I was a little taken aback yesterday reading in Fraternite Matin an interview with the architect of the new Azalai hotel in Abidjan, Ibrahima Konare, saying: “Personally, I consider the Boulevard Giscard d’Estaing as one of the most beautiful in the world. From the airport to the different bridges…we have a boulevard with two carriageways [‘contre-allees’ – not sure if I translated this correctly] that function perfectly. That exists almost no-where else.”
I can think of many things to say about the Boulevard VGE. For a start, it’s named after a French president without any of the glamour of De Gaulle or Mitterrand. Sometimes the francophilia of the FHB years definitely went too far. Secondly, it’s probably the place in the world I feel must uncertain about driving. At night you’ve got around six lanes in both directions, without a barrier in between, and junctions on which people just stop in the middle of the road waiting for a left turn. Don’t forget low lighting and people crossing all over the place with little regard for their safety.
Perhaps more relevant to this discussion, it also has nothing that takes one’s breath away, whatever your aesthetic sense. The buildings are almost uniformly ugly (Playce, Azalai, Cap Sud and Orca being perhaps exceptions), and most of them are decrepit and lacking grandeur – squat office blocks, humble flats, and quite a few used-car forecourts. While peaking over the buildings, you’re starting to see modern apartment blocks in Zone 4, there’s not much yet on the highway itself. The VGE junction to the third bridge has a certain impressiveness, but there’s a limit to the beauty of road bridges wherever you are in the world. Although I’ve seen several articles (including Bloomberg) describing Abidjan’s third bridge as an ‘architectural joy’, it couldn’t be more bog-standard despite its evident usefulness.
What could the highly respected architect actually mean? As he mentions there is something to the urban design. From the airport to Plateau, you get a smooth highway whisking you to the heart of the city. That’s certainly not a given in every city. In the article, direct comparison is made with Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed road, but we’re a very long way from that now. Overall, I read the quote as in line with a certain praise-language that sees the current ’emergence’ as moving forward in a perfect way in the most wonderful places in the best of all possible worlds.