“ARCHITECTURE IS THE MOST ROMANTIC THING EVER”

-David Adjaye [1]

Last week Ghana celebrated its first national pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale. Formed

as a series of curved spaces with walls plastered with Ghanaian soil, “Ghana Freedom” features

works by six multigenerational Ghana-based and diasporic artists.2 The exhibition borrows its

name from the song sharing the same title, composed by E.T. Mensah in celebration of

independence from British colonial rule in 1957. The allusions to the complex history of the

nation along with the pride of more than sixty years of independence are infused within the

labyrinths of the pavilion designed by Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye.

Being included in the main exhibition of Biennial or even more, having the honor to

represent one’s country, has always been seen as a tremendous achievement for the artist, but for

a country - an almost expected step towards inclusion in the global art scene. The inaugural

speeches at the opening of the pavilion also expressed the strategic significance behind the

participation and the possible gains for the country. At the grand opening officials were

unusually direct about their objective for the project: to enhance Ghana’s position on the global

stage and to increase tourism.3 “This is a historic moment for us in Ghana,” said Ghana’s

Tourism Minister, Barbara Oteng Gyasi, in a public statement. “Arts and culture are the very

soul of a nation and with our maiden entry to the Venice Biennale…I can say, we have arrived.”4

The words by Oteng-Gyasi sound almost as a paraphrase of Kwame Nkrumah’s independence

speech delivered March 6, 1957, announcing the country’s independence: “We have awakened. We

will not sleep anymore. Today, from now on, there is a new African in the world.” The

participation might even be seen as a reaction to Nkrumah's not so long ago sent an invitation to

help him “to reshape the destiny of this country” and to make Ghana “a nation that will be

respected by every other nation in the world!” 5

It is interesting that at a point in the history when nationalism seems to once again take a

rough turn and is associated with violence and aggression, the idea of national representation

and, surprisingly, competition is still persistent in arts as much as elsewhere. Understandably the

desire for affiliation with one's nation is of great significance for countries with complex and

traumatic past seeking to rebuild the self-esteem of the national community. Although Ghana is

not the first African country to participate in the Biennale, its debut hopefully predicts an

increase in the representation of African countries, just like it once commenced the wave of

independence becoming the first African country to gain it. And now sixty years later Ghana has

landed in Venice to shine light on its talented artists who examine the legacies and trajectories of

that freedom. “Being able to show the diversity and creativity of Ghana on an international scale

is an incredible achievement, and one which showcases the talent we have to offer,” says David

Adjaye, the architect of the pavilion. Lately Sir Adjaye who along with curator Nana Oforiatta

Ayim is the spokesperson of the pavilion, has become one of the flag bearers of the Ghanaian

ambitions for reconstructing the image of the country. 7

Earlier this year Nana Akufo-Addo, the president of Ghana unveiled Adjaye’s designs for

Ghana’s National Cathedral in Accra, that architect described as a “modern statement made

about a modern democratic country evolving”. Commenting on the project David Adjaye 8

foregrounds its significance in shifting the way how people feel about themselves, and their

country, along with the kind of statement it makes for the rest of the world and the future

generations. This shows Adjaye’s ideological approach on architecture but moreover, how

monumental architecture is still seen as part of the modernization project in Africa and above

that part of the project of nation- and image- building. As Aida Mbowa mentions in her paper

“Between Nationalism and Pan-Africanism” in which she discusses how modernization was

employed in order to rebuild the nation after the independence:

“Modernization was an important and guiding philosophy on how best to build the newly

formed nation-state in post-independence Africa. Modernization encapsulated more than

the matter of industrialisation and infrastructure. It also incorporated cultural efforts to

bolster the psychology of the formerly colonised.” 9

In other words, modernization here is understood not only as a transformation from rural

and agrarian society to urban and industrial but also as a shift in the mentality of the nation from

the colonized and oppressed to independent and self-assured. I agree with Mbowa’s concept of

modernization and the included significance of cultural projects as part of this apparatus.

Moreover, I would like to propose that the current Akufo-Addo’s administration has taken over

where Nkrumah’s administration left off in employing the cultural projects striving for modern

and dignified Ghanaian nation. To portray this I will look at the opinions of the advocates for the

construction of Ghana’s National Cathedral and the rhetorics employed for this. Furthermore, as

a construction of $100m worth chapel in a country with an annual per capita income below

$2,000 rightly seems problematic, I will also examine few of the publicly available comments

condemning the project. By doing this, I hope to keep the discussion on if a construction of a

monumental edifice will help Ghana to achieve the goals of modernization - both economic, and

psychological open. I would also like to open and identify some sub-questions around the

Cathedral’s project along with the question of who is authorized to join this discussion?

The history of employing architecture as a tool for constructing the identity and the pride

of Ghanaian nation traces back to its first Prime Minister and President Kwame Nkrumah who

was the leader of the new, independent government and the modernization project. Janet Berry

Hess examines the history of architecture and spatial organization in Accra and argues that the

Nkrumah administration advanced — in its embrace of architectural modernity and

reconceptualization of the urban environment — a distinctive notion of the “nation”. Hess

proposes that “the architecture of independence-era Accra in fact suggests an identification of

such architectural monuments with a consciously managed national ideal.” Nkrumah’s 10

ambitions for Ghana as a modern country incorporating the African Personality have recently

been reintroduced under Akufo-Addo’s administration. The curator of Ghana’s pavilion in

Venice Art Biennale Nana Oforiatta Ayim mentions in an interview that: “It’s the first time since

the epoch of Kwame Nkrumah that a government has thrown its weight so firmly behind cultural

expression and resonance, and it’s a great starting point for what comes next.” David Adjaye 11

calls this Nkrumah’s “germ of the idea” that has lived on in the generations brought up around

him and now sees its renaissance. Nana Akufo-Addo is part of this new generation that is

bringing this idea of remaking the city, to life. And Cathedral is only a starting point. “This is 12

not a church. This is a symbol about president’s agenda, about development, and also about the

nation of Ghana and how we want to project it,” says Adjaye in an interview with Ghanaian

television.13

The colossal Cathedral will be located on a fourteen-acre site connected to Osu Cemetery

and the State House. David Adjaye sees this compound as the monumental core of Ghana in

which the cathedral becomes the sacred space between the commerce (parliament) and honoring the

ancestors (cemetery). The design of the edifice reflects on the art and culture of Ghanaian ethnic

groups and can be seen as his desire to modernize the country by distinguishing its unique

culture and infusing it with African soul. The interdenominational cathedral is designed with

delicate timber elements on the concave facade, that reminds of the curved seats of Asante royal

stools and its high-pitched roofs as a nod to traditional Akan architecture. But the designs of the

project are not the reason behind the intense debate on the President’s initiative. Supporters say

that the $100m construction that also requires demolition of the existing buildings, will be an

important statement of nation’s dignity and ambitions, as well as a great tourist attraction.

Critics doubt the relevance of the project in a country “where schools lack roofs and farmers

proper roads” and have deemed the project as frivolous. Moreover, the Cathedral has sparked a

debate on the relationship between the political and Christian elites in Ghana. For the sake of the

argument stated above, this paper will not examine the debate on the latter. Instead, it will explore

the opinions that see the project as an anticipated symbol of a rising Ghana and source of

international recognition and economic boost as well as the rival point of view proclaiming the

project an extravagance.

Chika Okeke-Agulu, the Igbo-Nigerian Professor at Princeton commends the project by

saying that it “signals that the country is poised to consolidate the gains of decades of

democracy” and that “Ghana will get to brag about a globally recognized architectural

landmark.” He expresses two benefits of the project - building nation’s dignity as well as its 14

image in the eyes of international spectators. Although he does not mention it explicitly it can be

assumed that in his opinion this would also enhance the international tourism and hence, could

be seen as international recognition. Sir Adjaye also believes that the project will consolidate

“that this [Accra] is a metropolitan place, place where things are happening”. In an interview 15

with the Ghanaian Television Sir David mentions cities like Washington, London, and Barcelona

as examples and notes that the cathedral “are built by cities that realize that they are cities that

are emerging and they are built to speak about their sense of a future, that they believe in

themselves.” The rhetorics used by the architect and evident in Okeke-Agulu’s article suggest the

strong notion of monumental architecture as symbol of the richness of the past and the prospects

of the future that every modern city holds. Moreover, it outlines Ghana’s ambitions to reach the

league of these nations. As president Akufo-Addo said at a recent fundraising event for the

Cathedral:

“The cathedral will also provide a platform to promote deep national conversations on the

role of faith in building the progressive and prosperous Ghana we all want. I am

convinced that out of these conversations would emerge ideas and values that should

help us build†a new Ghanaian civilization.” 16

But for some the project seems to be an outrageous extravagance. “At a time when taxes

are going up, banks have collapsed and you can’t pay for social programmes, is it really the thing

to do to build a cathedral?” Yaw Nsarkoh, executive vice-president of consumer group Unilever

for Ghana and Nigeria, said. As Milliar and Lauterbach mention in their article “the building of 17

a National Cathedral highlights the ethical dilemma in spending money on this kind of project

when the basic social needs of Ghanaians are not being met by the government.” 18

I would agree that a $100m development project in a country where almost fifteen

percent of population are living in incredible poverty seems paradoxical and unethical at first

glance. President Akufo Addo’s point on this is shared by David Adjaye who admits that this

binary will always be present: “We will not be able to solve all the poverty before we start

building monuments, we have to do everything at the same time to bring it all up,” he says in a

television interview while lifting both of his hands to one level, one of them symbolizing the

raising of the living conditions of the population, the other one - the building of the nation’s

dignity and identity through monuments. Okeke-Agulu finds this idea that “until every home in

Africa gets a mosquito net, every village a school, it [country] should not build concrete dreams

and inspiring structures” worrisome and says that “to rise, Africa has to aim beyond basic

needs.” Quoting Akufo-Addo: “People say: is this a priority? It is a priority among other

priorities.” 19

Nevertheless, the question remains - for whom is this Cathedral being built? Is it for every

Ghanaian including those residing in Ghana? Or does it only contribute to the image of

an independent, rich African city that the President is creating for the international spectators?

Moreover, who will have access to this cathedral with its five thousand seats inside of it?

Will the museums and art galleries featuring works by world known Ghanaian descent artists that

are living in London and New York City will be available to all the population? Is there a

publicly available education that might show the significance of culture in one’s life? Does not

 hunger overcome the desire for cultural transactions? Furthermore, will there be sufficient

infrastructure to reach this symbol of prosperity and dignity?

What I find troublesome is that none of the sources mentioned above interviewed any

individuals from the part of the population that reside under the poverty line and who might

suffer the most from the decisions made by the admission. I do not seem to have a clear opinion

about the president’s proposed Cathedral. It seems a romantic and ideological dream without both

clear outcomes and a due date for its realization. I am also strongly against making any

judgment as I have not succeeded in finding more opinions from the locals living both in Accra

and its outskirts. Furthermore, there is not enough research available to juxtapose these plans of

nation and identity building via cultural projects to plans that are in action to fight the poverty

and informal housing in Ghana. Above that, making a conclusion would require some in-depth

research on the formation of dignity and affiliation with nationality and how it forms in a

post-colonial nation.

I would suggest that only by fulfilling these steps, it could be possible to come closer to

an answer if Ghana’s National Cathedral and projects like participation in Venice Art Biennale

are succeeding in building a strong, self-respected Ghanaian nation and if they should be

implemented at all. These projects definitely gain the attention and the crowd navigates through

the ellipses of Ghana's pavilion in awe. Perhaps few of them will decide in favor of Ghana as

their next vacation destination.

On the morning of May 14, 2019, Sir David Adjaye published two posts on his Instagram

account. One with the page of New York Times' article “Guide to the Venice Biennale's

Highlights” that includes Ghana's pavilion and second post two hours later that quotes CNN

Travel saying that “Ghana's travel industry is projected to raise $8.3 billion a year by 2027”. Do

this news contribute to the nation- building and instilling pride in (all) the Ghanaians or is it

successful only in the discourse of image-building for the potential tourists and investors? There

are more questions than answers. But then again, who is authorized to join the discussion of what

works for Ghana?

Renāte Prancāne

1 CitiTVGH. “Sir David Adjaye Speaks on the National Cathedral and His Influences as an Architect.”YouTube†, YouTube, 18 Sept. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=jj4ZJ_T280A.

2 The artists featured in the Pavilion: El Anatsui, Ibrahim Mahama, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Felicia

Abban, John Akomfrah and Selasi Awusi Sosu. The exhibition is curated by art historian and filmmaker

Nana Oforiatta Ayim, with the late Okwui Enwezor as the Pavilion’s strategic advisor.

3 Halperin, Julia. “Ghana's Buzzed-About Venice Biennale Pavilion Is a Clear First Step in the Country's

Bid to Become a Global Art Destination.” Artnet†News†, 10 May 2019,

https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/ghana-pavilion-venice-biennale-1541425

4Thorpe, Harriet, and Harriet Thorpe. “David Adjaye Designs First National Pavilion for Ghana at the

Venice Biennale.” Wallpaper™†, Wallpaper*, 9 May 2019,

https://www.wallpaper.com/architecture/david-adjaye-ghana-pavilion-venice-biennale-2019

5 Quoted as in Bloom, Peter J., et al., editors. Modernization†as†Spectacle†in†Africa†. Indiana University

Press, 2014., pp. 302.

6 Besides Ghana, African countries with national pavilions this year are: Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt,

Madagascar, Mozambique, Seychelles, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, with Madagascar also making their debut.

7 Fernandez, Mariana, and Mariana Fernandez. “Why Ghana Chose 'Freedom' as the Theme of Its Venice

Biennale Debut.” Observer†, Observer, 12 May 2019,

https://observer.com/2019/05/ghana-first-venice-biennale-freedom-theme/

8 CitiTVGH. “Sir David Adjaye Speaks on the National Cathedral and His Influences as an Architect.”

YouTube†, YouTube, 18 Sept. 2018.

9 Mbowa, Aida. “Between Nationalism and Pan-Africanism: Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o’s Theater and the Art

and Politics of Modernizing African Culture.” Modernization†as†Spectacle†in†Africa†, edited by Peter J.

Bloom et al., Indiana University Press, 2014, pp. 328

10 Hess, Janet Berry. "Imagining Architecture: The Structure of Nationalism in Accra, Ghana." Africa

Today†47, no. 2 (2000), pp. 35

11 “Nana Oforiatta Ayim on Ghana's First Ever Pavilion at Venice | Contemporary And.” Nana†Oforiatta

Ayim†on†Ghanaßs†First†Ever†Pavilion†at†Venice†ˇ†Contemporary†And†,

https://www.contemporaryand.com/magazines/nana-oforiatta-ayim-on-ghanas-first-ever-pavilion-at-venic

e/

12 “Giving Form.” e†, www.e-flux.com/architecture/positions/211590/giving-form/.

13†The choice of word ‘development’ should be read here as a substitute of rather timeworn

‘modernization’ as suggested by the authors of the book Modernization†as†Spectacle†in†Africa†(2014, 3)

14 Okeke-agulu, Chika. “Ghana Deserves This Cathedral. Don't Fight It.” The†New†York†Times†, The New

York Times, 14 Apr. 2018,

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/14/opinion/sunday/ghana-deserves-this-cathedral-dont-fight-it.html

15 This and the following quotes in this paragraph are from CitiTVGH. “Sir David Adjaye Speaks on the

National Cathedral and His Influences as an Architect.” YouTube†, YouTube, 18 Sept. 2018.

16 Quoted as in “The Politics of a National Cathedral in Ghana: A Symbol of a Corrupted Government, or

Reaching Wakanda?” Religion†and†Global†Society†, 14 May 2019,

https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/2019/01/the-politics-of-a-national-cathedral-in-ghana-a-symb

ol-of-a-corrupted-government-or-reaching-wakanda/ Emphasis mine.

17 Pilling, David. “Colossal Cathedral Plans Divide Ghana and Stir Religious Angst.” Financial†Times†,

Financial Times, 2 Nov. 2018, https://www.ft.com/content/e6ceaa00-dddc-11e8-8f50-cbae5495d92b

18 ibid

19 Quoted as in Pilling, David. “Colossal Cathedral Plans Divide Ghana and Stir Religious Angst.” Financial†Times†, Financial Times, 2 Nov. 2018,

https://www.ft.com/content/e6ceaa00-dddc-11e8-8f50-cbae5495d92b

Sources:

Bloom, Peter J., et al., editors. Modernization†as†Spectacle†in†Africa†. Indiana University Press, 2014.

Hess, Janet Berry. "Imagining Architecture: The Structure of Nationalism in Accra, Ghana."

Africa†Today†47, no. 2 (2000), pp. 35-58.

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Fernandez, Mariana, and Mariana Fernandez. “Why Ghana Chose 'Freedom' as the Theme of Its

Venice Biennale Debut.” Observer†, Observer, 12 May 2019,

https://observer.com/2019/05/ghana-first-venice-biennale-freedom-theme/

(Accessed: 05.13.19)

Halperin, Julia. “Ghana's Buzzed-About Venice Biennale Pavilion Is a Clear First Step in the

Country's Bid to Become a Global Art Destination.” Artnet†News†, 10 May 2019,

https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/ghana-pavilion-venice-biennale-1541425

(Accessed: 05.13.19)

Lynch, Patrick. “Adjaye Associates Unveils Design of New Ghana National Cathedral in Accra.”

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www.archdaily.com/890261/adjaye-associates-unveils-design-of-new-ghana-national-cathedral-i

n-accra. (Accessed: 05.15.19)

Okeke-Agulu, Chika. “Ghana Deserves This Cathedral. Don't Fight It.” The†New†York†Times†,

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https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/14/opinion/sunday/ghana-deserves-this-cathedral-dont-fight-i

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https://www.ft.com/content/e6ceaa00-dddc-11e8-8f50-cbae5495d92b (Accessed: 11.05.19)

Thorpe, Harriet, and Harriet Thorpe. “David Adjaye Designs First National Pavilion for Ghana at

the Venice Biennale.” Wallpaper™†, Wallpaper*, 9 May 2019,

https://www.wallpaper.com/architecture/david-adjaye-ghana-pavilion-venice-biennale-2019

(Accessed: 05.13.19)

“The Politics of a National Cathedral in Ghana: A Symbol of a Corrupted Government, or

Reaching Wakanda?” Religion†and†Global†Society†, 14 May 2019,

https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/2019/01/the-politics-of-a-national-cathedral-in-ghan

a-a-symbol-of-a-corrupted-government-or-reaching-wakanda/ (Accessed: 05.11.19)

“Nana Oforiatta Ayim on Ghana's First Ever Pavilion at Venice | Contemporary And.” Nana

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https://www.contemporaryand.com/magazines/nana-oforiatta-ayim-on-ghanas-first-ever-pavilion

-at-venice/ (Accessed: 05.11.19)

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(Accessed: 05.11.19)

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esigned-by-David-Adjaye-632005?gallery=1 . (Accessed: 05.15.19)