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Architecture: Africa in the making

By Rose Skelton
Posted on Friday, 16 May 2014 16:32

Designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC – one of the world’s most high-profile architecture projects – ignited David Adjaye’s desire to do more work in Africa.

The museum will sit next to the Washington Monument and will probably be the last museum built on this historical row of Smithsonian museums in the United States capital. The museum’s facade uses a bronze alloy, a material that Adjaye developed, taking inspiration from the metalwork done by African slaves in the American south. The building, which will be a colourful contrast to the mostly white museums and monuments around it, is expected to cost $360m.

The premise that I’m working from is that you absolutely have to acknowledge geology, geography and environment

Today, just less than a third of Adjaye’s projects are in Africa and are in countries such as Uganda, Gabon, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Rwanda. What is happening in Africa now, says Adjaye, is “a rediscovery of architecture as a device to talk about regeneration”. But architecture also comes into government discussions as a way of launching a “second modernity, an opportunity to kickstart some of the projects that the founding leaders started but didn’t get the chance to complete.”

This includes museums and monuments that have fallen into disrepair, but also means a re-envisioning of Africa. “We are at this moment where we have to make the image of what an African continent looks like,” says Adjaye. “And it is the responsibility of both architects and politicians. Politicians think the commercial sector is going to do it.”

But business will not do it without a directive from the political establishment, he says. “The political establishment doesn’t have to get in the way of profit making, but it can get in the way of the aesthetic. But in the end, developers say the aesthetic is not really what they care about. They care about the profits.”

This leaves a space for architects with an understanding of the continent to fill that space, says Adjaye. “There’s not enough of us!” he laughs. “It’s already a losing battle, but the great thing about architecture is that it just needs a few examples to create a chain reaction.”

Three things need to be understood in order for this chain reaction to begin and for this new image to emerge: understanding geography and climate; understanding culture and people; and understanding the history of the built environment. “Those three things, rigorously analysed, can make a new vernacular for any region in the world, most definitely in Africa,” says Adjaye.

In architecture, it is models and examples that define how a place looks. As things stand, Africa does not have a strong building stock that can be used for guidance.

In 2011, Adjaye designed a house for Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations, in Ghana. The design called for a mixture of concrete and red earth. The contractors were shocked that it turned out so well and are now proposing it to other clients.

“With the built environment,” says Adjaye, “it’s all about examples. It’s about what you build and how you build it. People model and copy what you’ve built, so the more one is encouraged to use lessons that are learnt from the ground up, the better it can be.”

Part of what has stunted the continent’s architectural growth until now, says Adjaye, is this lack of good models. City design during colonialism laid down models around which cities grew.

These city plans worked for the colonial power from which they came but did not work for countries on which they were imposed because, says Adjaye, they ignored the three central design tenets: geography and climate, culture and people, and history.

Like many cities in West Africa, Senegal’s capital, Dakar, is laid out with French-style boulevards and radiating streets and roundabouts running through residential neighbourhoods. But decades of under investment in the city have led to disrepair and areas where street hawkers and shacks sprawl across the city.

Dakar’s Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, designed and built by North Korean contractors, is the latest in a swathe of developments that don’t hold to Adjaye’s design tenets.

“Dakar came from an idea of making France in the colony, a way of equalising the power of France all over the world. And so you’re ignoring geography and culture, and you’re just creating a singularity which is an ideological premise. Inevitably, it collapses because it’s unsustainable. The premise that I’m working from is that you absolutely have to acknowledge geology, geography and environment. If you ignore that, it is to your peril. It is simply a futile exercise.”

Adjaye aims to create impressive, energy-efficient, socially aware and beautiful models for a new and modern Africa, which will inspire others to follow.

“You’ve just got to get to the point where you can create enough models. The continent has these six very specific [geographic] regions, and if one can start to create specific models in each one of these regions that really point to modern examples of how you use energy, how you deal with local issues, you start a movement.”

The politics of architecture and development

A defining problem for Africa is building affordable housing for its increasingly urban populations. “The big discussion in East Africa is social equity […] how you don’t get this upper elite and lower class because there’s always been these kind of groups. But how do you bring the poor up?” he asks. On the rest of the continent, there are not the right conditions to develop affordable housing for small farmers and the working class.

This is not a design issue, according to Adjaye: “The post-war [Second World War] conversation has been about mass housing, success and failure.” Architects have been trained for decades in designing mass housing in dense areas, creating towers and high-rises at one end of the scale and at the other, suburban sprawl.

The barriers to creating mass housing on the continent are manifold. First of all, there is the government level. “It requires political will to change certain legislation,” he says, adding that the cheaper you make a house, the more you come up against building regulations. “There are all these strange rules enshrined since the 1970s about how the ‘modern world’ is made. You need to shift those codes so that the people that enforce these things in cities shift their strategy and help.”

In Africa we have really dense cities, so an understanding of that publicness is very important

If governments would change the laws, voluntary or not-for-profit institutions could provide social housing for low- income communities. Business should help too. “The private sector wants fast returns. They have shareholders, and they have to return profits.”

Better information about the market could encourage construction companies to go into social housing. “What would happen if we decided to build a million houses for these communities at this super-low profit level? Who is prepared to be the house builder to create the volume? What we don’t have is any endowed companies that want to work at that low level with enough revenue.”

Furthermore, politics hinders this kind of mass development. “I call it ‘the four-year window’,” says Adjaye, “which is basically between [electoral] terms. That is the political stability you can get. It is fraught with complexities because such developments involve massive land tracts. It’s about how to secure those tracts, how to secure the political will to allow you to do those things.”

To take on a mass housing project, organising the land and infrastructure requires a decade of political commitment and stability, says Adjaye. “If the sense is that maybe a country’s government is way too unstable, then these guys who work at this level won’t do it. They will say it’s just not worth it.”

Many of the projects in Africa that Adjaye’s company takes on tend to be for the rich and the middle classes. Those are projects that can be built and sold quickly. Public space in cities is a passion of Adjaye’s, and something that he tries to build into his designs, both in Africa and beyond.

“In Africa we have really dense cities, so an understanding of that publicness is very important.” In the continent’s often-cramped cities, it is not just about making a space, or a void, as he calls it. “It’s about making valves which allow those pressure points to have a kind of life beyond the formal infrastructure of traffic engineers and commercial plot development.”

Companies do not always see the value of public space. “The interests of the commercial sector are very different to the interests of a public image. Sometimes the value of making public space is trumped by the value of the land being more of a return for private developers who are investing money and wanting quick returns.”

Architects and planners struggle to create an image of modernity on a continent that has seen very little urban development. “We have one critical problem, which is that all development will seem completely incongruous to the place,” Adjaye says. “Essentially [Africa] has not been developed for at least 100 years. So anything that you put into this context looks like a dividing line between extreme poverty and something that’s privileged.”

When places like Eko Atlantic in Lagos start springing up, it amplifies this dilemma. “These places just become like islands. And when they are reinforced like islands, they exacerbate a problem that we already have, which is how do we create modernity? But what I don’t want to do is to somehow be pejorative to the situation of poverty by saying that you can’t see anything that looks modern because it’s going to make you feel bad or something that is modern can’t exist here because it’s going to inflect that. That’s patronising to that group as much as it is making it exclusive to the elite. But like in all good social experiments, these places mustn’t be allowed to become gated enclaves for the sake of security or business.”

Mega-planning for cities

Adjaye is involved in several innovative projects in Africa, from government-commissioned redesigns of new neighbourhoods in Kampala, to city centre planning in Gabon’s capital Libreville and private developments of long-abandoned neighbourhoods in Johannesburg.

In Gabon, Adjaye has been charged with developing 40 municipal buildings around the president’s palace to create a sense of a municipal core. The hope is “to create a ripple which can give precedents to other developers who will come to those sites because of the investment the government is making in these areas,” Adjaye says.

The project is part of President Ali Ben Bongo’s plan to transform Libreville from a sleepy, seaside city into a bustling capital, rich with mineral wealth. The country’s population is less than two million, and the housing problem could be solved within a decade, says Adjaye.

[Ali Bongo Ondimba] is doing something incredibly smart, using commercial know-how and government to create models that show the informal commercial world

“The president [Ali Bongo Ondimba] is doing something incredibly smart, using commercial know-how and government to create models that show the informal commercial world, which does things in its own way, [how things can be done]. Suddenly you have avenues and axes you can pick up on, and you have a scale and a relationship and a building type that you can start to relate to beyond little shacks and guys putting up walls and boundaries. The big thing in African cities is the sense that it’s chaos out there so you put an object in the middle and you park all the way around it.”

It is a classic problem for Africa, says Adjaye, that there is just too much ‘out there’ and there is never a relationship to the ‘out there’. “But the ‘out there’ is the reality. It’s urban life, and even if it’s dense, we’ve got to negotiate it. We’ve got to create architectural tricks. What they’re trying to do in Gabon is to create that model.”

The buildings in Adjaye’s master plans take the environment into consideration so they can be naturally ventilated, using air conditioning only as a back-up cooling system.

In Kampala, Adjaye is drawing up a master plan for a 50-acre site called Nakawa Naguru for government-related buildings. “We’ve been brought in to ask ‘What can these places be?'” He has tried to design something beyond the generic office building, using Kampala’s landscape and climate as a guide around which to work.

Storm water management is a major problem in Africa because the infrastructure and servicing of it is poor. In Kampala, he has tried to turn the management of that water into an architectural feature.

“One way of dealing with that is not to try and manage the water to the ocean, but to create retention water bodies which fill and subside and to create bu- colic aspects around them, within the complexes and the land plots,” he says. “It creates different ideas about what parks might be in places like Kampala, rather than just thinking that they’re English lawns, but that they might be something else and we need to push what that might be.”

Finding a way to manage water that creates different ecologies and also does the job effectively typifies Adjaye’s innovative spirit and thoughtfulness. It also explains why his architectural and design skills remain in such high demand. ●

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