Thursday, December 23, 2010
Aside from generally appreciating the historic architecture of Liberia, I've never conducted my own investigation into the areas which A Land and Life Remembered covers. I've never explored the St. Paul river area; I've never been to Arthington, White Plans, Clay-Ashland, or the other hamlets along the riverbanks from the ocean to Mount Coffee.
I have been to Grand Bassa County, but I hadn't realized that I had been though the towns of Fortsville and Hartford, mentioned in the book, until later. I realized that I must have driven through them on the way to Buchanan last year when I looked at the map. Apart from what is in the architectural tour, I did take some photographs of some old-style houses in Robertsport, Buchanan and what I think is Hartford on my trips around Liberia in 2009. I'm no photographer, even when it comes to architecture, and I tend to like to oversaturate my photos in Liberia to give a sense of the atmospheric intensity:
I always admired the antiquity and unique style of these houses, which look remarkable even in their teetering, unkempt state. Of course, its usually really difficult to ascertain just when they were built, and by who. Its also interesting that really no one seems to be building in this fashion now: almost all houses built in Liberia today are ranch-style, and out of concrete, which makes the structures that much more noticeable and remarkable to come across.
What I also find really intriguing, but is not discussed in the book or elsewhere, is the somewhat curious choice of zinc panels for the structures. In some ways, such as resisting rot and security, it might be desirable, but I just imagine that rolled metal would be a difficult building material to come by, especially, say, more than 50 years ago. Maybe these were originally wood-sided constructions (maybe the underlying structures are still wood), but at any point that metal sheeting was incorporated involved importing the material.
My inclination would be to undertake an exhaustive, multi-county survey to see what still stands, especially those properties featured in Max Belcher's photography. Given the hydra-headed scourge of war, looting, poverty, neglect, abandonment, tropical deterioration, and the complete lack of any sort of historical preservation movement, much less regulated restrictions, it is all the more incredible to come across a "Way Back" House, as my Liberian friends exclaim when we come across them.
I also wonder, given that Belcher's survey did not seem to cover anything north of Tubmanburg or south of Grand Bassa County, that no truly country-wide index of historic architecture has ever been covered. I've read Mississippi In Africa but I don't think I've ever seen a picture of Greenville, in any era. This also reminds me of Glenna's haunting photography from her many trips to Harper, which are not to be missed.
Having recently finished my last post about photography of Liberia, in the late 1970s, involving Canada, It really hadn't occurred to me that I could continue posting on such a specific topic.
But then... I decided at the last minute to go to Montreal last weekend. Its obviously quite a different place from Monrovia: its big and built up and it was very, very cold when I was there, with plenty of snow already on the ground and enough still falling to keep the streets covered.
Therefore it was all the more startling to discover this in a wide, snow-blanketed courtyard just west of the skyscrapers of downtown:
The front of the Canadian Centre for Architecture was draped in an enormous black-and-white photograph of an historic house in Arthington, Liberia. It turns out that the museum has included the photo survey of Liberian settler architecture, taken by Max Belcher between 1977 and 1986, as part of its current exhibit, Journeys, on how architecture manifests the journey of ideas across the globe.
Beginning in 1977, Max Belcher journeyed to many of Liberia's historic American settlements, particularly along the St. Paul river and in Grand Bassa County, and photographed the historic homes there. He then traveled across the American South, looking for comparative architecture. He was able to draw a clear parallel in the architectural stylings that the original American settlers brought with them.
This project yielded a book, A Land and Life Remembered: Americo-Liberian Folk Architecture, which was published in 1988, with text by Svend E. Holsoe (one of the world's great Liberianophiles and founder of Friends of Liberia), and Bernard L. Herman. Herman summarized the project for the CCA's exhibition catalog.
The book is not currently in publication, and copies of which are for sale online for as much as $250.
Not only is the book a tremendous resource for the documentation of a rapidly deteriorating stock of historic structures, the timing of the project is rather incredible. The first series of Liberian expeditions took place prior to the Doe coup in 1980, and the entire publication was released in 1988, on the eve of more than a decade of civil war, which of course destroyed the entire country and probably more than a few of the delicate, dilapidated structures that the book documented.