Jeff Cooper reflects on his role in the Concept Design for the Benin Media Campus & Museum of African Culture and Slavery, Benin, West Africa
Jeff Cooper Hollywood is an MIT trained Architect known for his Studio Designs, his Acoustic expertise and his integration of A/V technology into unique architectural designs. In recent years his Calabasas firm, Jeff Cooper Architects, has been focusing on international Museum, Hospitality & Entertainment Projects.
How The Concept For the Project Began – Enter Hollywood Actor Djimon Hounsou
“Djimon Hounsou is one of the world’s most recognizable film stars and a man of strong character and vision”, says Cooper. Hounsou, an impressive 6′-2″ former model, with a handsome and commanding presence, is an accomplished Academy Award-nominated actor, who starred in Steven Spielberg’s landmark 1997 film, “Amistad”, about the African slave trade. The film follows the story of a young African man named Joseph Cinqué, played by Hounsou, who leads the slaves in an uprising. The film received 12 Academy Award nominations. Djimon Hounsou received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor.
Djimon was born in Benin, West Africa. He wanted to use his success in Hollywood, to help build up his native country and to bring much needed economic development and tourism to West Africa. Djimon envisioned a landmark cultural and Architectural development project, to be located on the Gold Coast of Africa, on the shores of Benin.
He wanted to make a strong cultural and economic connection between the US and Benin.
Benin’s Historical Role in the Slave Trade of the 1600s
Benin is known historically as the birthplace of the African slave trade in the 1600s. Eager to cash in the expansion of the New World, slave traders and sea merchants from Europe brought their ships to the protected coastal waters of West Africa, dubbed the “Gold Coast”, off the shore of Benin.
African geographical territories were tribal in the 1600s, with names like the Kingdom of Akwamu, Alyem, Asante, Denkyira, and Oyo. These West African kingdoms correspond roughly to the present-day countries of Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Benin. These West African nations have a population of 382 million, larger than the US. Benin had many names historically but was previously known as Dahomey.
Hounsou Meets Cooper
Djimon Hounsou was looking for an Architect to help realize his vision for his native country, Benin. After interviewing Jeff Cooper in Calabasas, Djimon invited Cooper to visit Benin, his home country in West Africa, with him in the fall of 2016, and to meet the President.
The Benin Media Campus
Djimon envisioned a project that had two distinct parts. Part A would be the Benin Media Center and Film School, where a new generation of creative young Africans could acquire the technical skills from a world-wide coterie of visiting artists, directors, cinematographers, editors and technicians and learn to tell their own stories in Film and Media.
Photo 1 – Aerial View of the Proposed Benin Media Campus and Film School
Jeff Cooper Works With Djimon Hounsou to Develop the Architectural Concept For the Media Campus
The Benin Media Campus would contain Studios, Theaters, Classrooms and Editing Facilities. It would also contain housing for the students and media equipped villas for the visiting artists and craftspeople from around the world. The campus would be located on the ocean (similar to Pepperdine University in Malibu) overlooking Benin’s gorgeous white sand beaches. Restaurants, excellent hotels, and entertainment would be part of the design program on sites adjacent to the campus. The overall goal of the Master Plan was to attract tourism to the Gold Coast and to utilize the climate-friendly geography for film production. The climate is sunny, the waters are blue, and the palm-lined beaches are safe and welcoming.
Part B of the Media Campus would be the spectacular forward-thinking Museum of African Culture (MAC). Among its other goals, MAC would inform visitors about the History of Slavery and contributions of the African nations to the world and specifically to US culture.
The Exhibits would be interactive and the programming would be available on-line, so those who couldn’t make the trek to West Africa could still participate and learn from the MAC experience.
The MAC Museum Project Goals
The Museum of African Culture (MAC) project would bring the world’s attention to the documented history and origins of slavery. Moreover, the museum would focus on the breathtaking positive impact that African culture has had on the development of the US.
Jeff Cooper and Hounsou envisioned telling a 400-year story, an amazing tale of two diverse civilizations, and a story which is still unfolding. The story would start by tracing the journey of African slaves to the shores of the New World in the 1600s. The story would be told in Film, Media, in sight and sound. The first purpose would be to sensitize visitors to the terrible cost of human suffering perpetrated by the slave trade. However, says Cooper ” The long term goal of the Museum of African Culture would be to increase understanding between all races and cultures, by opening up an appreciation of the cultural enrichment that has been brought by the African nations to every society they touched, especially the United States”.
Impact of African Culture on the early history of the USA
Though the story started with forced extraction of peoples from their native lands, fueled by the greed of the European traders and the plantation landowners of the West Indies and America, the bringing of African culture to the West ultimately had an immeasurable positive impact on the developing US culture. America in the 1600s was a burgeoning young country, a “New World”, where anything was possible.
The slaves brought with them their languages, their craft and farming skills, their unique music, tastes in food and dance. These qualities were destined to integrate in their new culture over time. Meanwhile, social injustices suffered by the slaves during the centuries from 1600-1800 increased. The societal anger simmered, ultimately breaking into a series of uprisings and revolts, staged by both blacks and sympathetic whites, in the mid-1800s. The social tremors were felt in Europe, the Caribbean and in the United States.
The US Civil War
Conflicting attitudes about slavery led to political schisms between the North and South Colonial States. These tensions ultimately exploded into the bloodiest of all wars fought on American soil, the Civil War. By 1831, the Abolitionist movement to put an end to slavery had gained strong momentum. By 1861, Abraham Lincoln, America’s 6′-4″ tall champion of equal rights, was elected President. After much bloodshed and the defeat of the Confederates, in 1878, the American Constitution was re-framed by the passing of the 13th Amendment, thus ending slavery. This historic event was dramatically chronicled in Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed film, “Lincoln”.
Human Rights: Looking Forward
A new American vision, one of freedom and justice for all, regardless of race, creed or religion, came into focus after the devastating Civil War. Could this turn of history have taken place so definitively were it not for the blatant injustices of slavery that preceded it? The new political order, born of blood, transformed America into a nation of advocacy for human rights.
Unfortunately, history soon revealed that human prejudice cannot be legislated out of existence, even in America. But it also revealed that legislation is the first important step in the long journey to equality under the law. Since the 1860’s the United States witnessed continuing struggles to right its collective past wrongs.
The Museum’s American Connection
Architect Jeff Cooper explains” The MAC museum’s story would recount the exploits of the black freedom fighters from the US Civil War, such as Harriet Tubman and William H. Carney, the first African American soldier of the Civil War to earn the Medal of Honor.” 20th Century US history witnessed a succession of eloquent and inspirational African American orators. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X led the way in the 1950s and 60s. Though both were martyred, along with President John F. Kennedy, another gifted speaker and human rights advocate, their collective impact can still be felt today. The US Civil Rights Act was finally passed in 1964.
African Influence on the Early US Economy 1600-1800s
The MAC’s story would explain how the burgeoning economy of the United States in the 1600 & 1700s was primarily agricultural. It relied heavily on the manual labor needed to plant and harvest vast acreages of crops, labor provided primarily by the Africans and their subsequent generations. The MAC story would follow the birth of the cotton industry in the US. and depict the building of textile mills in the South and the Northeast. The exhibits would show how the agricultural and textile exports helped fuel the US Economy. This economic growth could not have been possible without the back-breaking labor provided by the African Americans and their subsequent generations of descendants.
African Influences on the Development of American Music and Entertainment
The MAC’s narrative would continue with the development of a unique form of music, born on American soil directly from the descendants of the first slaves. Architect Jeff Cooper, a musician himself, says excitedly, “Yes, we will chronicle the Birth of the Blues, followed by the development of Jazz and the evolution of black literature and Theater”. American Blues artists, such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Robert Johnson will all be featured in videos & soundtracks. The soul of Jazz greats, such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, would be present in the exhibits. Mid 20th Century Jazz Legends such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie would be heard throughout the museum exhibits and in the ever-present soundtrack of the MAC Experience. “So would my favorite guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, be featured, along with contemporary artists like Dr. Dre and Beyonce” adds architect Jeff Cooper.
African Influence on The World of US Sports
The MAC story would continue by outlining the phenomenal innovation in sports of African Americans, including the accomplishments of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics and Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The modern African American sports heroes, from Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal to Kobe Bryant would appear, alongside their talented teammates.
All forms of Art and Entertainment, TV and Film, would be displayed in the Visual Arts section of the museum. African American actors, ranging from television star and media magnate, Oprah Winfrey, to Academy Award winners, such as Viola Davis and Denzel Washington would appear. The Media Campus will feature a Live Performance Theater, where well known contemporary artists can perform. The concerts can be used to raise funds for the School.
Cooper adds “Of course we will chronicle the crowning achievement of the 2008 US election when Barack Obama was elected to become the first African American President of the United States.”
Architect Jeff Cooper Presents the Media Center & Museum Concept to the President of Benin
In 2017, Jeff Cooper finished his drawings and presented the Architectural Concept Designs for the Media Campus and the Museum of African Culture to Patrice Talon, the President of Benin.
Architect Jeff Cooper proposed placing the Project directly on the shores of Benin, in the place where the story began. “Presenting this exciting humanitarian undertaking and this daring architectural project to the President was one of the highlights of my career”, says Cooper.
Photo 2 – Architect Jeff Cooper presents his concept to Patrice Talon, the President Of Benin, West Africa
The Eye-Popping Architecture
In architect Jeff Cooper’s Concept Design, the MAC museum would be housed in a large inverted glass pyramid, anchored at an unusual angle, in the coastal waters.
“The pyramid geometry has been the symbol of slavery dating back thousands of years, to ancient Egypt, in northern Africa,” says Jeff Cooper. “Symbolically, unlike the geometries of the cube and the sphere, the pyramid’s weight is distributed very unevenly from top to bottom. The lower layers of mass, representing the enslaved masses, support a much smaller layer on top, representing the privileged few”, says Cooper.
He continues “Egyptian slaves, captured from neighboring countries, were engaged for decades, in projects that were a hybrid of public works done for private interests”. The endeavors spanned centuries. These mega-projects were testimonies to the power and the god-like status of the Pharaohs.
“Inverting the pyramid symbolically represents how the lives of the West Africans had been turned upside by the European slave traders”, says architect Jeff Cooper. In Cooper’s daring design, the huge inverted glass pyramid housing the slave ship would be anchored in the waters by using concrete pylons. This complicated structure would be built just several hundred yards off the coast of Benin. The glass pyramid structure would then be topped by a huge overlapping square roof, to protect it from the direct sun and the heat. The insulated glass energy-efficient structure would contain an exact full-size replica of the original wooden slave ships. The ship and surrounding A/V displays would be accessible to visitors on multiple levels by an open steel scaffold, to maintain transparency. The lower level of the pyramid structure would be connected by a concrete tunnel, under the water, to the main Museum of African Culture, located on the shore.
Photo 3 – The Inverted Glass Pyramid, Housing the Slave Ship in the Museum of African Culture (The Performing Arts Theater & Main Museum are pictured in the distance)
The Tunnel Back in Time
The tunnel experience would be designed as a journey back in time. ” It would start out very dark”, explains architect Jeff Cooper, “to initially disorient the visitor and separate him or her from his surroundings. Then it would present a jarring sensory audio-video experience, with screams and realistic frightening sounds, so that visitors could themselves be taken back in time, and become fully immersed in the horrifying chaos & terror felt by the African natives as they were torn from their families and their land by inhumane force, in one of the most cruel chapters in human history”.
Jeff Cooper’s proposed African Media Center and Film School and the Museum of African Culture is not yet built. It is on the drawing boards and estimated to cost $700M US. The ambitious project is waiting for the international fundraising effort needed to bring it to fruition. “Even if it takes us 20 years to tell a 400-year-old story that forever changed the world…we will not give up our dream”, says Cooper.