The world outside Mozambique may not be completely aware of the great architectural treasures from the 1960s in Beira, but one building is gaining increasing fame in architectural circles and ‘the development set’ alike, as a very special phenomena: The Grande Hotel. Here are some reflections which have been passing through my mind when following the growing number of publications about the settlement by documentarists of different media and more recently in architectural theory and ways of thinking about cities in ‘the Global South’.
Constructed as a luxury hotel with gambling halls, dancing halls, fine dining rooms, cinemas, boutiques, swimming pool and a central ornamented and photogenic winding staircase, the hotel had only 120 rooms and never really made money. Seven years after opening in 1955, the hotel closed down and only reopened on two special occasions before independence: Once to receive US congressmen in Beira and once for a wedding in the family of powerful planter, industrialist and militia agent Jorge Jardim in 1971. The architecture of the hotel is inspired by art deco architectural language and consists of rather heavy, solid volumes proclaiming a style tending towards the conservative, in comparison with the light, airy, flowing and colourful plastic structures which were becoming popular at the time, as inspired by a tropical modernism in Brazil and elsewhere.
Frelimo took over the hotel at independence and used it for party functions until the destabilising insurgency resulting in civil war of the 1980s started and the region around Beira became the base for the opposition to the government. The hotel became a refugee camp turned informal settlement during the war, a settlement of 2-4.000 people, which remained after the war finished in the early 1990s and stayed up until today. According to some, it may be the largest squatted building in the world. This position of fame it will have to compete hard for, though, with the now highly profiled Torre David in Caracas, which was part of the exhibition at the architectural biennale in Venezia 2012, as well as other settlements in Latin America.
The Grande Hotel has been filmed and photographed by some of the world’s most interesting photographers as a symbol of post-colonial decay, primarily given a beautiful ruin aesthetic through the lens of South African Guy Tillim in his series published as a book and exhibited in influential museums, ‘Avenida Patrice Lumumba‘. Focus here is on abandoned spaces rather than on the people now living there. Another series by Vlad Sokhin shows some of the families living in the structure of the hotel. At last year’s Dockanema, the documentary film festival taking centre stage in the cultural scene of Maputo once a year, there was a whole cycle of films documenting the Grande Hotel, with four full length documentaries with different takes on the subject.
The story is indeed spectacular. The grandeur of dictator Salazar’s prestige project taken over, consumed and broken down by the poorest of society, immigrants, refugees and other marginalised citizens. The images are so much more suggestive than ‘normal’ slums, where people put up similar improvised structures with no sanitary infrastructure, but without being grafted onto and feeding upon existing physical remains of deceased empires in the process. Issues of power associated with the colonial architecture come to the forefront, making instantly visible an example of the failure of a capitalist grand venture, for now reclaimed by the people.
Jill Stoner, author of ‘Toward a Minor Architecture‘, states that “architecture must no longer limit itself to the art of making buildings; it must also invent the politics of taking them apart.” A settlement like the Grande Hotel becomes a site to investigate how what she calls the prevalent architectural mythologies, are broken down, including the autonomy of the building-object, the myth of the subject and the idea of nature as ‘other’. She calls a ‘minor architecture’, an architecture of incompleteness and immanence, improvised, fractional and stripped of grammar. As a review in Architectural Review poetically stated, ‘minor architecture’ “creatively edit the stratified, separated spaces of political and economic power, opening cracks in their edifices and liberating architecture from capture.” In this rather theoretical-literary context, the Grande Hotel and Torre David become paradigmatic cases of cracks having opened in the the system, into which people have started digging, tinkering and scrambling, to create alternative spaces for livelihoods outside the dominant structures of society.
There is talk of “resistance” and “reclaiming power” through destruction and re-appropriation. However, the Grande Hotel may also be used as inspiration for enabling structures where unfinished buildings are intentionally left to the creative imagination of the users, as in housing projects currently appearing in Latin America, like the award-winning ones by Elemental, and others in South Africa, like the projects by Noero Wolff. Talking to Heinrich Wolff last year, he said that for architects working in South Africa, considering people’s need for flexible structures and possibilities of completing or extending their housing units, is a basic premise for the architect’s work. In fact, a way of incrementally living and building according to the changing needs of life and family, is how most people live around the world in general, not in fixed structures with architects’ signatures. Thus whether planned or unplanned, the Grande Hotel may be paradigmatic for both a critical potential in reclaiming dominant spaces but also inspiration for processes of new design strategies, whether incorporating existing structures or creating new ones. Stoner calls for an “editorial approach”, where the architect allows the natural creativity of the city to enter into traditionally planned structures gone obsolete.
The problem with seeing a settlement like the Grande Hotel in this light and projecting creative optimism on behalf of an informally regulated slum settlement, is of course that the structure of the hotel is lived in in such a way that it is being broken down and sold off to sustain the population living there. This story is told powerfully by Lotte Stoops’ film about the Grande Hotel. Trees are entering the concrete structure, slowly breaking up parts of the walls and floors in the humid tropical climate. The reinforced concrete structure may collapse under its own destructive transformations, being slowly ground down to pieces which can be resold, since it will always be a more safe investment for the inhabitants to have food today than maintaining the structure for an abstract future nobody can know whether will exist. Basic sanitary infrastructure, which requires both a lot of organisational and monetary investment in order to work, will never be realised in such a context, with the corresponding health hazards, unpleasantness and infractions to human dignity.
An abandoned city of leisure
When driving around Beira, it is striking how the Grande Hotel is just one out of a wide array of abandoned leisure and tourism facilities in the city. This was evident even on the very quick mini-visit guided by local architect Silvio Renato Mamade, which I was lucky to get the chance to make during my drive from Maputo to Nampula to continue work up north. Some obsolete leisure buildings have squatters living in them, some are closed off with guards and gates indicating ownership control. The decay suffered from being the base against Frelimo in the 1980s and thus receiving very little renovation investment after the civil war, is clearly visible.
This abandonment may also have saved some of the more interesting architecture from having been transformed in an inappropriate way, as suggested by my colleagues at the Faculdade de Arquitectura in Nampula. However, outside the main city centre, which indeed currently is being partially restored and representing in particular British late 19th century commercial buildings, an art deco phase as well as the 1960s modernist boom and the quick development of architecture for a leisure society which then for many years was left empty, the strong decay is indeed much more present than architectural jewels. An abandonment which arguably continued until the present raw materials boom when especially Portuguese construction companies again are flocking to Mozambique and the rail line to the port in Beira is intended to export some of the world’s largest coal reserves from the province of Tete to the world.
The elegant Motel Estoril by Melo Sampaio, co-designer of the train terminal in Beira, is one of the empty hotels from the 1960s without squatters and with potential for renovation, being boarded up and guarded. The hotel is right behind the red and white tower of the lighthouse of Estoril, in an area which like the area around the Grande Hotel, was laid out mainly as a leisure district with some high class housing. Various initiatives for renovation of the Grande Hotel are also being presented. However, resettling and compensating the 2000-3000 people who may be living there permanently, is a very complicated exercise. One reference said 6000, but nobody knows how many people really live there permanently, a concept which in itself is relative for such a settlement where many people are passing through, trying to find their feet in the city, testing new livelihoods or even running away from the law. Among them may be many who in reality have occupied the place in good faith for more than ten years and thus have a form of use rights, causing a legal headache. For an investor, starting with another less infamous building may be a more safe bet.
A symbol of informal urbanism
Whether the Grande Hotel will be the next global slum phenomena featured at the Venice Biennale like the Torre David remains to be seen. In any case, the images of the community with no toilets and thus throwing human waste over the railings in plastic bags with the olympic sized swimming pool in the background, no piece of wood or glass left since all original fittings which could be sold, are gone, the reinforced concrete itself being eaten away by plants and by hungry people selling concrete by the kilo to buy food, are very powerful. The fact that a large part of urban dwellers in Mozambican live in similar conditions, just not with the past glamour of a hotel as backdrop, is important to keep in mind when the spotlight is turned on certain particularly spectacular photogenic cases like the Grande Hotel. In fact the war led to large movements of internally displaced populations which resulted in informal settlements on the margins of most Mozambican cities, which were considered safer than the countryside during the war. Thus many areas today called ‘slums’, arose in a similar way to the settlement of the Grande Hotel but without the same physical structures as base.
To academically minded types of outside observers, the images of the Grande Hotel may take on heavy symbolic meaning showing changing global power cracks in actual physical concrete structures, literally invaded and pulled apart. The power of these images must not be underestimated, and the symbolic extension of the structure of the Grande Hotel to the general urban situation in Mozambique and possibly other cities of the Global South is interesting, struggling to overcome ideological postcolonial structures without in the process eating up the physical elements which often still keep cities working. At the same time the images recount the story of the everyday life of thousands of people struggling for a livelihood, which in the end is what makes them so strong.
Lotte Stoops: ‘Grande Hotel’, documentary film, Serendipidy Films, 2010, trailer and info at http://www.grandehotelthemovie.com
Jill Stoner: ‘Toward a Minor Architecture’, MIT Press, 2012
Lindsay Bremner and Jeremy Till: ‘A Cracking Read: Toward a Minor Architecture by Jill Stoner’, in Architectural Review 18. June 2012, at http://www.architectural-review.com