Abandoned Modernism in Liberia and Mozambique: Survivals of Luxury Hotels

Abandoned Modernism in Liberia and Mozambique: Survivals of Luxury Hotels

The luxury hotel, as an architectural typology, is distinctive. Indeed, it is a self-contained community, a building that immerses the affluent visitor in its local context. Autonomous communities they might be, but these hotels are also vessels of the broader socio-economic character of a place, where luxury living is often alongside informal settlements in the most extreme examples of social inequality.

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In parts of the African continent, luxury hotels have been and continue to be key city landmarks. The 102 year old man Stanley Hotel in Nairobi, for example, is an inescapable part of the city’s central business district. While some of these hotels may have an air of invincibility – continuing to operate for hundreds of years, some of these luxury buildings have been abandoned and neglected, due to political unrest or changing economic conditions in their immediate context.

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Ducor Hotel – Monrovia, Liberia. Image © Licensed Flickr user jbdodane (CC BY-NC 2.0) llcense

These hotels have had an architectural afterlife. Some have taken in squatters or been left alone, showing the immense fragility of high-end architectural interventions amid conflict and societal change. Two hotels, in Liberia and Mozambique, are undoubtedly the most emblematic of this phenomenon.


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The Mozambican port city of Beira is home to perhaps one of the most striking examples of luxury hotels with an afterlife in Africa – the Art Deco-style Grande Hotel. Built between 1953 and 1955 by architect Francisco de Castro, it was part of an urban planning project designed by Gabinete de Urbanização Colonial – the office responsible for urban planning in the African and Asian colonies of Portugal.

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Grande Hotel in the 1960s – Beira, Mozambique. Image © The Delagoa Bay Review

By the mid-1950s, Mozambique had been under Portuguese control for over 400 years, and when the Grande Hotel opened in 1955, it was to colonial fanfare, with the Catholic Bishop of Beira inaugurating the 130-room structure that housed an indoor Olympic size swimming pool and balconies overlooking the Indian Ocean. This architectural opulence existed in the midst of a hierarchical social order – the only native Africans allowed in the hotel were employees.

The Grande Hotel was built to attract wealthy tourists and influential people from across the Portuguese colonial empire and the white minority ruled states of Rhodesia and South Africa. However, its lifespan as luxury accommodation was short-lived. It was never profitable and, in 1963, closed to customers. When Mozambique gained its independence in 1975, the 21,000 square meter site was radically changed occupation.

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Grande Hotel – Beira, Mozambique. Image © Michiel Van Balen via Flickr under license (CC BY 2.0).

The first post-colonial hosts were FRELIMO, the socialist party that came to power after a 10-year war with the Portuguese state. Now under independent rule, the hotel’s recovery from its colonial origins was underway. Recreational areas such as the pool bar became the headquarters of the FRELIMO revolutionary committee, while the main hall was used for party meetings and events. The basement, according to some reports, is used as an incarceration site for political opponents of the new government.

When civil war broke out in Mozambique in 1977, the hotel became a military base, before housing refugees from the countryside displaced by the war – a precursor to its current state.

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Ducor Hotel – Monrovia, Liberia. Image © Ken Harper under license (CC BY 2.0).

Today, the hotel is home to more than 3,500 people, this population convert the 130 rooms in apartments, with larger common rooms divided into smaller ones by sheets of fabric. Common areas such as the outer courtyard and the halls between floors are used as markets, and some recreational areas still have remnants of their original purpose. The swimming pool, for example, serves as a sink because it collects rainwater, but also sees the occasional swimmer. It is the reflection of the architecture legacy of a hotel representative of colonial excess, which bears the marks of a segregated Beira and multiple conflicts.

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Grande Hotel – Beira, Mozambique. Image © Guy Tillim. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg (Diptyque). Image courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery

Another modernist icon recalls a bygone era in Liberia’s capital of Monrovia – the 1960 Ducor Hotel. In its apogeethe rectilinear building was considered one of the few five-star hotels on the African continent, a favorite of leaders such as Guinean Sékou Touré and Ivorian Houphouët-Boigny.

Designed by Austrian architect Adolf Hoch and German architect Caim Heinz Fenchel, the hotel was located on the highest point in Monrovia, with the upper floors offering panoramic views of the capital and the Atlantic Ocean. Its various amenities – a swimming pool, several tennis courts and a French restaurant – have made it a popular landing point for tourists from Ghana and the Ivory Coast, as well as professionals from Asia, Europe and the United States.

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Pool – Ducor Hotel – Monrovia, Liberia. Image © Licensed Flickr user jbdodane (CC BY-NC 2.0) llcense

However, the historical context of Liberia was complex. Founded in 1822 as an outpost for returning freed slaves from the Americas, the state had grown into a multi-tiered social system economically and politically controlled by minority descendants of early African-American settlers, marginalize Native Africans in the process. With the prosperity of Monrovia in the 1960s, the Ducor Hotel would have been an integral part of an operating company, this period seeing the migration rural migrants to the city to avoid the tiring work in the rubber plantations in the hinterland.

Conflict followed. A 1980 coup overthrew the minority president, and two subsequent civil wars, 1989-1996 and 1999-2003, completely transformed the Hotel Ducor. From a haven for the local and foreign elite, it became a military site when gunmen were positioned there during the siege of Monrovia in 2003. Other permanent residents came in the form of residents of West Township No, because they moved into the hotel looking for more permanent shelter, and refugees escape the conflict.

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Pool – Ducor Hotel – Monrovia, Liberia. Image © Licensed Flickr user jbdodane (CC BY-NC 2.0) llcense
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Ducor Hotel – Monrovia, Liberia. Image © Licensed Flickr user jbdodane (CC BY-NC 2.0) llcense

With the eviction of the residents of the Hotel Ducor in 2007, the hotel now stands empty, bearing the marks of superfluous wealth, strife and abandoned domesticity. Like Grande Beira, its empty pool sees occasional use, with young Monrovia residents communing to relax and play. A form of informal economy saw “security guards” charge visitors for building tours – its architectural orientation means that the views of the Atlantic Ocean from the upper floors are still very sought.

The architectural decadence of the Hotel Ducor and the Grande Beira tells a simple story, that of two hotels that are no longer in operation. But with this architectural decadence came an architectural afterlife. An afterlife that saw the revival of an architectural typology once intended for the elite, and an afterlife that told historical stories of inequality.

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The Driveway of the Ducor Hotel – Monrovia, Liberia. Image © Mark Fischer under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

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