Friday, January 17, 2014

Building of the Month: Renovated Labor Ministry

 I've spent some time in my photo archives, looking to see if I happened to have taken a photo of this building before, but it doesn't seem that I had. Surprising, given its prominent location at the city-side foot of Capitol Hill, at the terminus of a high-traffic intersection where U.N. Drive intersects with the “Bassa Community Short-Cut” –a steep, busy hill that connects to Jallah Town Road, which means it’s nearly impossible not to pass this building heading into central Monrovia. Secondly, it is relatively prominent in its former role as the Ministry of Labor. Yet the building is so indistinct that I never lifted my lens to capture it in five years of taking pictures of the city. It was just another peeling, chipping, multistory rectangle of hulking concrete without present purpose.

And yet suddenly, the building's notability is not only its location but its envelope. Like an increasing number of buildings in central Monrovia, the erstwhile Labor Ministry has emerged from its cracked concrete cocoon to reveal the iridescent scales of a beetle-green glass façade. The effect is dramatic.

This rehab is the latest work of the CNQC Qingjian International, which is one of the massive Chinese infrastructure companies which has had a major presence in Liberia in the reconstruction period, as it has in dozens of African countries from Mali to Lesotho.

I don't have more information on the building's future use for now–for all I know at present, the Labor Ministry could be moving back there–but the choice of materials is striking both visually and in terms of what this new stylistic paradigm continues to say about Liberia.

On the one hand, the proliferation of shiny glass sheeting down the fronts of the city's buildings, a startling phenomenon that began about five years ago and had been noted on M2M before, speak to investors' confidence in the economy and security situation at street-crossings that ten years ago were war zones, with nothing but shattered windows. Secondly, however, this paradigm of throwing up expensive, flashy envelopes to cover over cheaply-constructed concrete shells to make glasshouse bubbles of class-A office space, sucking up air conditioning from diesel generators, is not exactly a contribution to a long-term future. Not that buildings are built differently elsewhere.

In the here and now, these Dubai-style glass boxes stand in stark contrast the the other 99% of the building stock. While I haven't had time to find out more about the plans for the building, I was able to shoot the picture below from Redemption Road, looking at the backside of the new block. It is a somewhat astonishing juxtaposition of the new building and its neighborhood, Buzzy Quarters–the traditionally-Lorma-dominated enclave of informal housing, wedged along a swampy creek between the mighty edifices of Capitol Hill and the vast fortification of the Barclay Training Center, which is home to the Ministry of Defense (many early soldiers were Lorma, hence the development of the community decades ago). The old Labor Ministry's new skin shimmers like a pair of polarized Oakleys, one of several new buildings rising over the cityscape, which still consists of rusty corrugated zinc roofs, just as it has for decades.

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