Exploring one of West Africa’s Modernist landmarks, Hotel Ivoire
A Triumph of African Modernist Design
It struck me, how do you talk about a hotel in Abidjan that on the one hand is a triumph of African Modernist design while on the other, in the not too distant past, was at the epicentre of a very painful civil war in the Republic Cote d’Ivoire. Now Cote d’Ivoire, after those years of political violence, is poised to realise the potential of its natural resources and industrious and imaginative populace.
Félix Houphouët-Boigny (fondly known locally as ‘Le Vieux’ the Old Man) was inaugurated in 1960 as the first President of newly independent Cote d’Ivoire. He had a big vision. While he didn’t want to and frankly couldn’t entirely shake off, the francophile feel and influence in the region, he did want to do was make the country a symbol of African vigour. In that vein, he decided to create dual capitals, Abidjan, which sits on the Ebrie lagoon, would be the economic capital and Yamoussoukro the administrative capital. The scope of the vision was vast including a fabulous hotel, a golf course capable of hosting international competitions, and what was to become the largest church in the world, Basilique Notre-Dame de Paix.
A chance meeting with Israeli architect and developer, Moshe Mayer put the wheels in motion to create Hotel Ivoire, designed by Heinz Fenchel (Berlin-born German-Israeli Architect who pre-war had worked as a Production Designer at UFA Berlin) and Israeli Architect, Tommy Leiterdorf. The first section of the project was completed in 1963 and the second part in 1969. The hotel which included a convention centre, a skating rink and a casino (strictly for foreign guests) was managed by the Intercontinental hotel group.
The next phase in the country’s history is the most painful, in thirty years the country went from being a young country with enormous potential (it is still the largest grower of cocoa beans in the world) and African economic powerhouse to mayhem. A coup d’état brought the country to its knees and Hotel Ivoire along with it. Intercontinental disappeared from the scene. Those that saw it recall that the hotel deteriorated beyond recognition. The 1990s set the scene for a humanitarian crisis. In 2000 Laurent Gbagbo became president, a post he held for eleven tumultuous years. The country was in economic and political turmoil and civil war broke out twice in 2003 for five years and again in 2011. The 2011 civil war ravaged the country and militia groups controlled the streets of Abidjan. Frankly, the hotel didn’t stand a chance, diminished to a shadow of its former self, overrun and for all intents and purposes out of business.
Since then the shattered country has begun to rebuild and the Hotel Ivoire in the Cocody district of Abidjan has now been returned to its former glory, today it is called the Sofitel Abidjan Hotel Ivoire. Conceived originally as a statement about the aspirations of a country newly independent from France, it is now completely renovated without a trace of its past visible to visitors. Built in the style of African Modernism, for decades its wellbeing has been an effective indicator of the state of the nation. As proof of the vitality and enormous potential of the country and its people, the country has become recognisable to anyone familiar with the hope and ambition of those early days of independence. Perhaps it is too soon to get a real picture of what is happening on the ground which makes the recent visit by Jonathan Bell of TXF all the more fascinating.
Greyscape asked him about his impression of the country and its very striking architecture;
What were your immediate first impressions as you landed?
‘What really struck me was the almost complete lack of vegetation or trees, particularly as this is a tropical West African country. What have they done to the trees?? There were virtually none! I was quite shocked and quite upset, to be frank. There is obviously no concern for the aesthetic pleasure of greenery, parks etc. For me, quite disturbing!’
… and of the Hotel Ivoire?
‘The hotel really stands out, deluxe would be a good word. It has been described as the pre-eminent symbol of Abidjan’s post-colonial 1960s architectural heyday. Seeing the hotel for the first time for me was pretty exciting. And as hotels go – particularly in Africa, its concrete structure is quite unusual. As one observer said of the architecture: ‘it has this Sci-Fi Sixties feel’. Where this hotel is built – in the Cocody district of the city – there is land, a feeling of space and vegetation and trees. It doesn’t feel cramped in the way the central business district does. Inside its massive complex, there are statues and monuments, many of these are quite symbolic to African freedom – as a lasting legacy from colonial times. At the same time, the complex has something time-warpy about it as if you are on a movie set. The shopping mall is high-end, and I have no idea who can afford to buy stuff there – although there is a luxe chocolate shop! The swimming pool – actually I think there are four … the place is massive. The grounds are amazingly tranquil.’
‘The auditorium of the conference centre has been described as an edifice that resembles a tortoise. Apparently, Houphouet-Boigny’s intention here was to reassure his people that, while the nation’s progress may be slow, it is also steady.’
‘Maybe an everyday occurrence at the Hotel Ivoire (Greyscape note here… the film Hotel Budapest sprang to mind) the night when I left after the conference I got trapped at the hotel, as exactly as I was leaving to get my car to the airport an Egyptian presidential official delegation was arriving with [President] El-Sisi. A huge cavalcade, hundreds of secret service all rushing around, loads of local security too’.
Was there any evidence in Hotel Ivoire such as a memorial in recognition of events that happened in and around the property?
‘In one word ‘No’.
Has it been renovated sympathetically?
‘When hostilities ended in 2011, the hotel was acquired by Sofitel who then began to renovate the hotel it to its former glory. The renovation work was carried out by the famous architect Pierre Fakhoury. Many now see the iconic hotel as a building that combines innovation, modernity and history in a refined decor. It has 555 rooms, apartments, 5 restaurants and 5 bars. It also has numerous rooms for events and conferences, including an auditorium that can accommodate 1,650 people. And to keep the punters amused it has a 3D cinema, a shopping mall, two swimming pools and a tennis court.
As a footnote on the architecture front, the construction sector is now booming in Cote d’Ivoire. But there is a critical shortage of architects with only 177 registered architects in a country of 23 million people.’
Is there an Abidjan vibe? Did it live up to your expectations?
‘It’s full of energy, – with people trying to make a better life. Industry and business are on the up and there is a real buzz. Overall, I’d say it exceeded expectations (if you put aside the lack of vegetation). We have to remember this is a developing economy and the priorities are very different from those that we have in our industrialised world. On the ground Abidjan feels safe– but you have to judge carefully based on where you are going and when. People are friendly, helpful and inquisitive. One cannot get away from a sense of political uncertainty, the army has a big influence on what takes place. Things can change – as we have seen in recent years.’
‘Considerable development is taking place in many areas, and much of this is improvements to the existing infrastructure. The Abidjan metro is a big project which when completed will make a big difference to mobility and hopefully take some of the traffic off the roads. Street markets are very prevalent outside of the central business district.’
Does the city have a francophile feel?
‘The influence of France as the earlier colonial power is all pervasive – and, of course, it’s there all the time because of the language, and the currency, the West African franc. You also see the influence through patisseries and boulangeries and in restaurants where most of the wines are French. These are uber expensive, often for what we consider cheap wines – but Cote d’Ivoire is very expensive anyway!’
Tell us about Plateau
‘The name is a bit of a misnomer as it is not a plateau in the geographic sense, but is simply the area of the central business district. It is where the main offices and importantly the headquarters of institutions such as the African Development Bank (AfDB). It’s functional during the day and at night almost like a ghost town, very quiet. Many of the buildings built in the immediate post-colonial period are truly awful and today they look like architectural wrecks. However, recently some new buildings have sprung up which somewhat brighten a rather drab architectural landscape.’
Cocody sounds like one big, gated community, is that a fair description?
‘There are many gated properties – one of which is the former French governor of Abidjan’s mansion, which is really lovely – now a hotel called Villa Lipic Hotel. Gated properties (for the wealthy) is a thing across Africa anyway. Security is big in most places – but is not a result of the problems of the early 2000s nor of the more recent problems with the military exercising themselves and their weapons on the streets.’
Was this your first visit to the region?
Yes, although I have been in East Africa and Southern African many times. West Africa is very different, largely because there are so many countries there – and many of these are quite small for example, Benin and Togo. West Africa is split between Francophone, French-speaking countries, and Anglophone, English-speaking countries. Cote d’Ivoire is a big country, with a still quite heavily forested interior although there is much less or no forest to the north. Many of the West African countries have a coastline – so they don’t have the landlocked aspect that some other African countries have on the east or the central belt. The sea access gives a different flavour in many ways. The colour and patterns of costumes on the people, particularly the dresses and gowns of the women are very noticeable and in most cases beautiful.
Your photos are brilliant tell us about your kit
I usually shoot with my trusted 12-year old Nikon D7000, which has served me very well. It weighs a ton, but has a good feel and provides me with excellent photographs. But as an Instagram nerd, I also shoot with my personal mobile when I am speeding around – and that’s a Samsung Galaxy 8, which I find provides excellent colour and representation.
Need to know before you go
Apply for your visa online through the embassy. It costs 73 euros. You will also need a yellow fever vaccination.
Travel essentials for this sort of trip
Take good mosquito spray as malaria and dengue fever mozzies are in the city. Take an umbrella. Take light clothing.
Do you recommend this as a destination?
I was sent here for business, so only saw the city. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it as a tourist destination – as it isn’t easy going, and it is super expensive. Some of my colleagues went out to Grand Bassam by the coast and said it was super.
Esprit lounge bar, Le Toa. Bit out of the way, but elevated, and cool vibe – decent drinks and food.
Best/most memorable local dish
You have to really be into yams as they pop up an awful lot
What to bring back
Textiles, cocoa powder, coffee
What’s Your fav film?
A Matter Of Life And Death – Powell & Pressburger 1946
Your fav book?
On The Road by Jack Kerouac
Your fav building anywhere in the world and why?
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain by Frank Gehry. I love this building outside and in. Why? Because you can never tire of looking at it whether sitting in one place or walking around it. Everywhere you go there is a different vista, and the vista changes with the light of the day depending on sun/cloud. In addition, so much thought went into designing this building as it is built on the old industrial boatyards of Bilbao – and, if you go across the river or up on the nearby bridge and look at the building it often actually resembles a ship. It is a wonder of the modern world.
All images are the Copyright of Jonathan Bell ©