Thursday, July 17, 2014

Building of the Month: The proposed Henry Hoff Commercial Plaza, Carey Street

Given the aviation kick I've been on this week I had been hoping to get a chance to photograph a new building out at the airport for July's Building of the Month, but that will have to wait for another time.

This set of photos has been the draft box since earlier this year, when I was walking around central Monrovia on an early Sunday morning. The city has a great number of proposed-building signboards at the moment, perhaps more than at any other time that I can recall. I post some others here as well, but this is probably the most ambitious of them all, not least given its height. It's not entirely clear what the scale is here, other than the presence of the cars at the bottom of the illustration, which looks to be a straight screen print off an aged, low-capacity version of AutoCAD.

The tower looks to be maybe three stories of parking, with maybe ten stories of offices that appear to rest on a level of thick, flaring columns which would cantilever  That would make the building within range of the tallest building in Liberia, which would be a remarkable development in and of itself, but the first time since the rise of the Ducor in 1959 that a commercial structure reached such a height.

It will be interesting to see first whether this project gets built, and then who occupies the offices: whether a UN Agency or NGO takes a chunk of space, whether a bank relocates its headquarters, or whether smaller private firms are able to absorb the square footage. Not sure what is going on at the crown of this building, but my guess would be either (a) another fancy rooftop restaurant or (b) an executive apartment.

If this building does rise, it will dramatically transform this tired, crumbling block of Carey Street, which thus far has remained a low-slung but dense block of concrete structures, and has yet to see the construction which has changed so many other parts of the city. As the signboard says, "Coming soon to the Carey !!!"

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Feasibility Study and Master Plan for Robertsfield, 1965

The recent posts have reminded me of something I found in the basement of the Library of Congress several years ago, and never got around to posting here before, but now seems relevant: A 1965 Feasibility Study for Robertsfield, commissioned by USAID and prepared by a Los Angeles firm of engineers and architects.

Frankly, in many parts it is so dry and technical as to be unreadable, but I was in love from the cover, with its Microgramma typeface looking like a prop from 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with a gorgeous, dashing R.F.I.A. logo (famously derived from Pan Am's globe emblem, as the US carrier had the contract to manage the airport apparently from its earliest days as a commercial facility).

The best parts are really all the graphics. There are a decent historic photo of the yet-to-be finished KLM Terminal (today the VIP Terminal but still sporting the sky-blue roof trim of KLM). Unfortunately, no good shots of the main Pan Am terminal, which I've only ever seen in photos and in person as a multi-storied hollow concrete shell. I am not even sure what the "interim terminal building" was, as it looks to be a finely-crafted steel-spanned, winged-roof structure. No such shed exists today, but maybe Pan Am hadn't even built the bigger building yet, and that was what the "interim" was anticipating.

Another good illustration, and what reminded me that I should post the document, is a map which catalogued intercontinental flights to, from and within Africa. The monochrome map is too low-tech for 21st century eyes; its too easy for the lines to cross over and get lost, but its fun to look at, it shows SAS's flight to Rio de Janeiro as well as KLM and Sabena's flights.

But the best part of the document has got to be the watercolor-washed perspective drawing of a future RIA as proposed by the engineers and architects. Too cartoonish to be technical, the poster board acts as an emotional hook to invest in a new airport for Liberia. The scene is recognizable, most notably by the meandering Farmington river narrowing away to the horizon, and the general arrangement and direction of the runway, landslide structures, airside facilities, and waterway are all the same.

But in place of the familiar array of small, bland terminals of today, here RIA looks if not like a miniature Laguardia than at least bigger than what might suit the needs of Madison, Wisconsin or Montgomery, Alabama. Clearly shown is a multistory, multi gate main terminal with early-iteration passenger bridges to the airliners, which here seem to consist solely of a prototype profile of the yet-to-exist B747-100. It is too-wide wings and the too-bulbous visage of these fanciful jumbo jets that most gives the painting its Warner Brothers-backdrop quality.

That this impressive volume has been gathering dust in the sub-sub of the LOC for decades was a treat to discover; what's more curious is how it was always seemingly dead on arrival. At the time of its production, the study rightly anticipated a Liberia that was soaring upwards, at least a decade and a half from its economic peak.

More relevantly, Pan American Airways, which again was not only the primary commercial user of RIA but also the manager of the airport on behalf of the government, would continue adding capacity at Robertsfield and across Africa throughout the 1960s and well into the 1970s, up until the oil crisis and related pan-African stagnation first curtailed the viability of jets from New York to Cotonou, Douala or Kinshasa. Yet tiny Monrovia would remain among Pan Am's African destinations to the very end, including many years in which real B747s would in fact land at the airport multiple times per week. It is therefore not immediately apparent why, at the crest of global optimism in 1965, the grander visions of this proposal were never implemented.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Air Service to Liberia, forty years ago

A smartphone photo from an African year book from about 1973, which I discovered when suddenly finding myself in the Library of the Nigerian Embassy earlier this year (which maybe could make the subject of a separate post). Monrovia was served by six African airlines, six European airlines (SAS from Scandinavia, and flew from Zürich to Monrovia on the way to Brazil. UTA is French), MEA (Middle East Airlines) from Lebanon, as well as its own domestic airline, and of course Pan American. Today it is served by nine, one of which, Delta, is leaving.

A better comparison than number of carriers would be to tally the number of weekly seats on planes departing the country; many of these 1970s flights were not on jets, and even the single isle DC-8s and B707s from New York and Europe are comparable in size to the 150-seat B737s that Kenya uses to Accra today, rather than the two-aisle wide body A330s and B767s that British Airways, Delta, Air France and Brussels use on their routes to RIA, which typically have capacity of up over 250 passengers. So the total passengers numbers may have grown, even if the number of airlines and destinations is smaller (and continues to shrink).

Note in the short section under tourism the paltry number of tourists in previous years: only 250 in 1971, rising four-fold the next year, although the fact that the address is provided as “Government Wharf, Freetown” means they mixed up this entry with Sierra Leone, so who knows.

Lastly, I didn’t know Hughes Air West was involved in Air Liberia. At times it really seems as though all of corporate America was lending a hand to Liberia in those days. I'd love to dig into the Hughes company archives and see how that partnership transpired.

Friday, July 11, 2014

It Seems Official: Delta Departing Liberia

Arriving in Atlanta from Monrovia on one plane, December 2011.

This weekend the Monrovian flying public was wracked by news reports indicating that Delta Air Lines, would be ending its services to Liberia. Delta has served Robertsfield since September 2010 with multi-week wide body flights to the U.S. via Accra, first from Atlanta, then more recently from New York-JFK.

While one of the more credible publishing houses cites credible sources in its reporting, there was initially no official word from Atlanta. Normally, news of withdrawal from markets is reported after an official press release from the airline itself, and even though FrontPage Africa has now reprinted a statement to the paper directly from Delta headquarters, the airline has made no official general public announcement.

Presuming it is 100% verified, Delta's departure at the end of August would leave Liberia with weekly service by just two intercontinental carriers, whereas in May there were multi-week options to three cities in Europe and one in the U.S. on four different global airlines. Now there will be just a pair of choices: British Airways to London-Heathrow and Brussels Airlines, which is Liberia's longest serving long-haul carrier with its Sabena-heritage going back decades. Neither of the remaining airlines, of course, offers a critical trans-Atlantic link to the United States.

Air France, which had flown twice-weekly from Paris CDG to Monrovia for over three years, stopped its service at the end of June, citing weak passenger numbers of poor revenue volume. It is likely that Air France headquarters looked not only at mostly-empty Airbuses but also its regional developments: in terms of its airline alliance and owned-carriers, it is still possible to fly to Monrovia via its network: Skyteam member Kenya Airways still flies to Monrovia via Accra, where Air France's Dutch subsidiary, KLM, takes a planeful of people to Amsterdam every single night. Likewise, Air France has been steadily upgrading its service to neighboring Abidjan, and as of this autumn will rotate in an A380 super jumbo thrice-weekly on its route from Paris, in the face of the rapid regrowth of Cote D'Ivoire, where it recently invested in the new national carrier, Air Cote D'Ivoire, which itself now flies non-stop to Monrovia several times per week. From Air France's perspective it probably makes more sense to have passengers connect in Abidjan rather than sit through a same-plane stop in Sierra Leone.

The good old days, c.2010

As for Delta, its ambitious, circa-2009 expansion plans across the African continent, from Luanda to Malabo to Nairobi, have been greatly curtailed. Visitor numbers from the U.S. to Africa peaked in 2010 have actually declined significantly in the past three years (I was shocked to learn: see below), and instead of spreading farther Delta has withdrawn from markets in the face of low passenger numbers, or security concerns: Monrovia joins an forlorn crowd of Cape Town, Cairo, and Abuja, have all fallen off Delta's map since 2009.

In looking at the last five cities those reductions left on Delta's African route network, it is amazing that tiny Monrovia has lasted as long as it has when compared to much larger, more important cities: Accra, Dakar, Lagos, and Johannesburg.

In fact, this is not the first time that I've remarked that it is astonishing that Delta actually started flying to Monrovia at all, much less flying past much bigger markets like Casablanca to do so, and it surely can be understood that passenger numbers do not justify what is surely a high-cost operation, in terms of security and crew management alone for such a small, distant destination. Ultimately, the Monrovia flying public is just too small for a three-times per week wide body to JFK.

Slower economic growth, most notably the still-lengthening trough between the frenzied exploration phase of extractive projects and the revenue-generating production phase of most of them, and of course Ebola have all surely contributed to a deterioration in passenger numbers. Most ironically, an improving socio-political situation has surely meant a decline in NGO activity (do such statistics exist?) which means fewer World Bank suits in the front and fewer save-the-world backpackers in the back of the planes.

Delta's arrival to Liberia in September 2010 was one of the high-water marks of Liberia's post war redevelopment; the first time since Pan Am departed in 1986 that an American commercial passenger plane scheduled service to Liberia. This blog has been progressively running a series of "Flying to Liberia: Its Getting Easier" posts over the years. Now that situation is rapidly retrograding.

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.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A luxury hilltop hotel overlooking the beautiful scenery of the ancient city

From an April 9th, 2014 Letter in FrontPageAfrica, written by the head of the Liberian Community in Italy, lodging a complaint about the Liberian Ambassador there. It's worth reading in full but I liked this passage in particular, and how it somehow resonated with Monrovia, the Ducor Hotel in particular:

After it was disclosed that the Ambassador had selected his nine persons and had taken them into the hotel to meet the President, we the members of the Community walked to the Luxury Hilton Hotel, just 200 miters from the Embassy, where the President and her people were lodged. An hour later, the Ambassador instructed Security officers to move us from the premises of the hotel as our presence post a serious risk to the President.
While we walked alone consoling ourselves for the waste of time, energy, finance, we also reasoned on a comment the Ambassador often makes: ‘’ I am the President’s favorite and I enjoy full powers as Ambassador and nothing any of you can do to stop me, after all, the Liberian people noise often last for two weeks’’. All things considered during the 8 or 9 hour episode, we saw some level of truthfulness in Dr. Mohammed Sheriff’s comment. Silently, we thought to ourselves that all the messages we constantly hear of a Liberia that is being built in the atmosphere of Social Justice, Economic Progress, and the Rule of Law, Liberia still had ‘’Supermen’’ with full powers who did what they wanted and how they wanted it with impunity, even if the violated our basic rights of ordinary Liberians.
As we went away, occasionally turning back to gaze at the Luxury hill-top Hilton Hotel where the Ambassador with full powers and Her Excellency presumably sit drinking expensive Italian wine and overlooking the beautiful scenery of the ancient city, most of us were overwhelmed by the weird sensation of the recent mayhem we experienced as a people and a nation, a mayhem that came upon us for 14 years, mostly as a result of the behaviors of these ‘’supermen’’ with full powers. These extraordinary men with full powers stand willfully above the Rule of Law depriving their Countrymen of their basic humanities. These big men drives posh vehicles (The Ambassador in Rome has 3 official cars, Mercedes E Class 280 with number plate PD 028 CD, a Jaguar X-Type marked PD 029 CD and a Lexus IS200 with registration number PD 031 CD) and live in expensive villas all at the expense of poor tax payers, and yet these ordinary people are treated with injustice and view as the inferior class.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Visual Artist Makes Monrovia Animations

French “Visual Artist” François Beaurain has been mining the landscape of this city for at least the past year for photographic projects. Most recently, his animated GIFs on Monrovia, a series he calls Monrovia Animated, have been tossing around the internet for the past few weeks, and finally bubbled to the surface on Fast Company Design, in the slightly-awkwardly titled “Slums of Liberia Spring to Life in these Animated GIFs.” Quoting from FastCo's post:
In his GIFs, Beaurain juxtaposes the static dilapidation of the impoverished capitol [sic] with the colorful and repetitive energy of its citizens, turning them into "a piece of the conveyor belt that animates the city."
Many of Beaurain's GIFs were captured at the ramshackle Ducor Palace Hotel. Once one of the few five-star hotels in Africa [sic], it was closed before the Liberian Civil War, and has been rotting ever since. Beaurain has used the hotel's environs, ravaged by time though they may be, to set into relief the vibrancy and vitality of his subjects.

I actually think some of those that do not take place in the Ducor, and do take place in "the Slums of Liberia" are the most interesting, particularly #068 Monrovia Waterfall (above) and #45 Beauty Salon, with its simple, brilliant gesture of the mis-synced mirror image. I love the simple moment captured in #057, Swept Out (below); so much truth in those few seconds of action, as opposed to the more choreographic attempts. 

As for the use of the Ducor itself, the project is most successful when brightly-dressed, versatile young bodies are moving expertly across the dilapidated spaces (#026), especially the several that emphasize the boundaries of the architectural gestures, such as those that employ the hotel's massive, circular porte-cochere (#34, 36, & 38). 

In terms of how the art relates to Liberia itself, yet another visual co-option of the abandoned Ducor Hotel to intrigue an artistic audience is growing tired from overuse. But at least this newest attempt is expertly executed, and worth checking out. 

Monday, April 7, 2014


Gabriele Asare, posted on YouTube

Like many other West African cities, Monrovia is beset with large colonies of bats, when not hanging over the city from the ruins of stately Cotton trees, they swarm the skies like a plague of locusts. There are about five or so such trees in central Monrovia, broad and ancient, that rise above the rooflines of the oldest parts of town.

Denuded and presumably dead, they are enlivened by the diabolical presence of hundreds and thousands of flying mammals. Once, while driving up Snapper Hill to the Ducor Hotel, I passed one of these great dead oaks, its countless inhabitants clinging under each huge limb like dried fruit, while a few diurnal specimens flittered about. A single bat, ready for a nap, landed upside-down on a branch. It was the straw that broke the camel's back in real life: the weight of that one small flying-mouse was too much; the great old bough came crashing down as if struck by lightning: thunder clap and all. Dazed creatures, panicked by the pruning and blinded by the afternoon sun, flew chaotically in all directions: some directly into the ground, some into a chain-link fence where they became entangled. Within moments, a price had been put on a bar, and I am told by a friend who lived nearby that bat soup was the weekly special.

Even absent such a spectacular event, these tree-colonies are remarkable scenes though they are in many ways unsettling. The nearest image to the hive of half-frenetic, half-febrile activity would be vultures on a carcass, yet a carcass would never have so many ravenous attackers. When frenzy hits these nocturnal clans, the sky darkens a shade, the already-brief evening hour hastily blotted out with each small pair of slightly-translucent stretched-skin wings. The Wingéd Monkeys, lifting off to the shrill commands of the Wicked Witch of the West, come to mind.

This threatening aspect has grown with the swelling of the Ebola panic which has swept into town and onto the headlines of the newspapers. A popular fact shared among acquaintances is that fruit bats are the carriers of the virus, and Guinea has gone so far as to ban the eating of bats. So it is not too far from the mind to think of the immune risk when the sky darkens with the flittering, furry beasts, carrying death from afar. A report from Abidjan, from earlier in the month, chronicled just this wariness, of wrath of sky-borne couriers of the fever. Even before all the attention given to their presence due to the virus, they were seen as pests to eradicated. Both the U.S. Embassy and at times the local government have chopped down trees hosting bats.

Laurent Guilard posted in the Daily Motion

Despite lending themselves so excellently to be wicked omens of doom, the chattering communities of bats are an amazing site in the middle of the the concrete jungles of urban West Africa. I hope they remain overhead.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Literary Break: Guinea Highlands

The sudden three-week full-stop of posting has been mainly due to some exciting, life-changing preparations and the travel and distractions that go with them; the time since the last week of March has flashed by. Secondarily, the social and journalistic atmosphere of this stretch of West Africa has been dominated by the near-panic of the Ebola outbreak which started in innermost Guinea, in the mountainous frontier near Sierra Leone and Liberia, to which the virus has spread via the well-plied trade routes down to Monrovia.

Amidst the paranoia and panic, and my own preoccupations, I thought it'd be timely to post the below book excerpt, which has been sitting in the Drafts folder of this blog for literally years. It's beautiful, evocative description is the best anecdote to the hysteria around the place of origin of the Ebola virus. I hope you'll enjoy, and in the meantime I am getting myself situated and I'll be back to more regularly postings shortly.

©Google Earth.
High up in the wooded flank of the Guinea Highlands, a land of icy streams and alpine pastures, rises the stripling Niger, and its affluents, the Dion, the Sankarani and the Milo. Southward, beyond the rocky watershed, the mountain streams have bored their way down the cliffs and are lost in the vast stifling rainforest that blocks off the Highlands from the Gulf of Guinea. But on this northern flank, each river has carved out a delightful valley of its own, and the most delightful of all is the Milo Valley, an African garden of Eden.

It was here, in the district of Konya, that the kola trade had flourished since the Middle Ages, providing its own bonanza. The kola nut was grown in the clearings of the forest, marketed in the valley and then carried laboriously across the wilderness for hundreds of miles to the mud villages and mud cities of the Sudan and beyond. The nut, one of the few stimulants allowed by Islam, was served as a luxury throughout Islamic Africa, and the Middle East. To organize this demanding trade came the Dyula, Muslim immigrants from the coast. The Dyula metropolis was Kankan, a teeming village of mud huts on the banks of the river Milo.

The lines of trade pushed out and became more sophisticated. The arterial trade routes designed for the delicate and perishable kola nut-- fair markets, dry storehouses, trustworthy guards, able porters -- could also supply delicate girl slaves from the forests. In return back came ingots of salt from the Sahara and the luxuries of North Africa that the caravans had brought from still further away: fine cloth from Morocco, pottery from Tunis, horses from Arabia.

Sometimes, a passage in a book can, in a few sentences, transmit the essence of an entire world. Thomas Pakenham's ‘vast, scholarly and delightful’* 1991 epic, The Scramble for Africa details many of the European campaigns, and the figures who led them, into the interior of the continent for the sake of crown and glory. The above passage, conjuring a tropical Switzerland is itself so intriguing and magical, and in Pakenham's history, sets the scene for the French campaigns from both the coast and the desert to source the Niger River. The book as a whole is a vast, essential chronicle how the global slave trade, stretching its wicked tentacles deep into the the remotest redoubts of the region—increasing their vulnerability just as the European armies penetrated further into indigenous domains.

Today, the heart of the Guinea Highlands is nominally protected by a National Park designation: The deep verdancy at the center of the above in the Google Earth image is the Parc National Haut-Niger. Three symmetrical clouds float over its center. At right, a slightly larger bit of cloud hovers just to the west of a white-grey mass that is the city of Kankan. The Niger, quickly widening as it enters southwesternmost Mali, can be seen at upper right. West African Manatees have been scientifically verified as far upriver as this border region; the Parc's population, thought to be several thousand, have reported dugong sightings deep in the park's interior, thousands of miles from the delta, and the Gulf of Guinea. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Can One Be in Conakry?

Not that anyone would advise flying to Guinea this week, but that had been in my plans just a few days ago. That necessitated the 21st century ex-pat-in-Africa ritual of researching how to fly from one country to its next door neighbor. Although having long since obtained my PhD in this subject, I am struck by the double shock of (1) how difficult this logistical information-gathering still is; (2) how infrequent, indirect and expensive the flights are. West Africa in particular, a checkerboard of francophone and anglophone countries, remains astoundingly difficult to move around in, even just crossing a single border.

Case in point, to fly to one Mano River Union capital (boasting two airports nonetheless), to the capital city of its larger neighbor: Monrovia to Conakry. There are no direct flights, at all. There are not really any connecting flights, either, in the more conventional sense of, getting halfway there and having to stop and switch planes.

There is only very, very, indirect. Like, Casablanca indirect. Or, slightly better, Dakar indirect. No wait, that involves flying in the opposite direction, to switch in Accra first. Same with the third Mano River capital, Freetown, which is directly in between the other two: that itinerary goes on to switch in Banjul before heading back down to Conakry. Twenty-six hour journey, that one: more than ten hours longer than driving.

That is the shortest flight route out of Robertsfield. It also costs $1,975. United States Dollars.

How about from convenient little Spriggs-Payne, which, from the middle of last year, has once again been host to the puddle-jumper network of ASKY Airlines?

Oh, much better: $620, a third of the price (for a one-way ticket). But this is still a three-stop journey, in the wrong direction two out of the three times: Monrovia-Accra-Lomé-Abidjan-Conakry. Eight-hours, forty minutes. Only one seat left at this price!!! I guess I am lucky I won't have to fly to Brussels first.

Guess there's more than one reason not to go to Conakry this week.

Friday, March 21, 2014

“A Short Drive Through Town”

As she looked for her car key she asked if I must get back right away or would I like to come with her for a short drive through town. 
‘Bori at night is simply fascinating,’ she said… 
She certainly knew the city well, from the fresh-smelling, modern water-front to the stinking, maggoty interior.  
We drove through wide, well-lit streets bearing the names of our well-known politicians and into obscure lanes named after some unknown small fish. Even insignificant city councillors had their little streets… 
I began to wonder whether Jean actually enjoyed driving through these places as she claimed she did or whether she had some secret reason, like wanting me to feel ashamed about my country's capital city. I hardly knew her but I could see she was that kind of person, a most complicated woman.  
We were now back in the pleasant, high-class area. 
‘That row of ten houses belongs to the Minister of Construction,’ she said, ‘They are let to different embassies at three thousand a year each.’ 
So what, I said within myself. Your accusation may be true but you’ve no right to make it. Leave it to us and don't contaminate our cause by espousing it.  
 ‘But that’s another Chief Nanga Street ’ I said aloud, pointing to my left.  
‘No. What we saw near the fountain was Chief Nanga Avenue,’ she said and we both burst out laughing, friends again. ‘I’m not sure there isn’t a Road as well somewhere,’ she said. ‘I know there is a Circle.’ 
Then I promptly recoiled again. Who the hell did she think she was to laugh so self-righteously. Wasn’t there more than enough in her own country to keep her laughing all her days? Or crying if she preferred it?  
‘I have often wondered,’ she said, completely insensitive to my silent resentment, ‘why  don't they call some streets after the many important names in your country’s history or past events like your independence as they do in France and other countries?’ 
‘Because this is not France but Africa,’ I said with peevish defiance. 
She obviously thought I was being sarcastic and laughed again. But what I had said was another way of telling her to go to hell. Now I guessed I knew why she took so much delight in driving through our slums. She must have taken hundreds of photographs already to send home to her relations. And, come to think of it, would she— lover of Africa that she was—would she be found near a black man in her own country?  
…‘I was wondering whether I could see you again,’ 
‘Do you want to?’ 
‘Why not? Let me call you tomorrow?’
An excerpt from the end of chapter 5 of Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, written in 1966. Posted today on the first anniversary of his passing. It’s a shame that, if people read any Achebe at all, it is only his best-known work, Things Fall Apart, which is monumental, but not his only masterpiece. In looking for this passage, which I thought was a brilliant, multivalent telling of an African city, I came across so many other great little moments just in the 137 pages of this story, which I enjoyed just as much as his other books.
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