The first sites in sub-Saharan Africa: an architectural genius behind the Bank in Abidjan

In 1941, Societe Generale decided to move into Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. In the midst of the Second World War, the Bank was no doubt looking for bases further afield and for new resources. It was probably also part of a more general globalisation trend.

After the war, these new sites saw substantial growth. The Bank therefore chose to build premises in what was then the capital of Côte d'Ivoire, both to meet business requirements and to house its expat staff.

Work on this large site began in 1952, with the living quarters finished the following year and the branch completed in 1955. To design these buildings, Societe Generale called on young architect Henri Chomette. Recruited by Societe Generale in 1948, he worked on numerous branch reconstructions and renovations in post-war France, but it was in Africa that he would reveal his true talent. That same year, he won the International Union of Architects Competition award with his design for the future Imperial Palace in Ethiopia, and subsequently founded his architectural firm.

The Abidjan branch, thanks to him and the teams who worked on the project, is modern and bright. The interior design and the furnishings are no less impressive. Some of the furnishings, such as the poster holders and the stepladders in the vault, come from the workshops of designer Jean Prouvé.

A little later, the Bank absorbed Banque Commerciale Africaine, resulting in a substantial increase in the number of clients and branches.

1962 represented a milestone for our development in Côte d'Ivoire. The country declared its independence, and so the decision was made to create a wholly-owned subsidiary with the backing of the new republic and of major banks. And thus Societe Generale de Banque en Côte d’Ivoire (SGBCI) was born.

The Abidjan branch only had twelve staff in 1951, but by 1962 SGBCI employed 251 people. The proportion of expats was reduced to under a half of all staff.

Thus, to symbolise the birth of a new entity and the development of business, Henri Chomette was asked to redesign the original branch. This new construction combines functionality with the country’s art and symbols. The cupola’s wooden frame evokes dugout canoes, the entrance mural includes Baoulé motifs, laid out on the weights that were once used to weigh gold during ceremonies. Lastly, there are reproductions of palm tree leaves on the mezzanine’s balustrade. Whilst some materials were imported, others are local such as the wood and brick for the wall cladding. Inaugurated by the President of Côte d'Ivoire Félix Houphouët-Boigny in November 1965, these premises are still considered to be one of the Group’s most beautiful building complexes.