12 Dec 2017
(Re)inhabiting modernisms
Cases from Liberia and South-Africa

Speakers: Daniel J. Hoffman and Hannah Le Roux
Moderator : Viviana d'Auria
Location : Auditorium STUK, Naamsestraat 96, Leuven


Daniel J. Hoffman, Department of Anthropology, University of Washington
Monrovia Modern : Urban Form and Political Imagination in Liberia.

A decade after the end of Liberia’s second civil war, four of Monrovia’s most iconic buildings stood in ruins.  The EJ Roye Building, the Hotel Africa, the Ministry of Defense and the Liberia Broadcasting System each represented a different path in the modernist project of nation building.  Each building’s unique process of wartime ruination and post-war habitation speaks to the challenges facing Monrovians as they now craft an urban future.  In “Monrovia Modern” I ask what limits these urban forms impose, and what possibilities they open, for a future urban life and a future urban politics.  Scholars, activists and urban citizens around the world have largely abandoned the utopian ideals that produced modernist architectural forms.  The future, they argue, will be defined by how city dwellers inhabit their ruins.  But in this post-war West African city, it remains an open question whether the city’s ruins are habitable at all


Hannah le Roux, School of Architecture and Planning, University of the Witwatersrand

Kwa Thema as lived modernism
As of 2017, the national life expectancy (for women) born in South Africa is 66 years. The builders of KwaThema, the model estate for modernist black housing, broke ground in 1951. This temporal coincidence is the departure to consider a modernist space in Africa as a stage for life by schematising a biographical approach to this township. In doing so, it will deepen a metaphor explored by de Meulder and Plissart in relation to Belgian designs in Africa, by Heynen in architectural theory, by de Boeck and Van Synghel in exhibitions as well as in multiple visual arts projects by artists including Tillim, Ferreira and Baloji. Modernist design ideology, whether expressed in buildings, town planning and regional landscape formation, relied on disciplinary spatial conceptions that considered fluidity as a pathology to be controlled. By intentionally repressing liminal practices, seen as a category outside of function, KwaThema’s spacings inadvertently constructed opportunities for appropriation.

The lecture draws on my observation of lived modernism as a specific condition in African space. It considers KwaThema’s lived modernism at three scales in which life has been shaped through three spatial disciplines that formed it. In turn, these spaces have been re-appropriated by forms of life that were deemed external or pushed back by the project that shaped its land. From large to small, it looks at a bird sanctuary, formed by the unexpected capture of water by the Grootvlei mine’s road infrastructure; the soccer fields and cattle grazing in open spaces; and additions for new groupings around the nuclear family house and its overlarge site.

These present lives often represent the emergence of before-lives, non-human lives, and ancestral practices rather than afterlives. They are evidence of the need to consider the spatial products of modernism less as stages than as bounding outlines with a fluctuating solidity, where live spatialities are alternately foregrounded and displaced, and where smooth and striated space interchange. Social practice is often resilient in relation to space, but also episodic in its intensities, while the materiality of forms and their biochemical consequences may outlive the fragility of bodies. The intention to let lived modernisms have their say in urban biography therefore requires precision in narrating those moments where the vital and the spatial cross paths.


Danny Hoffman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle.  His book The War-Machines: Young Men and Violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia (Duke University Press, 2011), an ethnography of militia movements in West Africa's Mano River War, won the annual Anthony Leeds Prize for the best book in urban anthropology.  His forthcoming book, Monrovia Modern (Duke University Press, 2017) explores the way urban residents inhabit the post-war built environment of Liberia's capital city.  A former photojournalist covering conflicts across Africa and the Balkans, Hoffman works with text, still images and film to produce ethnographies that focus on the intersection of violence, labor and built form in contemporary West Africa.

Hannah le Roux in an architect and Associate Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her work revisits the modernist project in architecture in Africa, and considers how its transformation through the agency of African users presents a conceptual model for contemporary design. This project arose from the experience of apartheid and colonial constructions as layers that alternately erase, support, and get overlain by other human actions. She has written on these dynamics in blank_architecture, apartheid and after, Narrating Architecture, Afropolis and The Journal of Architecture as well as through exhibitions in Johannesburg, Brussels and Rotterdam. Her current projects are design research in the spatialities of diaspora coffee ceremonies and informal soccer games, and the transnational history of asbestos cement.

Hoffman, D.Monrovia ModernUrban Form and political imagination in Liberia.Duke University Press. Durham; London: 2017
Hoffman, D. The City as Barracks. Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 22, Issue 3, pp. 400–428

Le Roux, H. 2005 Conference on Modern Architecture in Tanzania around Independence, UCLAS, Dar es Salaam. Keynote: “foreign parts: modern architecture in Africa”. Archived at

DEBATES 2017/2018
17 Oct 2017
Cases from India and Ethiopia
31 Oct 2017
Cases from Brazil and West-Africa
14 Nov 2017
Cases from India and Senegal
28 Nov 2017
Cases from Berlin and Johannesburg
12 Dec 2017
Cases from Liberia and South-Africa