Robert Mugabe’s architectural adventure began with the North Koreans. When he triumphed in Zimbabwe’s first election in 1980, Mugabe asked North Korean architects to create an imposing monument to the thousands who had died fighting in the liberation struggle against Rhodesia’s white minority government. The result was Heroes Acre, a striking piece of socialist realism crowning a hill outside Harare that anticipated the turbulent years that were to follow.

In this monument to the unknown soldier, three bronze warriors stand strong, indefatigable and proud in the cause of African nationalism… but they are not African at all. The North Koreans, unrivalled masters of political idolatry in their own land, inadvertently gave Oriental features to the soldiers’ statues. And to the right of the statues, the mural that shows the history of the liberation struggle includes only one recognisable face declaiming to the people – Mugabe – thus in a stroke writing out of the script all those other leaders that had contributed an equal or greater amount to the war effort.

Heroes Acre was prophetic. Two years later Zimbabwean soldiers would be showing their own Korean traits, when the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade massacred 20,000 civilians in Matabeleland, in the first terrible but widely ignored sign of Mugabe’s Stalinist tendencies. And soon after, Joshua Nkomo, the most conspicuous absentee in the mural, was forced to flee.

While Heroes Acre set the scene for a Zimbabwean state architecture to develop, Mugabe has never shown much strategic interest in shaping whole cities as other tyrants have done. Albert Speer’s book, Inside the Third Reich, showed how much of a frustrated architect his boss was – “Hitler declared again and again: ‘How I wish I had been an architect’,” – but Mugabe has never sought to impose an aesthetic imprint on Harare the way Hitler encouraged Speer to do in Berlin. Instead Mugabe has concentrated on distancing himself from the ancien regime – changing half of Harare’s street names to those of African nationalist leaders and constructing a series of highly visible, symbolic structures, as a means of distinguishing the new Zimbabwe from the racially unjust colonial era.

Now, 23 years after independence, the buildings stand as a commentary on Zimbabwe’s journey from the optimism of 1980’s newly established democracy to today’s economic collapse and de facto one-party state. They are icons of a different age, a time when architects were very much in demand, when doubts over the creeping authoritarianism of the new government were hidden behind enthusiasm for a new multiracial Zimbabwe.

One of the first such landmarks was inspired by a Benson & Hedges cigarette packet. The Sheraton Hotel and Harare International Conference Centre was designed by the husband and wife team of Dragoljub and Ljiljana Bakic, from the Yugoslavian practice Energoprojekt, in a commission by the Ministry of Tourism to celebrate the optimism felt in the first couple of years after independence. The Bakic team won the competition to design and build after bringing in a packet of B&H to illustrate to the judges the colour they were looking for. All curves and circles, the building was supposed to represent a cascade of water at Victoria Falls at it catches the sun. In practice the hotel is more likely to remind passers-by of a King Midas palace – one which has started to fade badly.

The building no longer has the rich gold shimmer that it had on completion in 1986, a fact attributed by Dragoljub Bakic to a political deal struck between the French and Zimbabwean governments. Mitterand’s government agreed to pay for a third of the building’s costs on condition that the money would be used to import French materials. “It’s no longer a Benson & Hedges colour,” Bakic says. “The paint we originally planned to use was Swiss, but from the beginning they used French which was cheaper but not as good, so the facade faded.”

Bakic returned to Yugoslavia but when fighting began between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians he came back to Zimbabwe. Fleeing one dictator, Milosevic, he ended up in the arms of another, a man he had got to know from the Sheraton. “Mugabe used to visit the site often to follow up how things were going. He was very interested in the design. For the new government, this building was very exciting, a symbol of the new future,” Bakic recalls. Now back in Belgrade, Bakic sees parallels between the two men: “Both of them don’t know when to stop. In those days Mugabe was well-loved. Now, he’s nearly 80 and he still wants to be in power. Milosevic was the same.”

Two architects who might feel more embarrassed by their proximity to the Mugabe regime are Peter Martin and Tony Wales-Smith who, in the late eighties, designed the headquarters for Mugabe’s Zanu PF party. The shake-shake building – so called for its resemblance to a local beer product – is by no means Harare’s tallest, but the 15 storeys of brutalist grey concrete topped with the party’s sinister jongwe (cockerel) motif, glower down at Harareans with more malevolence than any other structure in the city. To outsiders unaware of the building’s occupants it might appear simply to be a rather drab office block. But context is all, and to those in the know it’s a lot worse merely than drab. Mugabe’s politburo occupies the upper levels, while the lower floors have been turned into a dormitory for Mugabe’s various youth groups and war veterans, whose job is to cow the public and torture opposition supporters.

The building’s history reveals much about Zanu PF’s seamless mix of politics and corruption in Zimbabwe. With the cost of the building already a gift to Mugabe from the Chinese Communist Party, Zanu PF prevailed on the government-run City Council to give them the land for nothing. Bakic’s Energorojekt was also in on the act, winning the construction contract with an unrealistically low quote.

“Awarding the contract to the Yugoslavs was a political appointment,” Wales-Smith believes. “When Energoprojekt submitted its quote it was a lot less than anyone else. It was not possible to do it at that price, and it didn’t.” As for the ethics of designing the ruling party’s headquarters, Wales-Smith says that things were different in those days: “Zanu PF wasn’t as unpopular as now. In those days it was the only party, no-one knew what was going to happen or what atrocities had taken place.” He would not take on the job today and Peter Martin, who was the more involved of the two in the project, became so disillusioned with what is happening that he left the country.

If the Zanu PF tower is the perfect symbol for the brutality and corruption now inherent in Zimbabwe’s governing party then the New Reserve Bank building encapsulates the collapse of the nation’s economy. The tallest building in Zimbabwe, steel and blue glass standing out like a beacon on Harare’s skyline, it should have been a shining testament to the country’s economic miracle since independence. At least that was the intention. In fact it is now a monument to towering hubris. The building may have been inspired by a sadanga – a traditional African grain store built out of tree branches – but its angled glass, which allows it to perfectly capture the reflected blue sky and clouds, its rocket shape and unrivalled height, all combine to give it a strident, self-important look that divides people between admiration and disgust.

Commissioned in the mid-eighties when the economy was still buoyant, it wasn’t finished until 1993 partly due to shortages of foreign currency. The sadanga is designed to keep a family’s grain safe from wild animals and, “in theory”, the New Reserve Bank building was supposed to do the same for the nation’s wealth, says rueful architect responsible, Mike Clinton. Instead, corruption and economic mismanagement have resulted in an economic crisis that only started to bite in the past three or four years. At the time of construction the exchange rate was Z$10 to the pound. The “official” rate is now Z$75 but the genuine market value as measured on the street is Z$2,500 to the pound. Inflation, which in those days was under control, is officially 228 per cent today – and that is without taking the burgeoning black market into account.

Even before the bank was built, people complained that Zimbabwe should not be wasting precious resources on such a lavish structure. Now that the country has the fastest-shrinking economy in the world, the building’s brazen self-confidence seems painfully inappropriate. Clinton takes the long view: “Politicians come and go but banks have to last forever. I wanted something which spoke of solidity and stability.”

Architects used to come and go in Zimbabwe, too, but now they invariably just go. It is estimated that since the eighties between a third and a half of all architects have left. There are now many more black architects than in the early days of independence but they too are leaving. Those who stay are happy to talk about the trying circumstances but most prefer not to be quoted. They complain about corruption – rumours are rife about kick-backs being demanded at every stage of construction on Harare’s new airport – but mostly their gripes are economic. The lack of foreign exchange and the government’s unrealistic price controls mean that cement is Z$6,000 a bag, 10 times the official price. Rampant inflation means that many architects and designers give estimates not quotes. “We tell people the quote is only valid on the day we give it,” one designer says.

According to James McComish, one half of the innovative practice Pearce McComish, inflation means that clients are cutting back drastically on drawing time in order to get a project on site as soon as possible. McComish’s partner Mick Pearce was arrested for supporting the opposition MDC party and is currently in Australia working on a sustainable building for the City of Melbourne. Responsible for such past gems as the Eastgate Building and the Omkar Temple, the practice is trying to stay true to its environmentally sensitive principles despite the downturn in building work.

Pearce designed Eastgate, which houses 32,000 sq m of office and retail space, along the lines of an anthill, a reflection of termites’ ability to control their climate through simple but effective building technology. Harare’s position 18 degrees south of the Equator, and at an altitude of 1,500m, creates extremes of temperature – clear daytime skies and long hours of sunshine followed by cool nights. It’s this disparity between night and daytime temperatures that powers the building’s big idea – “passive cooling” instead of air conditioning.

The night-time “coolth”, Pearce’s buzzword for cool air, is pulled into the building to cool its slabs, with fans at the bottom and chimneys at the top ensuring a continual stream of air moves through the structure. They have recently completed a theatre at Harare’s International School that takes the concept a stage further, McComish says. Granite rocks have been used in the basement that can hold the “coolth” for much longer. But the state of the economy means that most architecture firms, Pearce McComish included, are simply trying to survive.

One sector that is bucking the trend is the luxury property market. While millions go hungry, there is much wealth concentrated in particular neighbourhoods in and around Harare. The countless new Mercedes and 4x4S seen on the city’s potholed roads could well be the result of legitimate business deals but it is likely that a significant proportion are linked to diamonds plundered by Zimbabwe’s armed forces during their operations in the Congo, and more generally to the government’s manipulation of foreign currency procedures.

Dominic Chiwenga, who as commander of the Zimbabwe defence forces must have had a good strategic view of the diamonds, and his wife Jocelyn, own the biggest and whitest house, perched on the highest hill in Borrowdale Brook, Harare’s most exclusive housing development. Doing up houses, along with confiscating farms, is Jocelyn’s passion. And now that their white house is finished after years of importing marble from Italy, the couple are about to start on their second home.

Arms dealer John Bredenkamp, the most notorious of Mugabe’s “white collaborators”, is another who has benefitted from Mugabe’s military escapades. Worth £720m, he is being investigated by both the British government and the United Nations for allegedly breaking the arms embargo on Zimbabwe. His property, a 10 minute helicopter ride north of Harare, is another symbolic oasis of wealth among surrounding poverty. Not to be outdone, Mugabe has several homes, some of them “secret”. In 2000, when an MDC activist named Topper Whitehead photographed the construction of Mugabe’s latest “secret” property by flying over it in a microlight, the government responded by banning all aerial photography. Last but not least, there’s the “car showroom” property of Philip Chiyangwa, the Zanu PF chairman for Chinhoyi, whose home is reputed to have 15 lavish bedroom-lounge suites.

So from its revolutionary beginnings at Heroes Acre, Zimbabwe arrives 23 years later at the vulgarity and greed of Chiyangwa’s home. Yet Heroes Acre is not without its uses: in March, at the funeral of a prominent cabinet minister who had just been awarded national hero status, Mugabe made his most inflammatory speech for months. Fortified by the North Korean monoliths looking on, Mugabe warned the MDC that those who “play with fire will not only be burnt but consumed” and threatened that he could be a “black Hitler tenfold”. A sign surely that every dictator needs his monuments, however badly drawn.

This piece was published in Blueprint’s June 2003 issue

 

 

 

 

 

 

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