The Cardoso hotel
The Cardoso hotel evokes the liner style of Miami. Image Credit: Credits: Alexandre Tabaste

The AK-47 with attached bayonet on the Mozambique flag can give a rather false impression of the graciousness of Mozambiquans, to say the least. Many diplomats living in Maputo have remarked, like one former French ambassador we spoke to, that one of the great mysteries in African politics is the incongruity between the violence of Mozambique’s recent past and the kindliness of its people. Visiting politicians enjoy walking their full briefcases in the sunlit city streets whereas in most cities they’d have to take a car. Maputo alone has experienced the full spectrum of human tragedy in the last 50 years: mass exodus, famine, and, following the country’s independence from Portugal, a civil war lasting from 1976 to 1992 that claimed the lives of over 900,000 and displaced 5 million. In those years, Mozambique entered the top three poorest countries in the world, and for four of those years Maputo was under siege by forces backed by apartheid South Africa. Nothing could get in or out of the city. People had to resort to eating the animals in the zoo. The city’s beaches were mined. And to add insult to injury, beloved dance club Coconuts Live only had one album to play over and over every night, Stéphanie de Monaco’s 1986 Comme un ouragan (Like a Hurricane). But the dark clouds have since parted

over the skies of the capital and, as one local journalist put it, “The only guerrilla fighting you see now is fierce competition between new restaurants opening every week.”

Symbolic shade of the Portuguese embassy
The symbolic shade of the Portuguese embassy recalls the pink card project of the late 20th century. Image Credit: Alexandre Tabaste

A series of delights, one after another

Maputo sees hardly any tourists throughout the year, and this despite its rich and diverse architectural heritage from the 20th century, spanning from Gustave Eiffel to Art Deco to gems of post-modernism. There are arguably two great African modern metropolises: Asmara in Eritrea, founded by the Italians, and Maputo, founded by the Portuguese. Unlike French and British colonizers, who exported only pomp and circumstance, Salazar made the capital of Mozambique a living laboratory of urban planning and architecture, a choice little utopia nestled in broad Maputo Bay opening to the greater Indian Ocean. He brought architects of all stripes to the city to build its train stations, museums, racetracks, cathedrals, radio stations, and theaters. The giant steps of development in Maputo lasted right up to the final hours of colonial rule. An architecture student showing us around the city said: “If all the city’s Art Deco buildings were concentrated in one area, the city would be called Africa’s Miami.” That’s a much more spot-on description than the city’s earlier nicknames of Africa’s Havana and Africa’s New York, though in defense of the latter, Maputo was one of the first cities on the continent to have a skyline. Seductive architecture lines streets named in honor of Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Kim Il-Sung (think Jean Lacouture’s catchphrase “Banana Stalinism”). But there’s one name that our guide keeps uttering, Pancho Guedes, the Portuguese architect who sowed architectural eccentricity all over the city. Born in 1925, architect painter, and sculptor Pancho Guedes came to Mozambique at the age of seven, and from the 1950s until the end of his career he built an average of two buildings per month, most of them in his hometown of Maputo.

His style was eclectic post-modernism, influenced by Gaudí, Le Corbusier, and Dalí while incorporating traditional African forms. In his own words, he felt new tropical metropolises had to play host to “a series of delights, one after another”. That’s why, when cruising Maputo, you’ll see buildings with monstrous fangs, airplane wings, saw teeth, giant beaks, and even chimneys shaped like a giraffe’s neck (to be clear, wood fires are redundant in steamy Maputo). Buildings have humps like tortoise shells, distorted walls, and torn beams, all adding up to look like a wild African calculus equation in steel and stucco with parts slipping out and floating in the air. Guedes was never one to shy away from pastiche to pay homage to his masters, as seen in his own version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, while other works are insolent in their originality, most notably his own home, known as Smiling Lion, the design of which took inspiration from drawings made by Guedes’s five-year-old son. Shortly before passing away in 2015, Guedes said of his career: “For twenty-five years I drafted and erected a dreamy yet very real, chaotic city full of memories, with small, repetitive details peppered all throughout with obsessive regularity.”

Pancho Guedes
The fertile geometry of Pancho Guedes explodes on the facade of the building Abreu, Santos and Rocha. Image Credit: Alexandre Tabaste

Architectural heritage in danger

Only the grand course of history would succeed in choking Guedes’s creative output in Mozambique. The 1974 Carnation Revolution in Lisbon led to Mozambique’s declaration of independence. Then-interior minister (who would later assume the Mozambique presidency from 2005-2015) Armando Guebuza gave Portuguese nationals the ultimatum of either adopting Mozambican nationality or submitting to his infamous “24-20” order in which they had to leave the country within 24 hours and could only take 20 kg of luggage with them. Evidently, Guebuza’s nickname “Mr. Guebusiness” refers to more than just his spectacular wealth. Guedes opted to abandon the country. The new communist government sold abandoned homes and apartments in Guedes’s building for a dollar each, giving so many in Mozambique a chance to invest in the country’s unique architectural heritage. Only today those buildings are under threat. As our architecture student told us: “In the last two years, about 50 buildings of historical importance have been destroyed.” As it stands in the law, only buildings built before 1920 can be preserved by the state, and a new influx of real estate investment from China is tearing down old buildings to push up condominium towers like flowers. A new, upwardly mobile middle class is filling those building alongside a steady stream of migrants from Portugal who are fleeing a dismal economic situation at home. Indeed, there’s something of reverse colonization happening, whereby rich Mozambicans are now investing heavily in Lisbon. Mozambique comes only behind Kyrgyzstan in terms of countries with high value on a Scrabble board, but as new hydrocarbon reserves have just been discovered off its north coast, the country is soon to become one of the wealthiest in Africa, with some predicting that the country with have more millionaires per capita than in any other country in the coming decade. Hopefully a few of them will be lovers of architecture and fight to preserve the country’s heritage buildings.