The Prometheus Building is an apartment block conceived by Pancho Guedes sitting on the boundary of the Polana and Sommerschield bairros of the city of Lourenço Marques. Construction began in 1951 and was completed by 1953. Although it bears many characteristics of Guedes’ particular style it is one of the lesser popular of his works as compared with Leão Que Ri or Dragon House.
It is a six storey building with the top-most floor reserved as a residence for domestic workers. In those years and as it is today, the African population would travel to the city for work and return to their homes on the outskirts at the end of the day. Guedes’ design allowed domestic workers to live in the same building and thus be closer to the homes to which they provided their services.
The bottom floor had been designed as a garage but after a few years of the building’s completion the owners decided to convert the spaces into shops much to Guedes’ dismay. During that process, additional walls were built which had the effect of obscuring the perceived floating effect of the building.
Guedes’ had relied heavily on the use of pilotis to raise the building above street level allowing for a cavernous and airy space below. Although he was not the first to do this, he was certainly a pioneer in Mozambique. Elsewhere around the world at the time, pilotis were being used by Le Corbusier for his Unite d’Habitation.
The building sits on the corner of Av. Antonio Enes (Nyerere) and Av. Massano de Amorim (Tung) and is placed further back on its own plot giving it a fairly open space in the front. Views from the compartments in the rear provide an unobstructed view of the other side of the bay known as Catembe in the south-east. Closer and on the east is the relatively large block of the Hotel Polana.
The protruding structures on the sides of the buildings also referred to as “combs” serve only a decorative function. Guedes’ was known to have included strange animal-like features into his designs and was also inspired by Antoni Gaudi’s work as young man travelling through Barcelona.
A report by a South African architecture publication described the design elements of the building
This is an early use by Pancho of his signature “comb” feature. In this instance the fingers of the comb are square. In fact, no curves are employed in this design. The end faces are completely flat with the structural frame expressed. The front face is highly articulated. Strong shadows are formed by long horizontal deep recessed windows. The outer tips of the cantilever beams extend beyond the point of structural necessity and become façade elaborations.
The articulation of the facade becomes more obvious when the sun’s angle changes throughout the day. For instance, during the afternoon the sun’s rays project a strong light from a westerly direction causing shadow which highlight the three-dimensional mass of the building.
There appears to have been a dramatic change in the building’s facade after Mozambique’s independence. This refers not only to the commercialization of the former garage level but also changes to the plastering and windows.
One cannot help but notice that a structure built in the mid-fifties had to have been inspired by the craze of the jet-engine era. In fact, Guedes did conceive of another private dwelling known as the “Aeroplane House” during this time not far from the Prometheus.
Returning to the Prometheus, Guedes had incorporated windows on the lateral facades of each of the apartments in an interesting wing-like shape. These are seen in the image below and serve to visually distinguish one floor from another. In images from later years, the windows have all been removed and sealed with blocks. The only plausible conclusion for such a change is that the windows, while certainly a novelty did not fair well against the elements. Water may have leaked through or the wood rotten from an accumulation of water on the sill.
Only time will tell how the building will look in the next few years. While Guedes passed away some years ago after living on a farm in South Africa, appreciation for his work continues to grow daily such as the Casa de Pancho Guedes co-work office as well as projects inspired by his work such as “Looking for Guedes”