INTERVIEW: How tradition plays critical role in building modern structures – Ghanaian Architect

PK Hanson
PK Hanson

Ghanaian Architect, Charles Paa Kobina Hanson, is the Project Architect and Founder at CHARLES P.K. HANSON in Accra, Ghana. He was trained at the prestigious Kwame Nkrumah School of Architecture (KNUST) in Ghana. In this interview, he shares his thoughts on ‘vernacular-contemporary philosophy’ of architecture in designing ‘timeless buildings’ and how he is integrating traditional African architecture into modern structures.

PT: Where were you born? What do your names “Paa” and “Kobina’ mean?

Hanson: I was born to Ghanaian parents, an Ashanti mother and Fanti father in Atonsu, Kumasi, Ashanti Region. “Paa” is a short form of Papa in Fanti, it means an older person. In the Akan tribe you automatically earn a name based on the day in which you are born so “Kobina” simply signifies that I am a Tuesday born. I would be “Abena” if I was female.

PT: Could you tell us about your early education? What primary and secondary schools did you attend?

Hanson: I spent most of my early life in Winneba, a fishing community in central region, Ghana. I had my basic education at Methodist Primary School till class 6. We relocated to Tema where I completed my Junior Secondary School at Bexhill International School, Community 11 in the year 2004. For my secondary education, I attended Ghana Secondary Technical School (GSTS) in Takoradi and completed in 2007.

What were your favorite subjects and why?

Hanson: I had interest in three subjects: Integrated science, especially Physics, Mathematics and Pre-technical skills. I believed these subjects, Physics and Pre-tech, had a lot of explanations to most things I became aware of at that age.

Physics for instance explained to me the reason why I needed to wear slippers before doing ironing. I became aware that our human bodies are good conductors of electricity; without slippers, we formed a closed circuit which meant electricity could pass through the body, causing electric shocks.

Wearing slippers was a means to interrupt the flow of current through the body since rubber is a bad conductor of electricity. Pre-tech opened my eyes to why those cabinets we had at home could stand firm. I became aware of this when we studied Timber Joinery. We studied different kinds of joinery in woodwork and their appropriate uses.

My maths teacher explained to us that in mathematics, one could not go wrong arriving at an answer if you follow an approved formula to arrive at that answer. I loved all the teachers who were taking us through these subjects maybe except the pre-tech teacher, he was too strict.

PT: Where did you have your university education?

Hanson: I had my undergraduate and post-graduate education in Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) Department of Architecture and completed in 2012 and 2014 respectively.

I served the school for a year as a teaching assistant. I have also undertaken training programme in Project Management at Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA) 2018.

PT: What prompted your interest in Architecture?

Hanson: I do not vividly remember what prompted my interest in Architecture. However, in my secondary education I had Physics, Elective Maths, Technical Drawing and Building Construction (BC) as my elective courses.

I developed the love for BC right from first year. In my final year I emerged as the best student in BC. I received a book from the school titled ‘Architects on Architects’ forwarded by Paul Goldberger, edited by Susan Grey during the schools’ 98th speech and prize giving day.

After the ceremony, the assistant head master told me he believed the best programme for me to study in the university looking at my interest should be Architecture. This is the reason why I chose to study Architecture. I had no prior knowledge on Architecture or who an architect was.

PT: What do you regard as traditional African Architecture?

Hanson: Traditional Africa Architecture is a style of Architecture that was being practiced in the pre-colonial era. What informed these pre-colonial buildings were the available materials, earth, clay, bamboo etc., the micro climatic conditions which informed the type of roof.

This was either a flat roof or gable, and socio-cultural factors, the spatial configurations asserting the level of authority and the relationship between husband, wife, extended family and the community at large.

This style could also be termed as African Vernacular Architecture. In my opinion, Africa architecture is a style of architecture that considers the culture of the people, makes use of available local materials to create a building that responds positively to its natural environment.

PT: What is your philosophy for modern African Architecture?

Hanson: Modernism in a broader sense is a style that makes use of materials that became popular in the 20th century; glass, concrete and steel, and creating buildings with façade designs devoid of decorations as compared to its predecessor Art Nouveau style of architecture.

Modern Africa Architecture I would say is the use of these materials and the concept of having a plain non-decorative façade in our buildings.

PT: What factors do you think should be considered in building homes, offices, and public spaces in our part of the world?

Hanson: In designing homes, I believe we have to learn from our pre-colonial era of design concept, where there is an attempt to create harmony between the dweller, the dwelling place and the environment considering the lifestyle of the individual or the family.

The same idea could be channelled into the design of offices and public buildings. Offices and public buildings on the other hand I think should be more adaptable because of continuous advancement in technology.

PT: What are the favorite designs of Ghanaian elite?

Hanson: I can’t honestly tell the favourite designs of the elite in Ghana. However, I have observed a lot of them have bought into the idea of modernism.

PT: What advice would you give our governments in designing offices and public institutions?

Hanson: Let me first of all use this opportunity to encourage government to create public places like parks, plazas etc. providing a safe conducive environment for relaxation, and socialisation.

I think our institutional buildings should portray the spirit of our history no matter how modernised we intend to have it. There should be an attempt to creating buildings that tells our story more.

PT: What are the major influences on your work?

Hanson: Like Frank Gehry said, ‘Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.’ I am influenced by the idea of thoughtfully creating spaces in buildings that is in-tune with its environment, just like what was being practiced in the pre-colonial era, buildings that complements the lifestyle of its users at the same time making an attempt to creating a building that will belong to the present and stand the test of time.

This is a concept of harmoniously fusing both contemporary and vernacular architecture. It’s contemporary by using modern day materials such as glass, steel, concrete at the same time responding positively to its micro-climatic conditions by ensuring good natural ventilation and admission of daylight to lower the life-cycle cost of the building and serving the ultimate purpose of adding value and complementing the lifestyle of its dwellers.

PT: Who are your favourite Architects?

Hanson: In no chronological order, I take inspiration from works of Mies Van der Rohe for his use of glass and steel, Frank Lloyd wright for the seamless flow of his designs in its settings, Richard Rogers for his concept of light and use of bold geometry and Francis Kere for the use of local available materials to interpret his philosophy of contemporary Africa Architecture.

PT: What advice would you give young architects and students aspiring to go into the field?

Hanson: Architecture is a demanding profession that requires a lot of dedication; however, they should not be discouraged, because at the end of it all you are able to create a unique product, a unique permanent art into the environment that adds value to God’s creation.

Also, it would be good to think about sustainability, which in its basic definition is the conscious use of resource so as not to compromise its availability for future use. In our part of the world, I believe the idea of sustainability can easily be achieved without any advanced technology which proves to be quite expensive.

We can achieve sustainability by incorporating a good tropical landscape design to complement the idea of designing to respond to the environment.

PT: What do you do for fun?

Hanson: I play chess, I love to read, I love playing video games especially Fifa. I love to be alone with my thoughts while listening to good music. I am currently enrolled for violin class, hopefully I’ll be good enough to play Beethoven’s classics one day.

PT: Thank you.

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