The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Booming Maputo paves over its past

With elegant Art Deco buildings and streets named after former communist dictators, Maputo has been referred to as an African Havana. However, Joseph Hammond explains how the recent population explosion and sudden urban growth of Maputo has threatened the architectural heritage of the Mozambican capital, home to some of the most unique and varied architecture in Africa.

Cities: Matola, Maputo

Topics: Place promotion, Property and real estate, Arts and culture, Architecture and urban design, Foreign investment

Casa do Ferro, by Gustave Eiffel. Photo: Naïk Lashermes
The ruins of the Villa Algrave. Photo: Joseph Hammond
Casa Rubi, a historical commercial building in downtown Maputo. Photo: Naïk Lashermes
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At the end of the 19th century Maputo, then known as Lourenco Marques, rose to prominence as an important outlet to the sea for the nearby South African mining industry. Today, the historic Maputo Railway Station is described as one of the most beautiful in the world by Travel and Leisure magazine and is often used as a backdrop for Hollywood films. During the colonial era it was possible to take a train from Maputo to as far away as Angola. The railway station is often mistakenly attributed to the work of Gustave Eiffel.  However, Eiffel did design an odd two story house made from steel which sits near Maputo’s French Cultural centre. Designed to be a model home for colonial bureaucrats, the all steel structure proved too hot for use as a residence in Mozambique’s tropical climate and is now a government office.

In some districts of the Mozambican capitol, there is enough Art Deco structures to invoke Miami if not Havana. Elsewhere the historic Polana Serena Hotel and the Mediterranean villas in the surrounding neighbourhood invoke the city’s colonial past.

Yet, across the city architectural treasures are slowly being destroyed in the face of ambitious government approved development projects. These range from a house that was once a meeting place of the anti-colonial resistance, to the Casa Coimbra, a historic department store built in an Art Deco style

Booming commodities 

Recent discoveries of natural gas and coal, in what has historically been one of Africa’s poorest countries, has driven a new era of economic growth for Mozambique. In 2014, the country was one of the fastest growing on the continent. Projections from the African Development Bank suggest that the economy has averaged over 8% growth over the past two years. This economic growth is drawing immigrants from the countryside into Maputo. In the next decade the Greater Maputo area is projected to nearly double its population from 2.5 million to 4 million making Mozambique’s capital one of the 15 largest cities in Africa.

To sustain the growth rate and provide jobs, the ruling FRELIMO party hopes to turn Maputo’s harbour into one of the most important on the Indian Ocean. Dubai Ports World, which holds a concession to operate the port until 2033, has been tasked with seeing that the harbour is capable of handling 40 million tonnes of cargo per annum by 2020.  Last year the port handled 19 million tonnes of cargo.

In order to meet future growth needs, the government announced this year plans to dredge Maputo Bay’s approach channel from 11 to 14 metres in order to allow even larger ships to visit the port. In March 2015 the government began resettling some 1,200 families to make way for a bridge that will link Maputo to Catembe reducing the need for ferries across Maputo Bay.

The real estate projects are also booming. A city which once hosted only one or two projects per year was home to 72 development projects in 2014.

The economic boom and construction projects have ignored the historic core of the city at best and at worst destroyed historic structures. Today, many of the historic buildings and homes are badly in need of repair. The neglect of many sites dates to the infamous “24-20” decree of 1975 which followed independence from Portugal. Under this law the FRELIMO party, then a communist party, ordered all Portuguese citizens to leave Mozambique in 24 hours and with no more than 20 kilograms of luggage. As some 250,000 Portuguese fled their homes, the questionable legal status of these structures resulted in them being effectively abandoned, save for squatters who occupy a number of dilapidated structures across modern Maputo. 

The Ruins of the Villa Algrave 

One such dilapidated structure is the historic Villa Algarve, a multi-story home built in 1934 with a tragic history.  During the war for Mozambique independence, the Villa Algarve gained notoriety as home of the PIDE, the Portuguese secret police force who allegedly funneled torture victims via a secret tunnel to the sea, as reported by a RENAMO veteran interviewed in Maputo. After independence FRELIMO officials briefly used the site. Today, the abandoned building has partially collapsed and its frescos and ceramic wall paintings are in need of repair. Squatters frequently use the site. Yet, even in its present condition the site continues to be one of the tourist destinations most frequently mentioned in guidebooks to the city. Marta, who sells fruit from a kiosk made from a re-purposed shipping container across the street, believes the government should do more to restore these buildings. "It is not good for the city to have some areas where those without homes are sleeping in ruins. The government should either knock them all down or restore them for tourists" she tells me.

In 2011, the government announced plans to restore the Villa Algrave, a decision which remains controversial as many FRELIMO activists were tortured at the site during the struggle for independence. In March 2015, the government announced new plans to make the site into a Colonial Resistance Museum but the firm responsible for the project has yet to be named and work on the project is yet to begin.

Root causes

Limited historical preservation is the result of a lack of both cultural awareness and long-term vision in governance. One local architect who spoke off the record for fear of FRELIMO retribution noted: "There are no relevant government efforts on preservation but for some vaguely demagogical statements to make the rest of the world believe that we care for those, perhaps worthless, testimonials of a foreign and brutal presence." 

Mozambique’s tradition of direct local government is fairly new as the first elected city council was only formed in 1998, the same year Maputo celebrated its centennial as the capital of Mozambique. The government is under no legal pressure to protect buildings like the Villa Algrave or Maputo’s Art Deco homes. Under current Mozambican law, only buildings built before 1920 are afforded historic status which complicates their protection status. This law has yet to be updated since it was first announced during the communist period. 

Still, one consultant close to the government acknowledges the economic value in restoring these homes. "It is far cheaper to develop and preserve these buildings than to build new tourist attractions from scratch. The country is an expensive safari destination and beach tourism opportunities lack needed infrastructure." Indeed, some 60% of visitors to Mozambique visit Maputo and the preservation of historic buildings might convince more to linger.

As a result of government indifference, Central Maputo is increasingly becoming a mixed space where transients sleep in the ruins of colonial homes across the street from where new skyscrapers are being built along the Avenue Julius Nyerere. The future residents of these tall apartment buildings will have a view not of the city’s historic architecture but, of a booming container terminal. On Julius Nyerere Avenue not far from Villa Algrave, Jorge Roaldo, a tuk-tuk driver, comments on the city’s building boom. "If we aren’t careful we can become another Luanda" he says, a reference to the over-built Angolan capital "with nothing to show for our natural riches but, big towers built by the Chinese."


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