When earlier this year José Sócrates arrived in their country, many Mozambicans were surprised to learn that Amancio “Pancho” Guedes was among the Portuguese prime minister’s entourage.
Mr Guedes is one of Portugal’s most well-known architects and in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s designed hundreds of buildings in Maputo, doing more than anyone else to shape the character of Mozambique’s capital and establishing an architectural legacy that is rated among the most important in Africa.
After independence, however, much of this work was forgotten, partly because the new nationalist government initially tried to distance itself from Portuguese influences. “They tried to ‘Mozambiquanise’ things and get rid of anything that was associated with Portugal,” says Walter Thembe, a 30-year-old architecture student and a big fan of Mr Guedes.
Mr Guedes was prolific. Because the Portuguese subsidised construction during the final decades of their African empire, he had huge opportunities to practice his skills, and during more than two decades designed buildings at the rate of two a month. His work is eclectic, drawing inspiration from artists as different as the Spaniard Antonio Gaudi and the American Frank Lloyd Wright.
And just as Brazil’s Oscar Niemeyer integrated modernism with indigenous Brazilian influences, Mr Guedes sought to integrate the flowing organic forms of African art and sculpture into his own work. Mr Guedes used local materials in his building – tropical woods and local stones – and softened harsh functional lines with curves.
His designs make allowances for Mozambique’s intense light and violent rainfall and some of his buildings are shaped like traditional African kraals with round walls, twisted columns and undulating roofs. In others, the beams that stick out of the side of its upper levels, are shaped like the jagged teeth or beaks of wild animals. One set of Maputo houses has chimneys that tapered like the necks of giraffes.
Post-war hardship and poverty constrained Maputo’s development and left much of its physical infrastructure intact. However, with investors showing interest in the country’s plentiful natural resources, that is beginning to change. Already, several Guedes buildings have disappeared. A renowned art deco bar illuminated by giant bottles and Klee-influenced murals at the elegant Hotel Polana has fallen victim to redevelopment. Nearby houses have been knocked down. Campaigners fear that the Zambi restaurant, notable for its sweeping curved concrete roof and Miro-like painted sculptures, could be under threat as the city’s authorities move to develop the waterfront.
Mr Thembe and his colleagues can still show tourists more than 100 buildings, ranging from office blocks, schools and hospitals to apartments blocks, private houses and churches, but much of Mr Guedes’ legacy is in a state of disrepair. Graffiti is sprawled over the Lion that Laughed – a small apartment block shaped like a lion and painted in orange. In Maputo’s centre, office blocks are crumbling.
The campaigners say that the city authorities have begun to realise that the capital’s architectural heritage could be something of a tourist attraction. Plans for the railway station, for example, built in 1910, are said to have been originally conceived by Gustave Eiffel, the French engineer who designed the Eiffel Tower, and the iron framed building has won a reputation as a masterpiece. But Mr Thembe says laws protecting cultural patrimony only cover buildings erected before 1920. The “municipality does nothing to protect them,” he argues.
That, however, may be beginning to change, not least because of a revival of Portuguese influence in its former colony. Portuguese construction companies are anxious to win business as the country starts to rebuild its infrastructure. The Portuguese government is helping. Earlier this year, Portugal’s state-owned Caixa de Depositos agreed to part fund a new investment bank. When Mr Guedes visited earlier this year, the Portuguese consulate in Maputo organised an exhibition of his work.
Mr Thembe is hoping that a more self-confident and dynamic Mozambique will take a more generous view of its Portuguese heritage, recognising the unifying qualities of its language and culture in an ethnically diverse nation. At the architectural faculty of the Eduardo Mondlane University. Mr Thembe says his own interest in Mr Guedes makes him something of an outsider. But in a new, less ideological era, Mr Guedes’ exploratory anti-dogmatic style could come back into fashion. As he begins to develop his own work designing modest houses for friends and acquaintances Mr Thembe is determined to put some of Mr Guedes techniques into practice. He may well be setting a trend.
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