The architecture of Sao Vicente and Santo Antao, Cabo Verde: a marriage of modernity and tradition
In many parts of the developed and the developing world, there is a seemingly, constant dialogue and inevitable tussle between modernity and tradition. This is as true of human relationships as it is in how buildings in close proximity ‘relate’ (complement or conflict) with or to each other. A trip in June 2015 by my companion, Isabella and I, to Sao Vicente and Santo Antao, two neighbouring (of 9 inhabited islands) in the Cape Verde archipelago, presented an ideal opportunity to see how the modern and the traditional either clash or co-exist on the same island. Sometimes, these contrasts are within a few metres of each other. In fact, the majority of the structures Mindelo on Sao Vicente looked at for this article can be covered within a maximum 10 – 15 minute walk. The exceptions are the buildings on Santo Antao, a 45-minute ferry-ride away.
On landing on the island, there are some things that are immediately apparent; there is a lot of building work taking place. Some of this is in constructing new buildings, some in the construction of whole neighbourhoods and some in the re-construction of whole streets, neighbourhoods and individual buildings. If this gives the impression that the island is a giant building site then I am doing it disservice, which I hope to rectify as I elaborate.
What it shows is that this is a prosperous, upwardly-mobile country. The newer buildings reflect not only the increasing numbers of ‘returnees’ (born-Cape Verdeans as well as their children born overseas) but is also a response to the country’s increasing role as a tourist destination.
The rise in prosperity is reflected in the fact that although there are large numbers of residential homes being built, there are also an impressive number of commercial and civic properties being erected – hotels, hospitals, restaurants, nightclubs, shops, banks, offices etc.
The islands’ post-colonial legacy is evident in the buildings from the late 19th Century, that are an echo of those to be found in other former Portuguese colonies (e.g. Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome e Principe and Mozambique).
Perhaps it is not surprising that the new, bold structures (built in the last 3 – 5 years – especially the commercial properties) are as far away, in look and feel, from the older ones as it is possible to get; This could be a conscious effort to shake off the colonial yoke or an attempt by bold, young Cape Verdean architects to establish a new aesthetic in designing and constructing buildings that, in many cases, would not look out of place in a so-called First World country.
I took a particular liking to what I assume must be the world’s smallest, fully operational bar/restaurant in Praca Nova. The bar actually has seating for 5, serves a variety of fried and baked snacks and has an impressive (even to a teetotaller) range of wines and spirits. The area immediately surrounding the bar is cordoned off in the evening and tables and chairs placed there for patrons.
This could be a conscious effort to shake off the colonial yoke or an attempt by bold, young Cape Verdean architects to establish a new aesthetic in designing and constructing buildings that, in many cases, would not look out of place in a so-called First World country.There is enough conservation of older properties to show that the country appreciates its past and yet does not want to be frozen in time or to be the guardians of protecting everything old in an effort to stem the tide of ‘The Vanishing Africa’. This is a nation whose confidence is echoed in the bold, confident structures being built.
It should surprise no one that an island nation looks to the sea and as such, on the two islands looked at here, all the important buildings have been designed to look out to sea to such an extent that you almost imagine sentries on the balconies looking out for incoming ships. On Santo Antao, the road to the Town Hall actually leads in a straight, uninterrupted line down to the Atlantic Ocean.
The images chosen here show instances of what has been described above as well as buildings about to be refurbished in their old style and back to the former grandeur, next to buildings that have already been restored.
For one who has visited quite a few African countries, an immediately impressive feature was the high quality of finishing in the old, the new and the refurbished. I would urge others from most of the countries I’ve visited in Africa to come here to see how these things should be done.
Perhaps a bit of history might put this into context. The group of islands that make up Cape Verde, lie in the Atlantic, west of the west coast of Africa. In 2010, Cape Verde was officially recognised as having graduated from Low-Income to Middle Income country status. A remarkable feat given that 70% of African nations fall into the Low-Income category and lends some perspective to the achievements of a country that gained independence from Portugal as recently as 1975 and has only had a multi-party democracy since 1990. The UN ranks Cape Verde as the third richest country in Africa (per capita).
What it shows is that this is a prosperous, upwardly-mobile country. The newer buildings reflect not only the increasing numbers of ‘returnees’ (born-Cape Verdeans as well as their children born overseas) but is also a response to the country’s increasing role as a tourist destination.The current building work appears to be driven by two significant factors: as the country attained Middle Income status, so too, many more of the Cape Verdean Diaspora viewed returning home as an attractive prospect. Another significant factor, as shown by the rise in hotel building, is that the country is becoming a recognised vacation destination for European visitors.
For the moment, the islands seem to be getting the mix right. However, the newer ‘fashion’ for building where there are no roads, amenities and utilities could leave the hinterlands, just beyond the coasts, looking like eyesores. Already, a younger generation of town planners is trying to fight for better laying out of the buildings, roads and amenities in the ever-expanding newer areas.
The buildings shown here can only hope to give the merest flavour of the range and diversity to be found across Cape Verde.
Reporter: Ade Daramy