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The Volta River Project: planning, housing and resettlement in Ghana, 1950–1965

Uduku, Nwola and Jackson, Iain and Appeaning Addo, Irene and Opong, Rexford Assasie (2019) The Volta River Project: planning, housing and resettlement in Ghana, 1950–1965. Journal of Architecture. ISSN 1360-2365

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Abstract

This paper investigates the housing schemes proposed in connection with the Volta River Project, Ghana, in the mid-1950s to early 1960s. The Volta River Project formed part of Kwame Nkrumah’s vision for Ghana’s modernisation and industrialisation in the wake of political independence. Three associated worker housing schemes demonstrated somewhat contradictory design and construction methods, from high specification, extensive amenities and comprehensive servicing, through to self-build ‘core’ houses amounting to little more than single room dwellings. The first at Kpong was a ‘top-down’ masterplan proposed by the American planner Albert Mayer. There was significant ambition in this approach that could have resulted in a major new conurbation for Ghana and delivered a strong political message of intent for the newly independent nation. However, the funding model for producing the new town relied on foreign investment and the town’s lavish social ambition and full provision of amenities were deemed too expensive for the sponsoring Canadian-UK Aluminium smelters. Despite the political desire to improve the quality of these housing estates, they represented a kind of a neo-colonial approach with African residents as passive recipients and the estates seem as symbolic manifestations of modernisation, rather than comprehensive attempts at rehousing the masses. The planners for two further schemes that followed at Ajena mooted the option of fully prefabricated housing before finally settling on a ‘self-build’ approach using prefabricated components. There was still a desire to provide a fixed, resolved and ‘complete’ site plan along with schools, markets, community centres and hospitals, but these too were prohibitively expensive to realise and to sustain. The only housing proposal that was successfully implemented and sustained was at New Ajena, which was a compromise between prefabrication and self-build approaches. This was deeply influenced by the internationally recognised ‘Site and Services’ approach, with Charles Abrams and Otto Koenigsberger advocating housing that was regulated and loosely planned, whilst also exploiting local materials and skills. It was a method that John F. C. Turner would go on to widely promote following his pioneering work in South America, but it is important to stress that earlier precedent existed at the Ghanaian planned neighbourhood of Asawasi in the 1940s, with a non-determinant approach to site planning. At New Ajena, basic single room structures with a verandah known as ‘Core Houses’ would be built by skilled and paid labour using local materials. These enabled the new residents to quickly occupy the structures without the need for temporary or remote housing in the interim. The Core Houses could then be gradually extended and improved according to a prescribed plan and quality to suit the residents’ needs and budget. The paper concludes that whilst the schemes all intended to improve lives of locals through the provision of housing , paradoxically the most successful project to incorporate indigenous agency and true collaboration was the semi-formal ’Combined Area’ housing at Akosombo. By tracing the history of housing proposals that led to this particular combined approach, and supplemented with the findings of several field trips to the settlements in question, this paper unravels its success as a positive model for shared agency and collaboration in planning, housing and facilities delivery. Sitting along side the carefully manicured plan of Akosombo, with its regulated market, excellent health care and desire to set high standards of cleanliness, the Combined Area has not only provided homes for the lower-paid and labouring workers of the town, but has developed over time into a settlement where professionals and retired government workers are also now residing, not out of necessity but by choice. By actively developing their own homes, shared spaces and amenities there has developed a strong sense of ownership, community and identity. The success, and level of attachment to this settlement clearly extends beyond its material presence and through the shared experience of helping to cultivate a place of one’s own.

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