Monday, June 30, 2014

Ten Years since A Continent for the Taking

Lacking refugee camps or any other appropriate shelter, Monrovia's huge internally displaced population took up residence in the gutted and bombed-out shells of what had been a once-proud city's most prestigious addresses. Somehow, the entire fron façade of the massive, boxy structure of the Libyan-built Foreign Ministry, for example, had been neatly sheared off in the artillery duels between the Nigerians and Taylor's fighters during one of the rebel leader's attempts to capture Monrovia. And squatters now used the ministry's offices as overcrowded apartments, seeming to pay no mind to the fact that their whole lives were on display to the passersby on one of Monrovia's busiest avenues.  
This same gritty resourcefulness was at work at the Intercontinental Hotel, once a majestic skyscraper that stood on the city's highest ground like an exclamation point, announcing the cosmopolitan pretensions of the old Americo-Liberian elite... Like nearly every other monument to the Americo-Liberians, the Intercontinental Hotel had been shattered and left to rot in the moldy damp of Liberia's persistent tropical rains.

Howard French's description of mid-1990s Monrovia, from his landmark chronicle of his journalistic journeys across Africa: A Continent for the Taking was published ten years ago this spring. The book contained several photographs of Monrovia from that time, including the rare shot of the Foreign Ministry, a skeletal shell on a treeless forecourt, astonishingly contrasting with the building of today. Although the historical events accounted in the book are now fading further into the past, the book is still highly recommended reading for that very same reason.

Not only does this past June mark ten years since this release of the book, but French, who since his years as an African correspondent has now spent much of his time in, and become equally expert on, China, has a new work out about Africa, China's Second Continent, which was reviewed favorably by no less of an authority than Stephen Ellis. On the summer reading list.

Friday, June 27, 2014

High Atop the Ducor

Speaking of the Ducor, I had long ago posted some renderings from the ill-fated, aborted attempt at resurrecting the Grand Dame of Monrovia Hotels, back when the Libyan Investment Authority was expected to take over the property and redevelop the complex. That the Ducor is still vacant is surely one of the more tangential footnotes of the Libyan Revolution.

I was recently at a government office in Monrovia which still, either through neglect or persevering optimism, still had some printed-out elevations and renderings of the revamped Ducor taped to the wall. Slightly faded, they nonetheless revealed the name of the Italian architecture firm responsible for the proposal.

I hadn't seen these images of the reborn rooftop restaurant before; they weren't included in the press pack that accompanied the media blitz of the original announcement, I suppose. Not only do I particularly like the drama of the exterior fly-over, but also the Ducor's rooftop terrace is, in a certain sense, already a destination for evening revelry: there are near-weekly sunset gatherings on the two-level rooftop of the Ducor; they've occurred more times than I can remember during my time in Monrovia.

Not sure when the old hotel will finally be refurbished, or what its fate will be. There was a very prominent rumor over the last few months that “Hilton was taking the Ducor” but I'm not convinced as there's not even the slightest official hint of that, I am not even certain that a major hotel brand like Hilton would even really be in the business of taking over a decrepit property, especially in a peripheral frontier market, more common nowadays would be for a hotel chain to agree to manage a hotel as one of the later steps in a project. I should note that there is already a Hilton in Liberia: The Hilton Garden Inn, at the airport in Liberia, Costa Rica.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

I stayed at the…Ducor Intercontinental

When I first arrived in Liberia, Google Maps was in its infancy planet-wide, and West Africa was lagging behind the West Coast. Over the years, the platform has filled in rapidly, so that now there are decent representations of every city in West Africa, Monrovia included, even if the maps are riddled with a variety of errors, and the bandwidth-heavy platform is not that easy to access in the region. 

And then there are some unique issues. Specifically, there is no Google Maps symbol for "abandoned hotel." Following a certain logic, someone has gone and labelled the Ducor with the regular, normal, active hotel icon of a sleeping person in a bed, and called it the Ducor Intercontinental. Which is, basically, what it is, after all.

Except that it's not: what the API's logic then leads to is a full rate-and-review follow-on crowd-sourcing extension, which leads, absurdly, to the ability of people to review their stay at the Ducor, which some wise-cracking jack-ass crassly did about a year ago.  

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Brussels Airlines gives bad directions

Not sure is writing for Brussels Airlines b.spirit! in-flight magazine these days, at least in terms of their guides to their African destinations, which have long been featured in the back section of the monthly magazine. At one time, it was Monrovia resident ex-pat Kate Thomas, who not only actually lived in Liberia (and for whom I will be forever grateful for putting the Architectural Tour into the magazine for the first time—the Tour's first major exposure) but also was and is a professional journalist. 

The above paragraph is nice enough, encouraging visitors to leave the central city and check out the lovely Quelu and Wulki Farms, as well as the mention of architecture (although simply describing the architecture as "American" is particularly helpful). 

For one thing, Careysburg is not “a half hour's drive west of the capital's Chocolate City suburb” —firstly, Careysburg is at least a half-hour northeast of Chocolate City, not west, and Chocolate City would be more accurately described as an impoverished slum, even if it does functionally act as a suburb of the city. 

There is certainly something appealing about the romantic Chocolate City name, as in American popular culture it has certain cult connotations, which interestingly parallel Liberian social identity. But this is the second time I have seen it confusingly and unnecessarily invoked: Daniel Howden, who is a solid journalist with a slight tendancy for the melodramatic, name-checked Chocolate City is his slightly-overwrought debut at Roads and Kingdoms two years ago

In reality, Chocolate City can hardly be defined several miles distant from central Monrovia, even high atop the Ducor Hotel. The sprawl of Monrovia's upper fringe, which has seeped further into the swampy flats north of Somalia Drive for over a decade, and Chocolate City is just one section of this 20-mile long stretch of tiny-roofed communities, many with equally-enigmatic names like Chicken Soup Factory, JJY, Day Break Mouth Open, and a dozen other neighborhoods, many of which recall the nascent industrial zone that Somalia Drive was developing on the cusp of the country's downfall. 

Chocolate City is just one section of the larger Gardnersville township, and as such hardly a reference point for directions across the metro area. I know I am knit-picking and this post is several paragraphs too long now, but in order to encourage foreign visitors to actually take the advice in these brief travel tips, it would at least be helpful if their basic orientation was correct. I wonder if anyone, in any of the three languages provided here, will try to find their way to Careysburg and get lost on the way to Chocolate City. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Squatters, with no legal rights, but with permits

After yesterday's post about Kru Town, I was interested to read this article about sea erosion in West Point, which is said to be home to around 75,000 residents, most of whom, among other challenges, have highly insecure rights to their property: 
Mary B said she had bought the piece of land from the commissioner of the township for 11,500 Liberian dollars, about 130 dollars,and built her shop on it. 
According to the Township Commissioner's office, residents in the area are primarily squatters, with no legal rights to the land though it is possible to obtain a Squatters Permit from the administrative office, which grants a certain level of legitimacy to the dwellers.West Point is home to many of Monrovia's disadvantaged people and many cannot afford the city's huge rents, which are fixed in U.S. dollars - 150 for a modest two bedroom apartment. To make matters worse the government does no have public housing available. 
People in the area have always talked about plans by the government to relocate them, but the Public Works Ministry says the government has no such plans to move over 75,000 people.
I've never heard of buying a squatters permit, but that hardly means such things don't exist or aren't actually codified legally in Monrovia or elsewhere, but the Commissioner's statement that the dwellers have no legal rights, just a vague "certain level of legitimacy" is hardly reassuring. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Original Two Monrovias

Kru Town, 1932 by Paul Julien. As posted on the Liberian Observer. 

This upcoming exhibit has been written about elsewhere, most notably at Liberia Past and Present, where Fred adds some interesting context to the unique and itinerant Dutch Liberiophile Paul Julien, who seemed to be a particularly curious and observant fellow, just the sort of witness to the footnotes of history that could be hoped for, such as this under-documented era of Liberia's history.

I was particularly intrigued by his remarks about the contrast the indigenous settlements so close to Monrovia with the mannered and increasingly prosperous hilltop capital. From his comments on the juxtaposition of Krutown, which was situated approximately where the Freeport is today, and the central city:
Paul Julien visits Krutown and describes it as being in a "sharp contrast to Monrovia, of which it is not even two minutes walking distance away. [It] consists completely of square huts with grass thatched roofs. It is obviously situated on the shore, with a wide sandy beach separating it from the surf." 
When comparing the two he makes sure the Belgian audience will understand what he means, by relating to what they should know. "Up, in Monrovia, the city still reminds one of a capital city, with streets and buildings that, even though only from afar, remind one somewhat of Europe." While in Krutown, "The narrow muddy alleys that wind in a marvelous disorder through the village are the set for the life of the coastal residents. Small naked youngsters run around in the sand.
It seems even in the pre-war era, the phenomenon of the Two Monrovias existed.  Julien's photographs and a film will be on display at the National Museum in July and August.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Building of the Month: NASSCORP Multi-Purpose Complex

 ©Matthew Jones

Although the NASSCORP Building has been featured on the M2M Architectural Tour for many years, as it has been under construction since April 2009 (and thus almost as long as I have been going to Monrovia), it made the front pages this month as the technicolor behemoth was officially opened by President Sirleaf just two weeks ago, over five years after groundbreaking. Although construction does take a much slower pace in the developing world, it is still astonishing just how slow the progress can be.

 ©Matthew Jones

Not to repeat too heavily on what I've already written on the Architectural Tour about the landmark building, I just want to emphasize that this tremendous and unusual building has a warm spot in my heart for several reasons. Firstly, the architect, Sylvanus O'Connor, is someone I consider to be a personal friend, having worked with him professionally during my first stint in Liberia in 2008-2009, when the NASSCORP building had only just taken shape on the drawing boards of O'Connor's firm, AEP Consultants, which is located on Front Street in Monrovia.

An early computer rendering. 
Most of the major elements remained intact throughout construction.

Sylvanus is a talented and increasingly prolific designer. NASSCORP embodies much of what is prominent in O'Connor's singular style: the ebullience of its arrangements, and the flamboyance of its post-modern costuming. Like O'Connor's earlier landmark, the LBDI headquarters at 9th Street and Tubman Boulevard, the NASSCORP employs semi-classical elements but articulates a thoroughly contemporary form and finish.

Reposted from the excellent Liberian journalist blog from
his article about the dedication.

These gestures are only more pronounced in the NASSCORP, which is a larger building, much more prominently situated on one of Liberia's most important road crossings, ELWA Junction. It could only be unmissable if it was another standard commercial building seen thrown up in this city: hulking, heavy, and hardly windowed.  Instead, it literally glistens in a bold employment of multi-colored Alubond panels, which sparkle in a rainbow of fluorescence not unlike the oil-slicked puddles arrayed on the road out front. The effect is luminous, and a still-rare but increasingly-common option to present a shimmering, glass-covered façade more like a curtain-wall of an office tower than another darkened edifice of crude cement.

The candyland effect of all this color greatly softens the substantial dimensions of the structure, which is further assisted by three major formal gestures: a pair of bulbous round turrets, bridged by a soaring lobby space, which together form the tower section of the complex, and a concave curtain which connects to a thin, missile-like clock tower, all planted on a colonnaded base meeting the street, providing a transformationally urban front to what is, after all, one the country's primary traffic crossings.

Nasscorp Building in early construction, March 2010 ©Matthew Jones

This setting is a chief reason to celebrate the complex. Monrovia, stretched out over a ten-mile-long peninsula, suffers desperately from traffic congestion, as thousands of workers drive from the expansive eastern suburbs into the Central business district daily, at the western end of the Mesurado landmass. The ELWA section of Paynesville, already the gateway to Tubman Boulevard, would be a natural second commercial center for the metropolitan area. This building is the most significant step toward formally establishing that as a planning goal to date.

©Matthew Jones

Remarkable as the architecture is, its significance is not limited to the design. That a government agency raised the $11 million in project funds from its own reserves, and used almost exclusively Liberian firms, for a commercial project that aims to safeguard public pension funds, is itself remarkable.  Quoting from the remarks of NASSCORP director van Ballmoos during the dedication ceremony:

This edifice is symbolic not only because of the potential to generate revenue; not because of its attractiveness and picturesque appearance from any section of Paynesville; not only because it transforms the landscape of the city; not because of its magnificence or its towering façade over other businesses in the area, but because it signals another achievement in the reconstruction and development of the nation.

Regardless of the appeal of its appearance, few buildings have the visual, commercial, spatial, social, political, and patriotic impact of the NASSCORP building, and for those reasons, it deserves note, respect, and even acclaim.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Detailed Description of Liberia's Executive Mansion

The Executive Mansion was constructed over a three - year period, from 1960 to 1963. The entire project was designed and supervised by Stanley Engineering Company of Africa; and the Construction Contractor was Liberian Construction Corporation (LCC). The project was officially dedicated on January 3, 1964, the seat of the Executive branch of the Government of the Republic of Liberia. 
The building is an eight-storey horizontal arch-like (semicircular) structure, constructed primarily of reinforced concrete post and lintel system, covering a total area of approximately 26,500 sq. ft. Vertical circulation throughout the building is by means of four major staircases and six elevators. One of the elevators is solely used by the president and visiting dignitaries, another one is used for freight and the rest of the other four elevators are used by the public. 
The Executive Mansion was designed and is being used for four basic functions; the official residence of the President of Liberia, Offices of the President and Staff of the Ministry of State, reception and living accommodations for guest/dignitaries and maintenance/technical sections. The focal point of the building is an elaborate northern and centralized entrance/reception hall of the second floor, which connects the executive parlor, located in the eastern section of the building along with relevant supporting facilities; and to that of other administrative offices, located in the western section.  
The entrance is approached by a bridge-like driveway (semi-circular), which overlooks and engulfs a parade ground in the north and under which lies a reflected pool. A reinforced concrete canopy covers this entrance and bears the seal of the republic of Liberia centralized on its reinforced concrete V-shaped fascia.  Access to the beautifully landscaped, ocean view garden, yard, which is located at the southern side of the building, is also obtained from the above - mentioned hall. 
Very prominent on the exterior walls of the building, running across the northern and southern surfaces is gold colored composite rectangular shaped solar screen, which runs from the second to the seventh floor. These aluminum metal solar screens are divided into several sections by vertical fins from first through eighth floors of the building and are concealed behind the indicated solar screens and fins. The building’s western and eastern exterior end- walls, which also bear concave forms are finished with mosaic tiles. 
Since the completion of construction works on the Executive Mansion in 1963, there had been two major rehabilitation works executed on the composite building elements/systems. Additionally, it is worth noting that the first renovation/rehabilitation of works was executed during the 1988 /89 under the reign of the late President Samuel K. Doe.  The second renovation work was executed during the tenure of former President Charles G. Taylor in the year 1997-1998. Since the indicated period, there has been no other renovation & rehabilitation of the building element system. 
The Executive Mansion was gutted by fire during Liberia's 159th Independence Anniversary celebration on July 26, 2006. Following the outbreak, the government of Liberia announced its closure pending renovation work. President Sirleaf relocated to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she has been performing official State functions. The eight-storey building was constructed in 1964 during the tenure of Liberia's 18th President, William V. S. Tubman, Sr.

This wonderful, detailed description of the Executive Mansion is from this less-than-uplifting article regarding the current state of affairs of the official residence of the President of Liberia (What's even less encouraging are the excoriating comments underneath the article on

It will sound terribly unfair to the journalist, but I am almost tempted to conclude that the above-description was lifted from another text, so different and lucidly accomplished it is from the rest of the article, and how abruptly the article transitions from a rough and excitable j'accuse to a technically proficient architectural description. I have never encountered such a detailed accounting of the building's history, and there are a dozen details and facts here that I didn't know before. Of course, being off-limits to the public, I've never toured the building. But a simple internet word search does not come up with a duplicate of this passage, so perhaps it is original to the FPA journalist.

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