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02.02.2009 Feature Article

Voice from a far: A thing of beauty is a joy forever

When I was at school, there was only one Architect, T. S. Clerk, in the whole of the Gold Coast. Houses were designed and built by draughtsmen. But building regulations were enforced, and town plans respected.

Charles Deakin, who taught R. P. Baffour and our first engineers at the Achimota Engineering School, paid tribute to the country's craftsmen and technicians without whose skills and competence many buildings would not have survived the 1939 earthquake.

Today, we have many architects and town planners who are as competent as any in the world. But I do not like what I see. Accra is a virtual concrete jungle. I do not see frozen music in many of the buildings around. There are no places for our children to roam, stare and explore. Land is only a commodity to exploit and make money. We seem to regard anything that does not make money as valueless.

I feel that the 15th Century English poet and social critic, Matthew Arnold, was addressing us when he wrote in his "Culture and Anarchy" that "Our society distributes itself into Barbarians, Philistines and Populace."

Our populace go to church or the mosque regularly but they do not seem to believe in the religious teaching that man does not live by bread alone. We tend to believe that the acquisition of the appurtenances of the consumer society is sufficient to make the man. We have no time for or understanding of culture and the arts and are indifferent, if not hostile, to them. But material things alone do not make man happy and satisfied, and a society without values is without direction.

We need our artists; we need our poets.
The products of our workers by hand and brain should inspire us to high realms.

It is not sufficient to be provided with just any shelter. If that were so, we would continue to live in our mud huts. The place where we spend most of our lives should be a place of comfort, inner satisfaction and edifying contemplation.

I am, therefore, surprised that with so many brilliant minds engaged in Architecture, Town and Country Planning, and allied subjects, so much offends the eye and mind in our habitat. It is necessary in such a situation, to remind ourselves that we can do better and indeed have done better in the past. It is necessary to remind ourselves of the stock from which we have sprung.

David Wilberforce Kwame Dawson would have been 100 years on February 6, 2009. He was one of the four architects at independence. He was an illustrious forebear of our distinguished architects and it is right and proper that we should praise him as one of the great and famous men, who beckon us from beyond the grave to stand tall and act.

K warne Dawson became an architect through hard work and tenacity of purpose. He was trained briefly as a sanitary health inspector before joining the Sekondi/Takoradi Municipal Council. His creativity and industry attracted attention and he was posted to the Drawing Office of the Railway and Harbour Administration as a draughtsman.

David Dawson was not deterred by the scanty educational facilities. He improved himself by studying on his own and enrolling in a correspondence course with Bennet College in England. His talents and learning won him a scholarship to Leeds University in 1944 and he graduated as an Architect in 1946. In the same year, he became a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Returning home in 1948, Kwame Dawson was employed as an Assistant Town Planning Officer at the Public Works Department. He designed many projects and influenced many young architects and planners. It was he who designed the celebrated Roof Loan Scheme.
In 1956, David Wilberforce Kwame Dawson became Director of Rural Housing and thus began his fruitful collaboration with Prime Minister Nkrumah, who was keen on working with competent Ghanaians to develop the country. Thus it was that Kwame Dawson, R. P. Baffour (later to become Vice Chancellor of the then University of Science and Technology (UST) in Kumasi), J. S. Annan the engineer and other technocrats, who toured the country on specific assignments by the Prime Minister. Extensive knowledge of the country opened Dawson's eyes widely and he worked effectively with Kwame NKrumah on rural and town planning and on architecture.

Stroke robbed Nkrumah of Dawson's collaboration in 1958 but the Prime Minister, later to become President, never stopped mentioning Dawson when he talked about making Accra a metropolis of character and beauty. Accra Ring Road was to enclose an easily accessible city with beautiful and functional parks and gardens.

Accra would not be allowed to sprawl aimlessly and the municipal Boundary Post near Afrikiko would separate the city from conurbations beyond Kokomlemle and Cantonments. Nkrumah was fascinated with the functionalism of the French architect and town planner, Le Corbusier, and he envisaged towns purposely designed like Chandigarh was for the new capital of the Punjab in India. Nkrumah believed that Dawson could do it and he regretted the architect's affliction.

Now that we have got many talented architects, I expect Ghana and especially Accra, to be a town of beauty. But I am greatly disappointed in what I see.

Osu RE is congested and yet a tall building is allowed near the busy Koala shopping area to add to the jam of traffic and pedestrians.
You go to the Cantonments area and it appears that all that concerns us is to maximise the return or profit from every inch of ground. Houses do not have space for the way the Ghanaian lives. There is no concern for the availability of water and electricity for the people who would live in the ugly conglomerates. Surely Ghanaians deserve better. Our architects and planners should save us from the greed and anarchy that undermine beauty and culture.

Authority in Ghana often frowns upon rules and regulations and professionals and public servants who conform to the laws of the trade often suffer. But the slide must be stopped somewhere. Our architects and planners are among the most highly educated and trained in the country. They must resolve as we celebrate 100 years of Kwame Dawson's birth to save us from the barbarians and Philistines. We are a cultured people and things would not go right and we would not be happy in our innermost selves until we embrace the values that inspired Dawson and the great men and women of the past. Our architects should stand up to be counted. They should save us from future un-Ghanaian Presidential palaces. They should help us to appreciate that a thing of beauty is a joy for ever.

MyjoyOnline, © 2009

This author has authored 338 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: myjoyonline

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