Corridor leading to the rooms of Robert Ajavon's co-wives
Corridor leading to the rooms of Robert Ajavon's co-wives

Photographie de fin de chantier 2013 ©️Jean-Dominique Burton

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Detail of a woodwork redone identically from the original model found in the house
Detail of a woodwork redone identically from the original model found in the house

Photographie de fin de chantier 2013 ©️Jean-Dominique Burton

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The Ouidah Museum
The Ouidah Museum

Photographie de fin de chantier 2013 ©️Jean-Dominique Burton

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Corridor leading to the rooms of Robert Ajavon's co-wives
Corridor leading to the rooms of Robert Ajavon's co-wives

Photographie de fin de chantier 2013 ©️Jean-Dominique Burton

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The Ajavon villa, dated 1922, is one of the major testimonies of the elaboration of an original architectural language, nourished by syncretism: the Afro-Brazilian style. It also reflects the urban, economic and social transformation of a coastal African 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 hundreds of thousands of slaves leave for the Americas, notably 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 competing with 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 were 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 homeland in Africa. These freed former slaves are employed as interpreters, work in the administration or turn to trade. They constituted an Afro-Brazilian community called "Aguda", climbing the social ladder and contributing to the birth of a unique culture, nourished by crossbreeding.

 

The economic development of Ouidah contributed to the urban metamorphosis of the city in the 19th century. The port city was equipped with new buildings, sales outlets and private residences. This flowering of architectural works took different forms, one of the most emblematic of which was the Afro-Brazilian style. Drawing from the vocabulary of Brazilian architecture with baroque accents, Afro-Brazilian style buildings combine local African contributions and foreign influences, echoes of the mansions in 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 established himself in the city and had found a flourishing trade there.

 

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

The Ajavon villa, a single-storey building built on the edge of the street, is separated from the public thoroughfare by a discreet gate. It does not hide the brightness of the main façade. A fence delimits the property: it is composed of pillars topped by pinnacles1, a stone balustrade2 and metal bars. Behind it is a space that once housed a small garden preceding the residence.

 

The eloquence of the main façade is striking at first glance. The single-storey building has an imposing façade, organized in a symmetrical manner. It has angular volumes and is distinguished above all by the large number of its openings. On the second floor, the openings have a railing3 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 forecourts6 topped by a frieze. The main building has a gable roof. The outbuildings are distinguished by an elegant set of multiple gable roofs. A cornice7 decorated with moldings8 separates the first floor and the second floor. It emphasizes the horizontal lines of the building. Discreet and elegant ornaments contribute to animate the facade. The pilasters9, accentuating the vertical lines, are notably endowed with a circular motif finished with three descending arrows. This motif is repeated several times on other supports, giving the building an original character. The main façade has a very theatrical dimension, typical of Afro-Brazilian architecture. This façade assumes a role of representation. It translates the social importance of its owner. It is not, however, a screen façade. A space of sociability is provided for its occupants, a common space in colonial architecture: the veranda. It forms a covered space on the first floor, but it is widely opened by two large bays and two more stretched bays in the center. Shaded and airy, it allows guests to watch the comings and goings of the street.

 

The Ajavon villa, located at the corner of two lanes, has a more sober side façade. The building at the corner housed the sales store. 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 numerous openings on 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. The latter is characterized by the presence of galleries on three sides of the first floor, as well as by small rooms that open onto each other. In order to filter the sunlight but allow air to pass through, the windows are equipped with louvers10. These different elements are part of the register of Afro-Brazilian architecture, as is the woodwork used for the carpentry and the frames11. Inside the house, the door frames were the object of particular attention, richly decorated. The refinement is pushed to its extreme on certain wooden doors. At the bottom, they bear two interlocking letters, V and A, corresponding to the initials of the Ajavon villa. In addition, a large amount of wooden furniture was to decorate the various rooms of the villa.

 

The Ajavon villa appears in more than one way 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. The preservation of such monuments is at stake, in the face of the disaffection of certain owners, the lack of means or the competition of contemporary architecture. However, this heritage fully participates in the cultural richness of Ouidah. It constitutes the living memory of the city.

Sarah Ligner, march 2013.

Dessin de la façade de la Villa Ajavon par Sarah Ligner
  1. A pinnacle is a generally pointed element placed as a cap on top of a vertical support.

  2. The balustrade refers to a type of barrier composed of columns with a central bulge 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 in the form of semi-circles.

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

  6. The forebuilding is a volume of the building in front of the other bodies of the building.

  7. Protruding edge 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 for openings composed of horizontal slats one above the other, which can be tilted to filter the sun's rays while allowing air to circulate.

  11. Door or window frame.