Fast-Track Development: Israeli Construction in 1961 Sierra Leone
Columbia University, New York, USA
On April 27, 1961 the Sierra Leone House of Representatives declared independence in its newly built edifice in Freetown. Among the guests of honor was a group of Israeli architects and engineers, who had been working on the design and construction of the building for the past seven months, a job English firms declined due to what they claimed was an unrealistic deadline.
Concurrently under pressure to finalize the parliament project in Jerusalem, which was subject to a heated and prolonged public debate, the Israeli team received carte blanche in Sierra Leone. This was the first of a series of high-profile projects in post-independence sub-Saharan African states that Israeli architects and construction companies undertook in the following decade. Under the technical cooperation banner promoted by Israel’s foreign ministry, Israeli firms established joint companies with the local governments, promoting technical transfer imbued with Labor Zionism nation-building ideology. In this paper I will argue that the Sierra Leone parliament project epitomized what was then Israel’s main attraction: as an antidote to the colonial “not yet” paradigm, it promised rapid development, presumably both social and economic, with immediate, visible results.
The Sierra Leone parliament project thus brings to the fore the ambiguous role of prestigious architectural projects in post-independence sub-Saharan African states. As both a vehicle for a self-help based national economy and the paradigmatic representative of the social and national qualities this would entail, the project reveals the complex tension existed between governmentally and representation. I will explore this relationship in light of the Israeli foreign ministry cooperation campaign and the project’s temporal contingency with the Israeli parliament project. Based on this case study and its historical failure, my paper will focus on the illusive temporal ellipsis suggested by architectural objects as the embodiments and harbingers of infrastructural development.