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Maputo is a city of colonial relics. From the monumental whitewashed bullring on the outskirts of town to the quaint Iberian garden figurines in front of natty Art Deco houses on the city’s acacia-lined streets, the Portuguese have left their mark. And, more often than not, they have left it in concrete.

Much of Maputo’s imperial heritage is modern, breton-brut, angular and high-rise. That’s because until the Carnation Revolution that deposed Lisbon’s Estado Novo regime in 1974, Portugal had had no intention of leaving its colonies. Mozambique was considered a province of Portugal and the country’s corporatist autocrat, António de Oliveira Salazar, used its capital as an example of what became known as “Lusotropicalism”: the distinct (and superior) brand of Portuguese imperialism.

The blueprint for the city (then called Lourenço Marques) was drawn up by military planner Major António José Araújo in 1887, but by the 1930s it had become an experimenting ground for modernists. The major’s grand grid of boulevards provided the framework for new migrants from Portugal and beyond to shape the emerging metropolis with department stores, theatres, social clubs, hotels and chic, middle-class condominiums.

“It has always been a cosmopolitan city,” says historian Yussuf Adam as he sips coffee outside the gleaming-white, 1930s-era Hotel Cardoso, which sits like a steamer ship on a cliff overlooking the sea. “You had the Greeks – you had the Indians as early as the 16th century. You had the Chinese. Francis Drake was here – so was Winston Churchill. This is first an Indian Ocean city and then a southern African one.”

Modern Maputo is a testament to this mix. The city has a Palladian Greek club, a Baroque-revival synagogue, a Neo-Manueline natural history museum and a concrete 1930s-era Chinese social club. But the most potent influence in the city’s early modern era came from Salazar’s brand of corporate authoritarianism. Many of the city’s early icons, like the white concrete Roman Catholic cathedral, were built using a system known as Chibalo: forced labour imposed on the native population. Others, like the grand façade of Radio Mozambique, were clad with acres of dark marble. Here, a stone relief of an Iberian warrior riding a winged horse across the continent of Africa is a clear statement of cultural intent; Lusotropicalism was enlightened, decorative and fantastic.

“Mozambique did not have the Calvinist culture seen in South Africa,” says Adam, who explains how Radio Mozambique became the station of choice for many young people in South Africa, where pop music such as the Beatles was banned. “Yes, there were divisions: Lourenço Marques [was] designed as a city of concrete and reeds. There was a curfew. But there was a certain level of integration. It was always cosmopolitan.”

It is a legacy that endures. Today, Maputo’s urbane middle class still queues to see bands, theatre and avant-garde dance in the same decadent auditoriums built for European émigrés. The line-up is now distinctly African, but the cult of Estado Novo lingers in the infrastructure – nowhere more so than the city’s sports clubs, built to venerate the physical culture of the Portuguese youth. At Clube Desportivo Maputo a murky Olympic-sized pool and 10m diving platform are flanked by motifs of swimmers showing off their aquatic prowess.

The club’s logo – a black-and-white stucco eagle – has long since toppled from its perch over the grand white concrete gates, but workmen are busy sprucing up the whitewash as monocle arrives. “Our Olympic athlete Maria de Lurdes Mutola trained here,” says one local. ”We’re getting ready for the season.”

While the icons of Estado Novo reached Mozambique, its conservative culture didn’t. The capital became a gathering ground for progressive architects fleeing the authoritarian rule – and artistic parochialisms – of their homeland. “The city grew fast between 1950 and 1970,” says Luis Lage, head of the faculty of architecture at the city’s Mondlane University, as he shows monocle a map of the Maputo’s streetscape. “What you can see is a modern city built for the environment. Maputo’s architects used the international style but also ideas from Brazil – from Oscar Niemeyer.”

Luck had it that the city had its own Niemeyer. He came in the form of the Portuguese-born Amancio “Pancho” d’Alpoim Miranda Guedes, an eccentric polymath inspired by the likes of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Antoni Gaudí. His complex, innovative creations still decorate the city. Today, a walk around the Sommerchield and Polana districts reveals curious residential houses with ramps rather than stairs, tower blocks with indoor gardens, cantilevered staircases, artworks and sculpture. “This stone mural is to increase your curiosity about the building, like a painting in a frame,” says Walter Tembe, an architectural student who now gives tours of Guedes’ work around the city. “This is the Dragon apartment block, built for a Chinese patron in the early 1950s. You can see here, Pancho was working with the climate. His work uses natural ventilation. He was crafting his own style.”

Today, Guedes’ buildings are occupied by corporate multinational companies, ngos and wealthy private tenants. One grand modernist villa with its concrete cocktail terrace is the home of g4s, the private security firm. Others have been modified, extended and refitted with double-glazing and air conditioning units. At Guedes’ Smiling Lion building (built between 1956 and 1958 and considered his finest work) a group of mechanics has filled in the lower floors that were designed to give the building a sense of weightlessness. Outside, groups of young men sell puppies from cardboard boxes; music pumps from a stereo. The building is near derelict. “Many of Pancho’s works have been defaced,” explains Tembe. “They are under-appreciated. The faculty of architecture is campaigning for their preservation but it has yet to become law.”

So many of Maputo’s buildings are in poor shape. Some, like the grand Vila Algarve – once home to the Portuguese secret police – are hollowed out shells that are like ghosts of another era. Still, in many ways it’s a wonder that so much of the city’s architecture has survived at all, having lived through the dissolution of the colonial order and the onset of nearly two decades of war. When Mozambique gained independence in 1975 after a long and protracted armed struggle, the city’s property was nationalised by the new communist government; Pancho Guedes and over 200,000 Portuguese fled the country. “His sketches at the time show the new president, Samora Machel, gobbling up his precious Smiling Lion house,” says Tembe. “Pancho was angry. He was left penniless.”

Regime change also ushered in a new era of architecture in the city: instead of Pancho’s idiosyncratic private homes, severe, iconic temples to socialism emerged. The city’s streets were renamed in line with its government’s sensibilities – Avenue Massano de Amorim became Mao Tse Tung, Augusto de Castilho became Vladimir Lenin and Manuel de Arriaga became Karl Marx – and a small cadre of firebrand architects set about building the new socialist republic. José Forjaz, a Portuguese migrant who arrived in the city as a small child and trained under Pancho Guedes, became the premier architect for the Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frelimo).

“I had served as a conscript in the Portuguese Army but fostered deep relationships with the liberation forces in Mozambique by helping the guerilla movement underground,” he says, poring over elevations at a handsome 2.5 metre-high wooden table in his studio. “When the regime fell I was living in Swaziland and they called me back. They said, ‘We need you, we need you to help rebuild this country.’”

At just 32, Forjaz was one of around 10 architects in a country with a population of 15 million. One of his first jobs was a pantheon to the heroes of the revolution: a socialist star that still remains on a roundabout near the airport. “We used local translucent marble,” he says. “It was as if your country was shining light on you.”

Life as an architect of the revolution was not easy. As the new government set about rebuilding the state, the country was propelled into a civil war as Frelimo clashed with the South African and Rhodesian-backed Renamo party. Forjaz was made national director for housing and then secretary of state for planning, but his buildings were very few – they were just trying to survive.

He was an architect embedded in a government in one of the most protracted conflicts in history. “We didn’t hide our antipathy for apartheid and Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. That led us into the arms of one side of the Iron Curtain,” he says, explaining how Frelimo’s allies emerged as Russia, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea. “It was very natural. The sympathies of the movement were socialist.”

Today, Forjaz’s concrete forms are a potent influence in the city, including government offices and university faculties. More recently, after Frelimo introduced democracy in the country, his work includes convents, private homes and commercial headquarters. His latest structure, which is near completion, is the headquarters for the national administrative court in the city’s Independence Square.

It is a cube of white marble and concrete that sits next to the city’s old cathedral and a statue of Machel. “He was a great friend,” sighs Forjaz, who has also built a monument to Machel’s death on the hillside in South Africa where the president’s aircraft crashed in 1986. “I often think what the country would have been like without that accident.”

While Forjaz’s buildings appear to be a stark rejection of the past, he doesn’t deny that his buildings owe a debt to Pancho Guedes, his long-time teacher and mentor. Nor does he reject the notion that his forms have lineage to the white Art Deco concrete city of the 1930s. “Why not?” he says outside his latest project: a vast, beautiful white concrete apartment block with retail beneath, called the Epsilon building. “There is something about the boldness of volume and form.”

Modern Maputo is on the cusp of a property boom. Back at the architecture faculty that Forjaz himself founded, the current head, Luis Lage, admits that his task is to create a new generation of architects who can take on the challenges of rapid urban expansion. “The city is growing fast,” he says. “UN-Habitat estimates that by 2025 it will double in size [from two million to four]. So this is our challenge – we need to create schools, we need infrastructure.”

Lage also thinks that his graduates are vulnerable to outside influences. He claims there are dozens of Portuguese architects arriving every month in search of work and that Chinese-designed glass structures are sprouting all over the skyline; he laments the destruction of the heritage that makes the city unique. “Our problem is that we don’t have rules yet. We need to take care of what has real value, to classify and conserve.”

Maputo’s accelerated urban growth is riddled with problems: there is a risk that much of its heritage will fall victim to corrupt planning practices, mismanagement and misguided refurbishments. But, like Forjaz’s incredible Epsilon building, some of the city’s new infrastructure continues Maputo’s cosmopolitan, daring architectural tradition; the progressive, poetic use of concrete still holds firm.

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