Essay by Killian Doherty
“Countries in the throes of rapid development blithely destroy historic spaces—houses, palaces, military or civil structures. If advantage or profit is to be found in it, the old is swept away.”1
Sierra Leone is a country of staggering contradictions, emerging “through years of depression and prosperity through periods of idealism and disillusionment.”1 Emancipated slaves from America and the UK settled in Sierra Leone and formally established the capital of Freetown in 1792. It was a corporate endeavor supported by abolitionists from the West, and within twenty years the country and capital became an extension of the crown colony of the British Empire.
As is the case of many former colonies countries, accurate, unbiased, and non-western written histories are elusive. Yet fluctuating power struggles of Sierra Leone over the past two centuries between that of the British Colonial powers and ex-slaves/Krio people is visually traceable across the city’s built heritage. Where written documents, archives, and accounts are absent, Freetown’s built heritage in part delineates a complex and fraught history.
Countless nineteenth-century “Krio” homes built by the liberated slaves dominate inner-city Freetown. Adopting the vernacular style of former western masters, these predominantly timber homes were built by ex-slaves, yet fashioned to deliberately turn inward away from the street as an assertion of privacy and newly acquired property rights. The period of the early twentieth-century colonial administration of Freetown is clearly evident in the Hill Station area where homes were built for a British governor and civil servants. These large timber homes rest on top of steel pilotis, elevated above ground to reduce the harshness of Sierra Leone’s oppressive climate. However, this exclusive white settlement was situated in the remote hills, distant from the inner-city Krio communities due to misguided beliefs about contracting malaria. The once “British Masters divided vision of urban space” is traceable by old railway station signposts that mark the journey between the white salubrious enclave into the inner-city black Freetown.3 Following Sierra Leone’s 1961 independence and today, local civil servants occupy these homes.
The exact number of Freetown’s Krio and colonial homes is unknown. Occurring between 1991−2002, during the eleven-year civil war, many of these homes were destroyed. In the post-conflict period since, a chronic lack of policy, governance, and accountability in Sierra Leone are causing these homes to rapidly disappear.4 History is a luxury. Redevelopment is the path of national focus. The preservation of history/tradition in Sierra Leone is seen as effort at the expense of embracing modernization. History is the preface and counterpart to any legacy. Freetown’s architectural heterogeneity is a complicit part of Sierra Leone’s traumatic past.
Under Freetown’s urban entropy, bereft of order, many of these homes are little by little disappearing. They are replaced by the oversized, generic structures that maximize plots with varying heights (up to eight or nine stories) and are constructed with an abundant overuse of concrete. These structures fleshed out with imported components (i.e. windows, doors, and roofing materials) are symptomatic of the larger blandification of African urbanism. Construction costs, like much of West Africa, are exorbitantly high. Consequentially high construction costs push rental rates through the roof beyond the affordability of most low earners and shop keepers, pushing out living/working within the inner city. Many of these old Krio homes are inherited and occupied by third generations of the same family who are under constant pressure to sell their homes. The former colonial Hill Station homes as owned by the Sierra Leone government and occupied by civil servants are less likely to be demolished. However the large-scale overhaul of Freetown’s roads, as a facet of infrastructural redevelopment, saw one Hill Station home loose its monsoon staircase as a result of errant road alignment. This timber staircase with its with ornate, filigree carpentry has been replaced by a concrete one.
To compliment Lefebvre’s opening quote is philosopher Felix Guattari’s quote that provides a perspective on the genesis of the project. Guattari states that we “re-evaluate the ultimate goal of work and human activities in terms of criteria other than those of profit and productivity,” and that we “acknowledge the need to mobilize individuals and social segments in ways that are always diverse and different.” As practitioners we are cognizant of the dialectic role western knowledge plays within development; it can be both positive and negative. Therefore we feel that the most effective step towards protecting these historic structures is to mobilize local efforts around a historic inventory as an implicit part of the Freetown’s rapid, albeit uncoordinated, redevelopment.
Journey with Maps is an educational mapping project using Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS) that is inputted into Geographic Information Systems software (GIS). Training in this has been provided to both members of the local government/civil servants and youth residing within Freetown. This workshop emerged out of Architectural [Field] Office (AFO)’s efforts to muster local and government bodies around a simple idea that would encourage addressing Freetown’s historic heritage collectively.
Slum Dweller’s International method was used as a starting point, which mobilizes local community groups to enumerate household data and physically map informal settlements.5 Having taken this concept to the local legislative body responsible for Freetown’s heritage, the Monument and Relic’s Commission (MRC), a plan was laid out to jointly teach civil servants and local youth community leaders in the area on how to go about building a historic map of Freetown. The MRC provided local points of contact in the community to reach out to for collaboration with AFO assembling, providing in-house training and managing mapping teams in the field. The Prince Clause Fund in the Netherlands was approached to provide funding for building local capacity and preservation of local heritage in Egypt and Afghanistan, and a small grant was successfully secured for this project.
Taking its name from Graeme Greene’s brief travels across Sierra Leone and Liberia, the workshop was designed to mark the commencement of a digital inventory and archive of Krio and Hill Station homes. In addition, the project gathered oral histories of residents and tenants of homes as we moved door to door. However, much of this inventory was cut short as occurring during the period when the Ebola virus began to emerge in Freetown in September 2014. The workshop was in fact cut back to eleven days as interrupted by a national three-day curfew, in which mobility across the city was forbidden and policed.
This workshop as agency advocates for Freetown’s historic structures to be acknowledged within the formal “Freetown Structure Plan” and operates as an intermediary forum between local authorities, ministries, and the neglected community youth within Freetown. Furthermore all GIS, photographic, and video data is in Freetown with those trained. A template interactive website has been started by AFO to be incrementally sustained by the local team. A fluid inventory operates not just as an internationally accessible platform for historic knowledge of these homes, but grows to underpin a drive for national protective legislation for historic structures across Sierra Leone.
Sadly such is the severity of the Ebola virus in Freetown (and across Sierra Leone) that this is currently hampered. Yet steadfast connections made through this project—between the MRC, civil servants, and youth leaders in the area—ignite a joint will to support the long term redevelopment of Freetown that is inclusive of its past.
1. Henri Lefebvre, “The Production of Space,” in Rethinking Architecture, eds. N. Leach et al. (London : Routledge, 1997), 137. ↵
2. L. Spitzer, “The Mosquito and Segregation in Sierra Leone,” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des Études Africaines 2 no. 1 (Spring 1968): 49-46. ↵
3. O. Georg, “From Hill Station (Freetown) to Downtown Conakry (First Ward): Comparing French and British Approaches to Segregation in Colonial Cities at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century,” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des Études Africaines 32 no.1 (1998): 1-31. ↵
4. The City hotel where Graeme Greene stayed was burnt to the ground in 2010. ↵
5. Slum Dweller International is an international NGO working within the area of the empowerment of communities living within informal settlements. See more here:
Killian Doherty is an architect from Northern Ireland and runs Architectural Field Office, a small collaborative practice. His research interests lie within the exploration of fragmented sites, settlements, and cities at specific thresholds of racial, ethnic, or religious conflict. For the past five years he has worked on a number of post-conflict reconstruction projects in Sierra Leone and Rwanda. He is registered for a PhD by Design at the Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL).
www.architecturalfieldoffice.org | @ArchitectureFO