A city is often defined by its architecture: geography, history, economics and politics all form an intrinsic part of the practice, even before you consider art and design. Buildings are a reflection of society at large, and Dakar in Senegal is no different. Here are 10 famous buildings in Dakar that will help you understand this amazing city.
Once the highest building in Dakar, this 120-metre high lighthouse sits atop one of the city’s two hills (Les Mamelles) on the western edge of the city. Built by the French in 1864, the lighthouse is one of the most powerful in Africa with a range of 56 miles, which is just as well given Dakar juts out of the mainland on the Cap-Vert Peninsula. Once of fundamental importance for European traders navigating their way down the Atlantic, who would distinguish between its flashing white light and the red light of the Cap Manuel lighthouse on the tip of the Peninsula), the lighthouse is still warding the ocean today. Although, the swish bar-restaurant-nightclub that has opened up at the base of the 16-metre-high cylindrical tower is very much a recent addition.
Key to colonial interests was the island of Gorée, which sits two km off Dakar’s south coast. The island is a UNESCO world heritage site and was the largest slave-trading centre in West Africa between the 15th and 19th centuries. In its brutal heyday, the island hosted nearly 30 slave houses, where African men, women and children were kept in barbaric conditions: squalid, cramped, windowless cells packed with natives they were sold and shipped to the West. All bar one has been destroyed with La Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), built by the Dutch in 1772, the sole remaining on the island. Established as museum in the 1960s, it serves as a harrowing reminder of the brutality, cruelty and scale of the transatlantic slave trade.
Marché Kermel is another key player in Dakar’s colonial heritage squad. Built by the French in 1910 close to the mainland port, Marché Kermel provided an area for locals to come and sell their produce to European settlers, giving rise to its nickname as the market for ‘toubabs’ (‘whites’ in the local Wolof language). Built in the style of the metropolitan European covered markets of the time, the distinctive dome-shaped building has since been engulfed by the city’s downtown Plateau area, but still plays host to fishermen, grocers, butchers and market gardeners on a daily basis. Reconstructed in 1997 following a fire, Kermel is less hectic than some of the other markets in town and remains known for its quality and toubab prices.
In comparison, the Dakar International Conference Centre – or Centre International de Conférences Abdou Diouf (CICAD) to give it its full name – is a relative new kid on the block, having only opened in 2014. Designed by Turkey-based Tabanlioglu architects, the striking complex is situated between the city and the new Blaise Diagne airport in the town of Diamniadio and its 1500-seater auditorium recently welcomed Rihanna and French President Emmanuel Macron onto its stage during the Global Partnership in Education conference. Intricately designed with Senegal’s geography and national values in mind, the Centre is made up of a host of impressive features, such as a reflection pool and roof canopy, while the interior is perforated with light, colours and delicate patterns. Well worth a visit if heading to the airport or Petit Côte.
The Centre International du Commerce Exterieur du Senegal (CICES) is a commercial centre like no other. Taking up almost five acres, the CICES complex is so vast that it encompasses its own district in the north of Dakar, while its design can be shoved firmly in the unique drawer. Consisting of triangular pavilions in Senegalse Art deco style, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled onto a 1970s sci-fi set, especially if visiting during one of Dakar’s dust blankets. In reality though, the Centre aims to develop business opportunities for its members, hosting trade events throughout the year, as well as one of the biggest economic meetings in Africa, FIDAK (Foire International de Dakar), which takes place every two years. In the meantime, you are free to wander the complex, where on a daily basis small trade stores sell everything from powdered milk and jewellery to dates and fabrics.
Nestled in a horseshoe cove in the western quarter of Ouakam, the Mosque de la Divinité is breath-takingly beautiful; not surprising given it was the brainchild of the Ultimate Architect. In 1973, an illuminated model of the mosque came to holy man Mohamed Gorgui Seyni Guèye in a dream. A voice from above instructed him to follow the mosque to see where it landed, leading him to Ouakam Bay, where it supposedly floated down like paper. Two decades later and the shovels were finally out with the first call to prayer drifting out of its 45-metre-long minarets some five years later in 1997. It has since been claimed that the Mosque is one of the five greatest mosques that have been conceived by Allah.
Sandwiched between the tangled backstreets of Yoff and the rolling waves of the Atlantic stands a small green minaret on a pedestal of white marble; a matching well to its exterior. A place steeped in myth and one of the holiest places for the Layene Brotherhood – the third largest of the Sufi Muslim brotherhoods of Senegal. It is here that the brotherhood’s founder, Seydina Limamou Laye, launched his prophecy in 1883 and where he now lays to rest in the Mausoleum, built 26 years later in 1909. Laye claimed he was the Mahdi (reincarnation of the Prophet Mohammed) and that his son was the second coming of Jesus, which explains why Layene followers celebrate Jesus’ birth alongside the five pillars of Islam. To this day, the Layene have special autonomy from the constitution and laws of Senegal and Laye’s grandson is the current Khalif of the area. On religious days, the vast Diamalaye (prayer ground) is filled with thousands of followers dressed in white.
Completed in 1985, the Stade Léopold Sédar Senghor is named after the country’s first president and is one of the largest stadia on the continent with a capacity of 60,000. The imposing brutalist-style stadium is a perfect oval with rows and rows of large concrete slabs offering up tiers of perched seating. It is the home to the Senegalese national football team, the Lions of Teranga, as well as two local football teams, AS Douanes and ASC Jeanne D’Arc, but the stadium has seen much more than football. From athletics to papal masses (Pope Jean Paul II visited in 1992), the stadium is used for a rich variety of spectacles, including Senegal’s national sport: la Lutte (the Struggle). This part-boxing-part-wrestling fight of submission is immensely popular in the country and the Stadium’s crowds are whipped into a frenzy by the all-day contests. However, with a national stadium for the Lutte currently under construction in Diamniadio that may not be for much longer.
Religious tolerance is one of the pillars of Senegalese society; the majority Muslim and minority Catholic communities living side-by-side in perfect harmony. Nowhere is there a better symbol of this in Dakar than the imposing Notre Dame des Victories (Our Lady of Victories) Cathedral in downtown Plateau, which is built on the site of an old Muslim cemetery. The Cathedral is the seat of the Archdiocese of Dakar and can host up to 3000 worshippers during mass. Built by the French and consecrated by then Archbishop of Paris Cardinal Jean Verdier in 1936, the Cathedral is beautiful in its simplicity. The mesmerising painted fresco of man’s ascension to heaven in its inner dome, the only touch of flamboyance. With its wide welcoming doors and cool atriums, it’s a great place to escape the manic streets of Plateau.
Some buildings are lessons in history, others the future. The Grand National Theatre is a statement of intent about Senegal’s direction. With its tiered rows of red velveteen seating, ornate stands and opulent stalls, it has all the appearance of a European opera house of old, while its bold exterior leaves you in no doubt of its significance. Opened in 2011, it is the biggest theatre in Western Africa with a capacity of 1800 for its main stage and even more when the workshop rooms and break-out spaces are taken into account. Embracing all forms of performing arts, Senegalese dance troupes, dramatic societies and musicians have finally found a common home, 52 years after Senegal achieved independence.