Introduction of African Tropical Architecture” in Journal of Architecture (jianzhu xuebao), which was the first general publication to study such techniques and knowledge. Soon afterwards, various introductory articles appeared in Chinese journals and magazines in the early and mid-1960s. What Chen Dengao studied in Africa was in fact “tropical modernism,” a dominant paradigm in Africa practiced by colonial (mainly British and French) architects that has been refined in the 1940s.

Students visiting the Friendship Textile Workshop, photo by the author

Today, “tropical modernism” has mainly been inherited by “green architecture” or “eco-architecture”, which is well-known for being vernacular, environmentally-friendly, low-interference, and respectful of locals. But it is important to acknowledge the paradigm’s beginning as a colonial technique for a more efficient colonial governance. Early British colonial history agonized over the tropical climate in South Asia, Africa, and Caribbean areas. In order to alleviate serious thermal discomfort and, in a time before air conditioners, colonial settler panic, imperial architects carried out an “artificial climate” micro-engineering project. First practiced in India and later perfected in Africa, a particular structure was experimented with to maximize shading, ventilation, and cooling effects. This was later called “tropical modernism.”

Female worker at the Friendship Textile Workshop. Photo by the author.

Technically, “tropical architecture” incorporated a special composition of forms, walls, door-to-window relations, ratios, directions, materials, and locations as well as certain aesthetic styles. It was aimed at small-size and unattached residential, cultural, and recreational facilities—it rendered the colonial world as a series of private spaces. As a colonial knowledge-power complex, this architectural paradigm was widely applied by the imperial welfare policies in colonies in the 1940s-50s in order to postpone the demise of empires that World War II had foreshadowed. Researchers point out that before the 1950s, the “tropics” and “colonies” were used interchangeably in British documents. “Tropical modernism” was not only a passive adapter or sensor of a certain geography, it also defined define and articulated the “nature” of that land under a general pathological, racializing, and problematizing epistemology in colonial tropical study.

Large-scale connections between the socialist and the African countries were sustained by a huge cross-continental network of knowledge, techniques, materials, finances, and people. Just like China, other socialist participants found “tropicality” a new task which was outside their modern industrial toolkits. To build in tropical regions entailed a process of systematic learning and understanding of local natural environments. You Baoxian, an engineer in his eighties, told me that when he and other team members were practicing in Sri Lanka, the local government provided them with technical data that included snowfall statistics. They later realized this data was for the British metropole itself. It was a common fact that many Third World countries did not own their own statistics, thus socialist newcomers needed to conduct their own surveys. For the Chinese, these surveys included sunshine, wind, rain, humidity, mildew, insects, rivers, and soil, as well as the impact of the dry season and wet season cycles on buildings—they were troubled by wall cracks and sunken bases for a long time.

At the transfer station. Photo by the author.

How did Chinese architects, engineers, and builders deal with extant tropical modernism as they strove to learn about building techniques for the tropics? This was a serious techno-political issue. Starting in the late 1950s, technology and techniques increasingly became a focus of political debates in China. Despite the widespread Leninist equation “Communism=electrification + Soviet,” technology’s neutrality was not accepted by Maoist philosophy. All politics, power, class, and culture in which a given technology was made possible and operational were carefully scrutinized. In Tanzania, where I did my fieldwork, Chinese technicians wrote in a 1965 fieldwork report to China’s Ministry of Foreign Economic Cooperation that: “in the cities, there were western modern architectures such as theaters, churches, banks, hotels, department stores and some high-standard residences,” all of which were in shocking contrast to “the African working people’s shabby living environment.” “The industrial architecture was terrible” with only some primary mining and plantation structure controlled by the major capitalist powers. In general, “the city is planned out in a deformed way with a distinct colonialist character.” Similar evaluations can be found in Chinese reports from teams in Zambia, Sierra Leone, Congo, and Somalia. We can see that tropical architecture was not only a simple response to local climates but also assumed a spatial form modeling particular human activities and social and economic relations. Its ubiquitous application covered everything except industrial buildings type, as if the tropics should remain an idyllic world forever without need of production, industrialization, and finally self-reliance.

During my fieldwork in Tanzania, I further explored the creation and reconstruction of “tropical-responsive” techniques by Chinese engineers. I realized that factories were the major sites of such experiments. Large screen walls, multiple layers of shading boards, and exaggerated verandas adopted from “tropical modernism” were applied to factory complexes. This was a strategy to transplant the techniques from small-scale civil construction to large-scale industrial architecture, even though such morphology had never been formally named.

A workshop of FTC, photo by the author

Take the Friendship Textile Company (FTC) as an example: designed in 1965, it began production in 1968. It was the first large-scale modern industrial plant in Tanzania and simply the largest factory in east Africa. As a typical socialist space, it contained workshops, offices, dining halls, clinics, and dormitories with a clear and standard layout. In my interview, an older worker who had been working there since its opening remembered his astonishment when he first came to the factory. Departing from the city center, the workers traveled through wasteland, fields, and woods until a huge complex of modern architecture appeared by the road. He described it as “walking into a palace.” A grand man-made structure surrounded by woods, monkeys and other wild animals would visit the plant, especially during sunset.

Absorbed in large-scale and functional industrial structures, tropical architectural techniques and some stylized features—for ventilation, shading and cooling, and even beautification—remained evident and in use. Nevertheless, what had changed were social assumptions around the technology. The objects that the architecture served were no longer abstract “users” but working people or even an entire working class about to build their independent futures. Likewise, the tropics were no longer taken as the leisure backyards or entertainment sites for colonial empires. Based on the production of a series of disciplined, regulated, and collective spaces, the tropics were anticipated to be a self-sufficient region with the self-consciousness of modernity.

Such constructions not only provided new options for a new Africa but also a renewal of China. They produced a fresh new geographic knowledge and global imagination which was previously “exotic” to both East Asian traditional cosmology and the socialist ideology of China. Internationalist solidarity should not only be read through the works of politicians, activists, and writers, but also the seldom-mentioned architects, engineers, surveyors, meteorologists, and cartographers who worked and lived at the “frontline” of the encounter. The historical long-distance transportation, mobility, and travel of people and materials were the infrastructure linking the socialist to the Third World.

A nameplate at the entrance of the former Chinese-built Zanzibar Leather Factory (now a warehouse). The Swahili motto reads: This state-owned leather factory was built with the help of the Republic of China’s construction work started 1967/4/13 and finished in 1968/1/13. Photo by the author

Decades have passed and this work has changed dramatically, yet it remains standing, in many cases anonymously. During the historical decline in worldwide socialist revolutions and the depoliticization of the Third World in the 1980s, Tanzania went through a series of structural reforms pushed by World Bank and IMF. The privatization and deindustrialization policies rendered many of those Chinese-built factories deficits, or they simply closed down before they were appropriated by new private owners. Without local retired engineers’ guidance, I would never have found some of the smaller factories, given the unrelibale archival records. Their names, functions, and addresses had all changed. Ironically, due to the slow-paced development of Tanzania, the old structures have basically remained. Their concrete materials might be silent, but these structures have lasted and preserve an honest testimony of what was there and what has changed.

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