Luanda turns toward future, neglecting architectural past

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Cranes and new high-rises dominate Luanda's skyline, signs of a sweeping post-war reconstruction transforming the Angolan capital, often at the expense of its centuries-old architectural heritage.

"We have a lot of trouble stopping the process of destruction, because the law doesn't scare anyone. There's a problem of impunity," said architect Angela Mingas.

"And then there's always the politically correct argument that says the country has other problems to solve," she added.

Portuguese colonisers designed Luanda to accommodate 500,000 people. But during the 27-year civil war that ended in 2002, Angolans fled the countryside for the relative safety of the city.

The seaside capital now houses one third of the country's 18.5 million people.

Mingas has sounded the alarm to urge authorities to preserve and restore the last homes dating to the era of the slave trade, "sobrados" that are more than 300 years ago.

"In three years, half of Luanda's sobrados were destroyed. Today, only 14 are left," she said.

"The floors of these homes were built with wood taken from slave ships returning empty from Brazil. Those details will never be found again."

Some colonial-era buildings - boasting high ceilings and thick walls - have been restored, including the National Bank of Angola, which sits along the Marginale, a palm-fringed avenue that runs along Luanda Bay.

But "a great part of the heritage is in ruins," she said. "Because here there's a false notion of progress and modernity, associated with new buildings."

Seated on the terrace of the Naval Club, on Luanda Bay, Eleuterio Freire bemoans the landscape of cranes and Chinese buildings. "It's utter insanity!"

He has headed the local office of UNESCO's International Council on Monuments and Sites since the early 1990s.

"One of the first laws approved at independence was on cultural heritage. There was a willingness, at the time, but no means," he said.

"Then in the 1990s (when the government abandoned Marxism), people started coming to do business and destroyed this heritage to build high-rises."

Angola has a National Institute for Cultural Heritage tasked with registering old buildings and placing plaques on them, which in theory provide protection from demolition.

But often the Institute is powerless to prevent them.

"Sometimes, we arrive at the office on Monday and find that buildings on the registry were destroyed over the weekend," said Sonia Domingos, who heads the Institute.

Luanda property values have soared to dizzying heights in recent years, driven up by an influx of well-paid foreign workers and the oil boom.

Companies have invaded the city centre, now one of the most expensive in the world, where a four-room apartment rents for 15,000 dollars a month.

In the face of such financial gain, preservation has taken a back seat.

One of Mingas's colleagues wanted to buy a sobrado to live in, but a real estate developer wanted the land to build an eight-storey building and offered two million dollars to the owner.

"You can't fight against that," the architect said.