A daily bulletin of news & opinion

19 September 2012

In Mozambique, the colonial era feels awfully close. Here, imperial relics are modern. Some, like the hotel I stayed in during my visit for Monocle’s Lusophone issue, were built in the early 1970s. It has lifts and a dozen floors to accommodate a generation of holidaymakers from Lisbon. Towering over what is now called Independence Square in central Maputo, it is brutalist, Breton-brut and daring; a symbol of permanence.

That’s because unlike other African colonies that gained independence in the 1950s, Mozambique’s colonial rulers had no intention of folding their tents. Much to the indignation of the international community and the UN, Portugal’s Estado Novo regime hung on to its East African protectorate. 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.

This is all in the fabric of modern Maputo; the architecture is a curious mix of Salazar’s autocratic, corporatist conservatism and progressive modernism. It was also an experimenting ground for architects who could not get a look-in back in Lisbon, where a neo-classical style was all the rage.

For instance, the concrete Catholic church of Santo António da Polana with its crude geometric forms is now known as the “Lemon Squeezer”; inside, its stained glass is a homage to the icons of Portugal: the Lusophone chicken, the Iberian landscape, the Christian symbols. Around it, buildings to fit the lifestyles of new immigrants emerged: idiosyncratic private homes with cocktail terraces and huge leafy gardens; hotels, villas, swimming pools and social clubs.

Around the city of concrete emerged a city of reeds. The colonial rule stipulated that the areas beyond the new town were built from adobe and thatch; this was so they could demolish them once the city expanded. On paper, Lusotropicalism espoused inclusivity but the town planning created segregation. There was no apartheid here, just a curfew that made sure most local black workers retreated from the concrete into this urban adobe hinterland every evening.

When the country gained independence after the Carnation revolution of the mid-1970s in Lisbon, the city’s streets were renamed in line with its new, radical government’s sensibilities – a street called Avenue Augusto de Castilho became Vladimir Lenin and Manuel de Arriaga became Karl Marx – and a small cadre of firebrand architects set about building temples to socialism.

Today these huge, iconoclastic, concrete structures reflect the politics of that time, when Cuba, Russia and North Korea were allies; the architecture in Maputo tells the city’s story better than any history book. And the contemporary structures that are springing up today are testament to the current state of play: bank headquarters and new homes for the rich. Some draw on the heritage of the past – the heady days of modernism – in their style. There are also Dubai-style, Chinese-funded buildings on the horizon. The new airport terminal is covered in Mandarin slogans and full of Chinese construction workers.

There is also a sense of fustration and disappointment. Monocle spoke to several people who fulminated over the corrupt building practices and demolitions, and botched restoration jobs.

The sprawling, unplanned houses of the city of reeds continue to emerge. The thatch and corrugated iron abodes are burgeoning and the population of the city is set to double in the next decade. This is a legacy of not just Estado Novo and the colonial enterprise but the current government and its entrenched foibles.


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