Out of Africa: the Graham Foundation investigates sub-Saharan Modernism

Graham Foundation in Chicago with Hotel Independence in Dakar
’Architecture of Independence: African Modernism’ opens today at the Graham Foundation in Chicago, discussing the continent’s modernist legacy. Picture here, the Hotel Independence in Dakar, Senegal by Henri Chomette and Roland Depret, 1973-78.
(Image credit: Iwan Baan)

We may all know our Le Corbusier from our Mies van der Rohe, but when it comes to modernist masterpieces in the African continent, there is an impressive body of work from that era that often gets unfairly overlooked. The Graham Foundation is set to change this, with its new exhibition, 'Architecture of Independence: African Modernism', opening today in its handsome Chicago townhouse base. 

The architecture exhibition focuses on the international style's journey through sub-Saharan Africa, especially looking into the 1960s and 1970s. Today the continent has a rich – and complex – history and legacy of modern buildings, explain the organizers. Most architects that helped build this heritage were from Europe, while only a handful of them were local, including Senegalese architects Cheikh N'Gom and Pierre Goudiaby Atepa. 

Exploring the theme using some 80 buildings from different countries and especially commissioned photography by Iwan Baan and Alexia Webster, this exhibition travels through Ghana, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, and Zambia. Many of these young nations gained their independence in the 1960s, calling upon the teachings of modernist architecture to help them express their brand new identities. 

Works span from sports facilities, offices and administrative structures, to cultural buildings, banks, housing and convention centers; some are in use, some have been adapted and some remain currently unused. These are depicted through a striking over-700 photographs as well as archival material, including historic photos, newspaper clippings, postcards, videos, architectural plans, and sketches.

This is a landmark show for the foundation, casting the net far and wide into what organizers describe as 'the most compelling yet under-studied examples of 1960s and 1970s architecture worldwide'. 

This exhibition is based on the book project African Modernism: Architecture of Independence by architect Manuel Herz, created in cooperation with the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany.

Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi

Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi, Kenya by Karl Henrik Nostvik, 1967-73.

(Image credit: Iwan Baan)

La Pyramide in Abidjan

La Pyramide in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire by Rinaldo Olivieri, 1973.

(Image credit: Iwan Baan)

School of Engineering at KNUST

School of Engineering at KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology) in Kumasi, Ghana by James Cubitt, 1956.

(Image credit: Alexia Webster)

Stadium at KNUST in Kumasi

Stadium at KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology) in Kumasi, Ghana by the KNUST Development Office, 1964-67.

(Image credit: Alexia Webster)

Independence Arch with Public Work Departments

Independence Arch by the Public Work Departments in Accra, Ghana, 1961.

(Image credit: Manuel Herz)

Mfantsipim School with Cape Coaste

Mfantsipim School in Cape Coaste, Ghana by Fry, Drew and Partners, 1958.

(Image credit: Manuel Herz)

Foire Internationale de Dakar in Senegal

FIDAK - Foire Internationale de Dakar in Senegal by Jean Francois Lamoureux and Jean-Louis Marin, 1974.

(Image credit: Iwan Baan)


For more information on the Graham Foundation visit the website

’Architecture of Independence: African Modernism’ is on show from 29th January to 9th April 2016


The Graham Foundation
Madlener House
4 West Burton Place
Chicago, Illinois 60610


Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture & Environment Director at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018), Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020) and House London (2022).