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The Villa Ajavon, dating from 1922, is one of the major testimonies to the development of an original architectural language, nourished by syncretism: the Afro-Brazilian style. It is also a reflection of the urban, economic and social transformation of an African coastal city after the abolition of slavery.

The first European ships to dock in the port city of Ouidah, in the Gulf of Guinea, were Portuguese ships in the 16th century. During the following centuries, the city was dedicated to the slave trade: the port of Ouidah saw the departure of hundreds of thousands of slaves for the Americas, in particular Brazil and the Caribbean. After the abolition of slavery, the city devoted itself in the 19th century to the export of palm oil, used in Europe for the production of soap, candles and lubricants for the mechanical industry. In 1894, when the colony of Dahomey was established, Ouidah was a flourishing city dedicated to trade, soon to be challenged by Cotonou and Porto-Novo.

The population of the city saw the emergence during the 19th century of a class of wealthy merchants forming a prosperous bourgeoisie. Among them are both descendants of slave traders and former slaves who, having become free, left Brazil in the first half of the 19th century to return to their land of origin, in Africa. These former freed slaves are employed as interpreters, work in the administration or turn to trade. They constitute an Afro-Brazilian community called “Aguda”. Climbing the rungs of the social ladder, it contributes to the birth of a singular culture, nourished by interbreeding.


The economic development of Ouidah contributes to the urban metamorphosis of the city in the 19th century. The port city acquires new buildings, sales outlets and private residences. This flowering of architectural works takes different forms, one of the most emblematic of which is the Afro-Brazilian style. Drawing on the vocabulary of Brazilian architecture of Baroque accents, the Afro-Brazilian style buildings combine local African contributions and foreign influences, echoes of the residences of Salvador de Bahia. In the early 1920s, a wealthy merchant named Ajavon, originally from neighboring Togo, decided to build a home for his family in Ouidah. This representative of a German trading company had recently settled in the city and had found a flourishing business there.


At a time when construction was booming, Ajavon acquired a large concession, located near the first cathedral erected in the colony of Dahomey. The building for which he drew up the plans presents several influences from Afro-Brazilian architecture, mixed with those of colonial architecture and endogenous traditions.


Villa Ajavon, a single-storey building on the edge of the street, is separated from the public thoroughfare by a discreet gate. It in no way masks the brilliance of the main facade. A fence delimits the property: it is made up of pillars surmounted by pinnacles1, a balustrade2 in stone and metal bars. Behind extends a space which formerly sheltered a small garden preceding the residence.


The eloquence of the main facade is striking at first sight. The single-storey building has an imposing facade, organized in a symmetrical manner. It has angular volumes and is distinguished above all by the large number of openings. Upstairs, the openings have a 3  guardrail with a balustrade. The main body of the building is crowned by a polylobed pediment4 bearing the inscription "VILLA AJAVON 1922". The tympanum5 is decorated with a winged figure framed by a motif of palmettes. The terracotta walls of the house were once covered with a beige plaster.

The main body is surrounded by two avant-corps6 surmounted by a frieze. The main building has a gable roof. The avant-corps are distinguished by an elegant interplay of roofs with multiple canted sides. A cornice7 adorned with moldings8 separates the ground floor and the first floor. It emphasizes the horizontal lines of the building. Discreet and elegant ornaments help enliven the façade. The pilasters9, accentuating the vertical lines, are notably endowed with a circular motif ending in three descending arrows. This motif is repeated several times on other supports, giving the building a unique character. The main facade has a very theatrical dimension specific to Afro-Brazilian architecture. This facade assumes a role of representation. It reflects the social importance of its owner. It is not, however, a screen facade. A social space is provided for its occupants, a common space in colonial architecture: the veranda. On the ground floor, it forms a covered space but largely open by two large bays and two more stretched bays in the centre. Shaded and airy, it allows guests to scrutinize the comings and goings of the street.


Villa Ajavon, located at the corner of two roads, has a more sober side facade. The corner building housed the sales shop. The rear facade of the villa has a veranda, less ostentatious than that of the main facade and offering greater privacy to the family. It overlooks a garden with outbuildings.


The many openings animating the facades reflect the influence of the tropical climate on the design of the building. The natural ventilation of the rooms is made possible by these abundant openings and by the interior distribution. This is characterized by the presence of galleries on three sides on the first floor, as well as by rooms of reduced surface area, opening onto each other. In order to filter the sunlight but let the air in, the windows are equipped with shutters10. These different elements feature in the register of Afro-Brazilian architecture, as does the woodwork used for joinery and door frames11. Inside the house, the door frames have been the subject of particular attention, richly decorated. Refinement is pushed to its extreme on certain wooden doors. In the lower part, they feature two interlocking letters, V and A, corresponding to the initials of the villa Ajavon. In addition, important wooden furniture was to decorate the different rooms of the villa.


Villa Ajavon appears in more ways than one as an essential milestone in the development of an architectural style with multiple influences. Its renovation revives the brilliance of a heritage that is now threatened. It is a matter of safeguarding such monuments, in the face of the disaffection of certain owners, the lack of means or the competition of contemporary architecture. However, this heritage fully contributes to the cultural richness of Ouidah. It constitutes the living memory of the city.

Sarah Ligner, March 2013.

Drawing of the facade of Villa Ajavon by Sarah Ligner
  1. A pinnacle is a generally pointed element placed as a crowning atop a vertical support.

  2. Balustrade refers to a type of barrier made up of centrally bulging posts called balusters.

  3. Safety and protection barrier placed in front of a void. It marks the limit of a terrace, a balcony...

  4. Perimeter cut into several lobes taking the form of semicircles.

  5. The tympanum refers to part of the pediment. It is a vertical surface located at the top of a window, door or building. The tympanum is often decorated in bas-relief.

  6. The avant-corps is a volume of the building in front of the other bodies of the building.

  7. Protruding border at the top of a wall.

  8. Decorative element in hollow or in relief on the walls.

  9. Pillar embedded in a wall, forming a slight projection.

  10. Closing system of the openings composed of horizontal slats one above the other, which can be tilted in order to filter the rays of the sun while allowing the circulation of the air.

  11. Door or window frame.

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