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Recap: Baraza with Danny Hoffman

Danny Hoffman, Associate Professor in Anthropology at the University of Washington, outlined the central argument and ethnographic context of his new book, Monrovia Modern: Urban Form and Political Imagination in Liberia.  The book is light on the ethnography typical of an anthropological monograph and instead places the ruined forms of four Monrovian buildings at its center.

Hoffman’s talk singled out the Ministry of Defense building, a product of Samuel Doe’s project of state-building through monumental architecture in the 1980s, turned military barracks during Liberia’s two civil wars. After the Second Civil War ended in 2003, ex-combatants remained in the building as squatters. When the Sirleaf government expelled them between 2008 and 2010, the residents put up surprisingly little resistance and resettled in a nearby mangrove swamp, from which they also anticipated eviction.Borrowing from Liberian English, Hoffman refers to the ministry building and other urban ruins as Monrovia’s ‘gaps,’ or in-between spaces transiently inhabited by the city’s ex-combatants. He asks why, if so many young men exist in the gaps of the city, are they resistant to laying claim to those spaces. What kinds of futures are imaginable in a city dominated by ruined forms? Exploring the spatial arrangements of power built into the architectural forms of the city, Hoffman argued that these facilitate transience, but not rootedness. Nor do they support the production of a political community in the sense exhibited by so many militant claims to urban space elsewhere.

The brutalist architectural style of the Ministry of Defense building creates a space unconducive to dwelling, with spatial proportions and sightlines poorly suited to the human body. The totalitarian ideology upon which the form was constructed is so apparent as to be impossible to reinterpret. It becomes unimaginable as a space that people can and should lay claim to, and impossible to use as anything other than a place of transit.

Guest Recap Written by Netty Carey