The Polyclinique of the Médina

French Adoption of Sahelian Form in a Senegalese Context

The French found the climate of Dakar did not always suit their colonial vision of a Beaux-Arts colony, although its Neoclassical and Second Empire architectural styles were key to assimilation. That policy’s design was intended to globally transform overseas territories with the homeland’s visual stamp. Some colonial buildings deteriorated due to humidity, termites caused numerous collapses, and building material importation proved expensive. After World War I, a shift in policy occurred. The French government observed that imported architectural styles alienated one culture from the other. In 1920, the minister of colonies advised his overseas administrators throughout the globe to look at vernacular architecture in order to integrate its motifs and forms into official buildings. Structures of the colonized were adapted, an act deliberately planned to win over subject peoples in what Moshé refers to as “rhetoric of pseudo-cooperation.”

In Senegal, French designers found their inspiration in both Neo-Sudanese and Moroccan stylistic models, ignoring the local architecture of the Wolof, Serer, or Fulani. Neo-Sudanese forms from what is now Mali had already taken center stage in multiple international expositions held in France and other European sites from 1855-1931, and, during a brief period before World War II, that choice was also realized in a handful of buildings in Dakar’s Médina. Premier among them was the Polyclinique.

 The Polyclinique, also known as the Institut d'Hygiène Social, was designed by Henry Adenot and built in 1932 as a health clinic for the Senegalese, located in the “native quarter,” the Médina. Its symmetrical design was patterned after Songhai mosques in what is now Mali, imitating their tapering vertical elements, a central entrance that juts out, and roofline projections (waterspouts replacing traditional wooden beams). Its zig-zag motifs occur on some regional houses but are not common mosque features.  Reinforced concrete in an ochre color mimicked the sun-dried earth of the originals, obviating the need for annual repairs. 

The clinic closed for a time in the 21st century due to deterioration as well as financial issues, but it has reopened as both a health center and exhibition space.