Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ministry of Health in Congo Town: Completed after Nearly a Quarter-Century (by CNQC)

Images from the M2M Architectural Tour.
©2008-2009 Moved 2 Monrovia

The Moved 2 Monrovia Architectural Tour's 2nd structure is the Ministry of Health building in Congo Town, which during the original slideshow was assembled was a ruin. The Doe-era complex was never completed and was then occupied by squatters, (with the window openings covered in reed mats), who were later evicted.

The Ministry in November 2010:
painted white and cleared of refugees, but otherwise untended.

The building has long been one of several monumental Monrovian edifices that might be characterized as "once and future" --whose construction was abandoned as the country deteriorated, and now joins the ranks of several large buildings finished out over the last several months. The complex was handed over to the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare a month ago, somewhere around 25 years after its construction commenced, in a typically grand ceremony with President Sirleaf as the keynote addressor.

The near-complete Ministry, November 2011. Image Courtesy TLCAfrica

Also a guest of honor was the Ambassador of the People's Republic of China to Liberia, as the financing of the reconstruction project was a gift from the Chinese government to Liberia. The construction work, although coordinated by the Ministry of Public Works, was undertaken by the Qingjian Group (part of the massive and decades-old CNQC) which has won a number of construction contracts here in Monrovia (and is not the only Chinese construction company in operation here), including the Royal Hotel and the new Chinese Embassy nearby on the Congo Town Back Road.
The Ministry in December, as CNQC was completing its work.
Note the Chinese characters on the zinc sheets at the far lower left of the bottom photo.
©2011 Moved 2 Monrovia.

Architecturally speaking, the never-til-now-completed structure did not change radically during is makeover. Looking much more like a hospital or perhaps a motor inn than a government ministry, the building's several unique elements remain intact, including the rounded stairwell tower at its eastern end. This, combined with a set of giant porthole windows at its sides, presents a nautical face, like the prow of an early ocean liner, to motorists entering Congo Town from Paynesville. The elongated body of the main hall, flanked with long overhanging eaves like the balconies of passenger decks, are the distinct characteristics of a cruise ship.

The front entrance, near the opposite end of the building, still recalls the golden era of leisure travel, but land journeys by motorcar instead of sea crossings. Like a roaside Howard Johnson's, an oversized porte-cochere, strangely squared-off, is more of a type of an emergency room entrance or a hotel lobby than a government office. This, along with a small wing at the northwesterly corner of the building, are topped with flared, pagoda-like roofs (although the concrete cube almost completely covers the roofline of the entryway).

The history of these curious elements is a bit confused, and while I have to slide into anecdote to recount what seems to be the background, let the photographic evidence above keep the record clear, that the ("mainland") Chinese diplomats and contractors met this dilapidated pile with this oriental embellishment existent. However, the Far Eastern architectural flourishes seemed to have been themselves introduced by the other China: I have been told that the building commenced under Taiwanese assistance, which was then was halted when the Government of Liberia switched recognition to the People's Republic.

I have no confirmation of this, though, or any information as to whether the celestial ceiling was an intentional detail to recall the building's Asian origins, but see the comments of this FrontPage Africa story which mentions some of this history. Interesting to consider that the governments of Taipei and Beijing collaborated, several decades apart, to give the Government of Liberia a new ministry.

The approach from ELWA junction on the Boulevard.
©2012 Moved 2 Monrovia

Aside from its peach-and-pink paint job, which makes the building look spiffy and somewhat feminine, the only major addition the complex is its most controversial: the property is now surrounded by a high concrete wall, topped by barbed wire, which many residents of the city see as unfitting for a government building which should be open to the public. Overall, the building's pristine façade contrasts negatively with the worn and under-stocked hospitals throughout Liberia, as it is not an ideal architectural metaphor to have a Ministry of Health looking better than the pubic health facilities that it is charged with administering.

A view past the gate and barbed-wire-topped concrete wall.
©2012 Moved 2 Monrovia

Incidentally, during the hand-over ceremony it was announced that the Chinese government would offer to build a US$50m ministerial complex for the Liberian government. So that would presumably include more work for CQNC and other Chinese construction companies in Liberia.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A New Building for an Old Purpose

One detail of the election coverage which I didn't remember to write about last fall was from a BBC article from October 10, by Jonathan Paye-Layleh: Can Liberia's leading lady fight off election challenge? The article included this poorly-cropped picture of a building under construction at the time, near 5th Street and Tubman Boulevard in Sinkor:

Caption: "Central Monrovia has been transformed since the end of the war"

I thought the text and photo a bit curious, especially as they didn't do much better at accurately reporting on the nuance and detail of Monrovia's cosmetic and atmospheric changes during the recent boom, despite Mr. Paye-Layleh being a Liberian based in Monrovia:

Mrs Sirleaf's campaign team cites Monrovia's development as a symbol of her achievements.

'More than 75% successful'Most of Tubman Boulevard, the city's main road, once bore the scars of conflict, with buildings dilapidated and riddled with bullets.

But today Tubman Boulevard - named after Liberia's longest-serving President William Tubman, an uncle of Winston Tubman - is tarred and shiny new buildings are springing up - including residential flats, banks, the offices of airline companies and six of Monrovia's leading supermarkets - four of which are newly established.

Most of Tubman Boulevard, the city's main road, once bore the scars of conflict, with buildings dilapidated and riddled with bullets.

I forgot about the article, but remained curious about the building, as it is one of the larger non-residential multistory buildings going up in the city. Presumably another air-conditioned office building, like so many that are transforming the cityscape. Perhaps one of the new foreign concessionaires, or even a domestic conglomerate, was constructing new office space?

After the all-too-familiar aluminum-paneling-and-tinted-glass finish, which seems to be the final skin of nearly every new building in Monrovia, the block was crowned off with a diagonal corner cap. Its brow sports a neon title of the major tenant, common enough around the world, but it reveals the building as the new office tower for LISCR, the Liberia International Ship and Corporate Registry-- the unusual, U.S.-owned and operated company which administers the registration of ocean-going vessels on behalf of the Liberian Government. Liberia's "flag of convenience" has the second largest fleet of vessels in the world-- 11% of the craft plying the planet's oceans. This has been for decades one of the government's primary sources of revenue, although too often shrouded in secrecy and lacking proper transparency.

So rather than a symbol of foreign investment, the block is another swanky office block for government business, and therefore, not a good example of any sort of "transformation" of the city, other than the slick cosmetic makeover, which is often only skin-deep.

Friday, February 17, 2012

That Sinkor Feeling

The beach at 15th Street, Sinkor.

There aren't a great many cities in the world where you can look down the street and see waves crashing on beach, or the sky meeting the water on the horizon. Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Nice, Miami... Monrovia. Surrounded by water on several sides, Monrovia is in a naturally beautiful setting, with the waves of the Atlantic crashing on orange beaches only a short distance away from anyplace in the city.

This is especially true of Sinkor, the mid-section of the city that has been my home for most of the last four years. Mostly laid out in a grid pattern with numbered cross-streets, Sinkor straddles the narrow center of the peninsula, with a "swamp side" to the north of Tubman Boulevard, toward the marshy meander of the Mesurado river, and the "beach side" to the south, facing the ocean.
16th Street, Sinkor.

While both are quiet and upscale residential neighborhoods, home to many of the city's embassies, it is the oceanside section which has been Monrovia's leafiest and most affluent area for decades. Originally elite families built stately mansions here on the square city lots, just blocks from the beach. Several of these are some of the last buildings in the city still inhabited by squatters and un-rehabilitated. A greater number of these are now high-walled NGO headquarters, and an increasing number have been given over to the Ellen-era building boom: there are now a half-dozen recently-completed multistory apartment tower complexes in the area, with another four or five under construction, as developers rush to finish out apartments that rent out for Manhattan-rate prices.

12th Street, Sinkor.

In the past few months, it is not just the walls of these concrete constructions that have been bricked up: the quiet, sandy ends of several of Sinkor's little streets, some of which are still pot-holed (or even never paved in the first place) have been closed off with cinderblock.

9th Street, Sinkor.

This is apparently the solution decided upon to impede access to the beach by people who mine beach sand for construction, although this continues to go on unabated just in other sections of the city, and I've also been informed that this is to restrict those who would use it as either a toilet, or rubbish bin, or both. Never mind that the much less-affluent majority of the city's residents resort to using the beach as a bathroom out of desperate necessity, and that maybe the beach could be better tended if people were employed to take care of it, rather than have some governmental authority restrict public access to a common amenity.

A sign at 18th Street proclaims "Sinkor Beach Patrol"
but gives no indication that this an actual, acting body,
merely imploring the public to keep the beach clean for children.

There is also the question of safety, as wanderers can also find themselves locked on the beach, which doesn't sound helpful if you encounter someone unfriendly. It has also had the predictable effect that the metal doors in these walls are now guarded by young men who attempt to charge others for access, which may or may not have been anticipated when this project was thought up.

I imagine it also occurred to no one that one of this often very harsh and ugly city's few moments of serenity and beauty, the vistas down its streets to the ocean, was being lost, and replaced by yet more hideous concrete block.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Mid-Dries

Suffering Sinkor under a Saharan Sky.

The New Year in Monrovia is usually one of this city's most pleasant periods: for about four to six weeks, from early January to mid-February, the pepper coast experiences "the mid-Dries," when the humidity drops, the breeze picks up, and the air is neither thick with moisture nor bludgeoning with the blasting force of the sun.

This period coincides with the appearance of the Harmattan, a high-level weather pattern that brings Saharan sand south to the coast, from Nigeria to Cape Verde, and often cloaks coastal cities from Accra to Conkary in a low-visibility haze.

North America hardly has any named winds, so part of the romance of many ex-patriate West Africans' experience is constantly bemoan the Harmattan (whether their pronunciation is more Manhattan or closer to Benneton is apparently a matter of choice), even when it is bringing welcome relief from the scorching sun of the dry season rather than the noxious choke which cause such fear for the northern Sahara's sandy onslaughts of similar appellation.

The Harmattan Horizon: the ocean's edge disappears.

I am no meteorologist, so I'm in no position to describe these phenomena nor link them together, but while this year's mid-dry period has been welcomely temperate, the dust storms have been remarkably overbearing.

Learn 2 Speak Liberian:

Fog, Haze, Dust Storm = "Dew"

Liberians seem to limit their naming and observing of this phenomenon to their typically tangential word-usage: repurposing the word "dew" to apply to a high-altitude dust storm, which may in fact contain moisture but is more substantially sand than water. It is true that the low-level cover does look foggy: one morning this month the Executive Mansion was hidden behind a shiny ground cloud, unseeable from the street.

Locals also don't respond kindly to the drop in temperature: winter coats, caps and hoods are donned; when in other seasons it is mercilessly stuffy inside their ventless homes and bedrooms, Monrovians complain of suffering from "colds" and other illnesses, shivering as the weather approximates an Arizona evening for a few days.

Congo Town cloaked in haze.

This year, the dust storms have been the talk of the town, Roberts International Airport was completely shut down (flights in Ghana and elsewhere were also cancelled). Reportedly, some Delta flights nearly reached Liberian airspace before turning around to return to Accra. While the outside air temperature never dropped below 70F, The New Dawn newspaper screeched of "thick dew and severe cold" causing chaos at the country's principal international gateway (emphasis added):

A rather abrupt change in the weather condition here in the last few days characterized by thick dew and severe cold is said to be impeding smooth landing of commercial aircrafts at the country's main airport - the Roberts International Airport or RIA in Margibi County, leading to the daily loss of revenue.

Most airlines were unable to land here on Wednesday due to dew falling, which has obstructed visibility.

Sources at the RIA on condition of anonymity hinted the New Dawn Liberia that due to the natural causes (dew falling); aircrafts did not land at the airport on Wednesday, but at least one was expected to have landed Thursday night, February 9th.

Notwithstanding, it is yet to be confirmed by relevant authorities claims that a special flight landed at the RIA yesterday, while another flight was expected last night.

Efforts to contact the financial and technical sections at the airport to ascertain the level of financial losses being sustained as a result of the bad weather have not materialized.

Prior to the escalation of global climate change, which no doubt is affecting Liberia today, dew usually fell in January during morning hours characterized by dried air.

Liberia had dense forests, but experts have warned persistently that shifting cultivation and deforestation (by farmers and loggers) could endanger the country's rich forests. Local farmers here usually do not replace trees by replanting, thus leaving the country vulnerable to climatic challenges.

Meanwhile, in town, trees, cars and buildings were coated in a fine dust; the mid-dries made the mid-rises of Central Monrovia became mere outlines in the haze. The normally-overpowering sun became only a single low-watt bulb covered in cobwebs. While this might describe a stifling, suffering experience, the air stirred with a small breeze and the thermometers dropped enough to give the air-conditioners a much-needed break, and window-screens checked to be left open in the evenings.
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