Dakar International Fair Grounds
A 1970s playground of pyramids in the Senegalese capital
Nicknamed ‘Toblerone Town’,1 the Dakar International Fair Grounds is a complex of triangular-peaked pavilions in the west of the Senegalese capital. The little-known trade show venue, built on the tip of the Cap-Vert peninsula, was an architectural jewel when it opened in 1974, at a time when the republic of Senegal was barely 14 years old.
Midway through his term as president in the early 1970s, Léopold Sédar Senghor was still firmly holding the helm of power and trying to promote what he called the ‘civilisation of the universal’,2 a sort of new world order that imagined a society bringing together a myriad of cultural influences. Senghor was in charge of a difficult mission: ensuring the transition between the old French colonial rule and a new power, represented by a Senegalese intellectual class with strong aspirations. This applied not only to the organisation of government but also to literature, art and architecture.
For architecture in particular, Senghor conceived a new concept, called asymmetrical parallelism, which was based on antithetical construction. The concept claimed a modern style inspired by Sudano-Sahelian architecture with a focus on rhythm, in which an element or group of elements are repeated in different contexts. As part of a new 1978 law, Senghor included a clause requiring all buildings in Senegal to use asymmetrical parallelism in their design, emphasising that ‘the utilisation of the built space must be adapted to the needs and aspirations of the Senegalese society, in accordance with its culture and genius’.
Architects who were commissioned to build public works brought reality to the theory, through buildings such as the Senegalese embassy in Brasília, designed by Brazilian architect Wilson Reis Netto and inspired by a mosque in Timbuktu. Other examples include French architect Fernand Bonamy’s Université Gaston Berger in Saint-Louis, a coastal city north of Dakar, and a private home he designed for Senghor in the Senegalese capital, which was jokingly called ‘Jaws II’ because of its angular and unstructured forms, which resembled a shark’s teeth.
The Dakar International Fair Grounds also incorporated this new notion. It was designed by French architects Jean-François Lamoureux and Jean- Louis Marin; the names of other architects appear on record, such as Bonamy’s, but the nature of their respective contributions remains unclear. To complement asymmetrical parallelism in the design the architects introduced another concept: triangulation.
‘Triangulation is a constant in traditional architecture, where verticality isn’t predominant,’ Senegalese architect Mbacké Niang explained in a 2006 interview with weekly newspaper Nouvel Horizon. ‘There is always an inclination which tends to the pyramid form.’ In other words, the architectural concept used the equilateral triangle as a basic motif, both iterative and fractal. The triangle is a basic shape frequently encountered in Senegalese architectural decoration and textile design. In the Fair Grounds, each triangle is broken down into smaller triangles, and the pattern is incorporated wherever possible: on benches, flowerpots, doors, signs and even on the organisation’s logo.
Surprising curves, however, break this monotony and add an unexpected harmony. The space dedicated to the pavilions is an interruption in this stylised and angular universe, resembling a Senegalese village. Although each pavilion has a regular triangular form, the decoration on the individual façades, made by local artists, gives life to the complex: pebble and stone embellishments, moulded or carved patterns, geometric or anthropomorphic figures in earthy colours. Contemporary detail can be found in the roofs, which are fitted with fibre cement plates raised by 15cm with metallic supports, insulating the pavilions.
The place is unfortunately rather unknown, but people should be proud of it
French academic Cyr Descamps, who attended the inauguration of the Fair Grounds in late 1974, explains that five pavilions were built, one for each region of the country, with the Saint-Louis pavilion divided in two to account for the founding of the Louga region while the site was still under construction. There is also an auditorium, the Salle de l’Unité Africaine, which – according to Raymond Moussa Vidal, technical manager of the exhibition centre – was the most spacious in Dakar for a long time, before the number of seats was reduced from 1,200 to less than 1,000 in order to extend its stage for an event in 2008. Composed of a massive body and rounded forms, the auditorium contrasts with the rest of the complex, but some triangular patterns can be found inside – on the iron ramps, for example.
With its design mostly based on aesthetic criteria, the Fair Grounds suffer from some functional problems. The triangular pillars dotting the complex aren’t very practical for exhibitions, as space is limited. The site also isn’t well maintained. But the most pressing problem is the urbanisation progressively encroaching on the area. In 1974, Dakar was a clear and ventilated city, with shady trees and a lot of open space. ‘At that time the Fair Grounds stretched over more than 120,000 square metres,’ says Vidal. ‘Now only 30,000 square metres remain.’ Urban pressure seems to be winning out.
A recent event held at the Fair Grounds was Sencon 2017, an exhibition of construction materials and equipment. Among the 75 exhibitors from 12 countries participating was the Senegalese Order of Architects. ‘It’s very wide open and well ventilated,’ says Oulimata Konaté, the organisation’s secretary and a frequent visitor of the Fair Grounds herself. ‘The place is unfortunately rather unknown, but people should be proud of it.’