Preserving the Balme Library as a Heritage Facility

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By Emmanuel Banahene Owusu

There are numerous landmarks that establish our identity as Ghanaians: the Independence Arch, the Kwame Nkrumah Statue, the Larabanga Mosque, the indigenous Ashanti houses at Ejisu, and so many more. Another important landmark is the Balme Library, at the University of Ghana.

The Balme Library, University of Ghana.Source:  233livenews Ghana

The Balme Library was constructed in 1959 by the architectural firm, Harrison, Barnes and Hubbard and named after the first principal of the university, David Mowbray Balme. The design appears to have elements of Asian origin. For instance, its Pagoda- like roof. This may have resulted from the background of the architects who designed it. Harrison for instance had spent most of his life in Asia. Notwithstanding, the design also featured certain elements that made it fit to be described as Ghanaian. Firstly, the presence of perforated walls also known as the Honeycomb walls allows for the penetration of breeze for comfort. Large roof eaves and shaded balconies also modifies the microclimate of the building as shade. Courtyards reduce the thickness of the rooms and allows for the easy penetration of breeze. The courtyard is also an essential feature of the traditional Ghanaian family house (Abusuafie). Finally, the use of fixed timber louvres, also known as the jalousie, for the windows and vents also enhances the ventilation of the spaces even when closed.

Perforated (Honeycomb) wall of the Balme Library. Picture by Benedict Acheampong.

Courtyard and Shaded Balconies of the Balme Library. Picture by Benedict Acheampong.

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Fixed Timber Louvres (Jalousie) windows of the Balme Library. Picture by Benedict Acheampong.

A critical observation of the Balme library shows the following physical elements. Firstly, it is a two storey building with a central clock tower. Its roofing is made slightly concave to mimic that of the Pagoda. The roofing material is made of Red Spanish clay tiles and its walls are rendered in white paint. It employs various sky lighting elements as well as series of courtyards.  Perforated walls (Honeycomb) are also used to admit natural lighting and ventilation into the spaces. They are typically used along the circulation areas to also restrict movement into the facility through its main entrances only. Again, these honeycomb walls are used to demarcate the courtyards as semi- public spaces. According to Gabriel Etse, a Liberian who works at the facility, wire mesh was installed behind the honeycombs to prevent pilfering of books as well as the invasion of reptiles such as lizards. Window openings are made of timber jalousie and painted reddish-brown or black to give the building its distinct character. The timber used in turn are crafted in details for aesthetic purposes. The doors are typically made of timber with glass panels. The timber is also painted black or reddish- brown. Vents are also made with well-crafted timber.  Arches are also essential architectural features that gives the building its distinct character. The main entrance as well as the verandahs bordering the courtyards illustrate the use of these arches. The exterior of the facility is well landscaped. Firstly, a water fountain greets you upon your arrival to the facility at the main entrance. Walkways have been clearly demarcated with series of concrete slabs with soft landscaping covering the rest of the areas surrounding the facility. Short concrete walls at the foot of the building also serve as benches on which students can sit and interact.

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The library was constructed in the latter part of the colonial period, as the political forces shifted from colonial domination to Ghanaian independence. During the colonial era, the colonial objective was to rule over the African and only few were granted the opportunity to access education overseas. The establishment of the University of Ghana and therefore the Balme Library on the Ghanaian soil therefore has made higher education accessible to all. For the first time, the Ghanaian could be educated on his own land. As a national heritage site, the Balme Library is symbolic of the self-empowerment of Ghanaians. It is therefore not surprising that the building found its way on to the national currency of Ghana (GH₵5 note). Its status therefore demands that we carefully maintain its essential elements as an icon.

Figure 1, The Balme library as a feature of the GH₵5 note.Picture taken by Johnny Black Hayden

Over the years, conscious efforts have been made to maintain the authentic state of the Balme Library. This does not mean that the forces of change have been totally absent. For instance, the eastern and western wings were extended at its  in 2012. A critical look at these extensions suggests that they were well integrated with the old structure. The verandah walls, the timber jalousie windows, the honeycomb walls and the short walls for sitting appear to be the same as the original building, which was built in the neo-classical style.

However, both structural and aesthetic changes that were introduced and have compromised the authentic aesthetic style of the building. The extensions employed the post-and-beam structural system as opposed to the arches that were used in the original sections. The beams were then exposed, whereas the original structure had clean floor soffit. In these extended areas, they not employ the same jalousie windows system. The extensions employed glazing elements, such as curtain walls, for the staircase areas and windows. Perhaps these glazing elements found their way onto the façade as a result of change in taste, as the average Ghanaian now typically prefers glazing even though it is not be conducive for our climate.  In addition, a steel roller-shutter door which was also not part of the original design has also been installed at the entrance.

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Glazed windows of the newly built extensions of the Balme Library. Picture by Benedict Acheampong.

Post and Beam structural system of the newly built extensions of the Balme Library. Picture by Benedict Acheampong.

Curtain walls installed on the façade of the Balme Library. Picture by Benedict Acheampong.

Modern roller- shutter door installed at the main entrance to the Balme Library. Picture by Benedict Acheampong.

Given the library’s heritage status, these changes introduce a dilemma between its adaptation for use (preservation) and conservation. These are two different perspectives on how the Balme library as a heritage facility could be used and conserved at the same time. The building preservation perspective emphasizes the authentic state of the structure and therefore the ‘no touch policy’. The preservationist approach aims to maintain the original spirit of the structure for posterity, to preserve the original knowledge and wisdom of the generation that built it, to preserve the right of the historic environment to remain in its authentic state.

From this preservationist lens, I believe that the Balme library should be used in such a way that its fabric is not altered in any way. The preservation efforts for the Cape Coast Castle, another national heritage site, show that conscious efforts can maintain a facility in its authentic state. Maintenance works are very sensitive. The same kind of paint used in the historic period is what is still used in the present. When any timber element is destroyed, it is replaced by the same kind of timber.

Cape Coast Castle

There are various arguments against this approach: First, changes in taste, as seen in the addition of glazing elements to the Balme Library. Second, the fitness for current circumstances for instance, the issue of modernization. Third, changing technology, for instance, the post and beam structural system of the extensions. Fourth, population increases, as  the Balme Library was originally built to seat 300 students but now seats more than 2000 people. From a preservationist perspective, are these change forces enough justification to warrant the changes that we make to the heritage building? Will the change forces ever cease to exist even when addressed? If the answers to these questions are in the negative, then it implies that the Balme library is a possible candidate for destruction. This is because the magnitude of these change forces will grow so strong that, mere modifications to the library may not address them.

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The following questions are therefore being asked to find out why the Balme library is not being kept in its authentic state: Why is it that the Balme library cannot be maintained in the same state? Is it because it is not a UNESCO Heritage Site? What prevents the University of Ghana from building new libraries so that the Balme Library could be maintained in its original conditions? After all, most well-established universities have more than one prominent library on their campus for students. Answering these questions will therefore reinforce the reason why the Balme Library needs to be kept in its authentic state.

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