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The Rise of African Architecture

The continent's talents are speaking up.

The mention of 20th-century architecture brings to mind Europeans such as Le Corbusier and Antonio Gaudí, or Americans such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry. The 21st century sees a more international crew, including Shigeru Ban from Japan, Moshe Safdie from Israel and Wang Shu from China. But where is Africa in architecture’s hall of fame?

Powerful colonial influences, coupled with a history of political and economic turmoil, left the people of Africa with less time to ponder the aesthetics and ergonomics of houses, malls and skyscrapers.

But the tide is turning. According to Tanzanian-born British architect David Adjaye, a growing number of organizations, architectural contests and architects themselves are placing African architecture on the world’s stage. “Through initiatives such as these — awards, events and peer group support,” Adjaye says, “this decade will see a striking new horizon for African architecture and its global impact.”

The history of African architecture

In the 1940s and ’50s, experiments in architecture and urban planning were carried out across the African continent, but mostly by Western architects such as Le Corbusier and Aldo van Eyck, who were particularly influential in the creation of mass housing schemes in Morocco and Algeria.

When African nations started gaining independence, between the 1950s and ’80s, colonizers used “International Style” to show their good intentions of leading colonies toward the future. This style is a modernist approach developed in Europe and America in the 1920s and ’30s and is characterized by the use of concrete, steel and minimal ornamentation.

In May 1981, the new African Union of Architects began uniting architects of all races, religions and nationalities across the continent. Other national architect associations and action networks — such as Adventurers in Diaspora, Casamémoire, Doual’art and ArchiAfrika — were created to stimulate the debate on the quality of the built environment and the value of Africa’s artistic and architectural heritage.

With the fast pace of economic growth in Africa from 2000 to 2008, these organizations kept a concerned eye on valuable architectural assets in African cities — the historical buildings in the city center of Dar es Salaam, for example, and the National Museum in Ghana. Architects and academics alike within the continent began paying more attention to the buildings in their countries.

“Up to now, important projects on the continent were designed by foreign architects,” says Jean Charles Tall, architect and founder of the College Universitair d’Architecture de Dakar.

“When you go to a bookshop, even in Africa,” he continues, “all the books written on African architecture are written by people from outside of the continent, with an anthropologist perspective or for tourists.”

So Tall is urging further discussion and research about architecture across Africa. Forums of discussion between practicing architects, students and academics, he says, will allow this generation to further voice its own opinion and move African architecture onto the global stage.

Increasing awareness through dialogue

Encouraging the rise of indigenous architecture across the continent is ArchiAfrika, an organization founded in 2001 as a platform to put African architecture on the world map. ArchiAfrika offers an online forum for the exchange of news and expertise in the region, and initiates and facilitates research, projects, and conferences.

In addition to ArchiAfrika’s influence, there are now more than 50 universities in Africa offering architecture programs, and students are approaching the discipline with greater confidence.

Up till now, architecture in Africa was driven primarily by the Bauhaus principal of functionality, but today’s architects are much more innovative, incorporating sustainability and intelligent aesthetics into their designs.

One such professional is Burkinabé architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, 48. Kéré’s first project — a primary school in eastern Burkina Faso, built when Kéré was still a student at the Technical University of Berlin — was designed on the principles of climatic comfort and keeping construction costs low. Kéré used local construction materials such as compressed earth blocks and metal shutters to create a streamlined, contemporary form that is often observed in modern German architecture.

“I think that giving value to traditional building techniques,” Kéré says, “is the way we can unite tradition and modernity.”

Consider climate and topography

Part of generating new concepts involves appreciating historic architecture. Countries with stronger economies may have more noteworthy modern buildings, yet places such as Mali and Ethiopia have much to offer in the way of traditional heritage buildings — like the mud mosque of Djenné and the rock churches of Lalibela.

As the birthplace of dozens of ancient civilizations, Africa enjoys a rich and varied artistic heritage that has informed modern European artistic techniques as well. Twentieth-century artists such as Picasso and Modigliani were inspired by the lines and forms of tribal masks and sculptures. European architects Le Corbusier and Theo Van Doesburg used well-organized geometric and cubical forms from African art in their works.

One of the earliest African architects to value the continent’s artistic wealth is Pierre Goudiaby Atepa, former president of the Association of Architects of Senegal and a pivotal figure of African architecture during the 1970s and ’80s. Atepa’s most well-known projects include Dakar’s Millennium Gate, Gambia’s Banjul airport and the bank of the Economic Community of West African States in Lomé, Togo.

“I don’t want to bring Africa into modernity,” Atepa says, “but rather to use modernity with what is profoundly African in order to create a kind of symbiosis, or metissage, in architecture.”

At 66, Atepa says he’ll have to think about taking a rest soon. But he is “sure that the new generation will revolutionize modern African architecture.”

Indeed, this new generation has already stepped up. David Adjaye, 47, attained international fame for such works as the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, Norway, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

He has published numerous books on African architecture and says he learns something every time he goes to a new place — whether it’s a slum community like Kibera in Nairobi or the business district of Luanda.

“Within the context of [world] environmental challenges,” he says, “the building practices of traditional African architecture offer some useful lessons in working with climate, topography and cultivating a sense of place.”

For example, as he explained in an August 2012 interview with Architectural Record: “You can’t understand Africa until you realize that it has six extraordinary geographic zones — each one very precise and extreme. In the northwest you have the Maghreb, then to the east you have the desert, and to the south the Sahel, which is between the desert and the forest. Other parts of the continent are forestlands or savanna or the mountains.

“Each place, of course, has its own particularities, but culture grows from climate. . . How do you respond to this extreme climate and make an architecture that becomes African?”

Homeward bound

This growth in contemporary African architecture has led several distinguished African architects who have lived and worked overseas to return to their home countries. The most well-known is Ghanaian Joe Osae-Addo, 42, who moved back to Accra in 2004.

Although Osae-Addo had run a thriving architectural practice in Los Angeles, he hoped to better align himself with his beliefs on sustainability, and Ghana was the place to do so.

At that time, most urban homes in Accra, the capital of a former British colony, were concrete-block houses made with imported English Portland cement. Dissatisfied with this drab approach to living, Osae-Addo was determined to find ways to build his home with locally sourced materials.

“I wanted to explore ideas of light, cross-ventilation and lightness of structure,” he says. As a result, Osae-Addo designed his home to stand 3 feet off the ground on a wooden deck, so that under-floor breezes would cool the space naturally. He also incorporated slatted-wood screens and floor-to-ceiling jalousie windows for cross-ventilation.

“Interstitial spaces and landscape are what define tropical architecture,” he says. “It is not about edifice but rather harnessing the elements — trees, wind, sun and water — to create harmony, not the perfection that modernism craves so much.”

Osae-Addo applied these sustainable building principles to other projects, too, such as the Oguaa Football for Hope Centre in Cape Coast, Ghana, which was constructed with reclaimed scaffolding, donated shipping containers, and indigenous bamboo and adobe bricks. “Africa is not just a place of inspiration,” he says, “but a place to live, grow and create.”

The new African architect

“The next generation of architects is our future,” Osae-Addo says. “They have all the tools and technologies at their disposal and a growing awareness of their own roots. The old guard must recognize this and nurture and support them.

Atepa shares Osae-Addo’s focus on the next generation, believing that all Africans, no matter where they live, should participate in the development of African architecture.

“The wealth of tomorrow is in Africa,” he wrote in a June 2008 interview with the African art blog Unseen Art Scene. ”I received everything from Africa. So I must give something back. . . . Africa is the cradle of art. If African architects succeed one day in making the symbiosis between African art and modern architecture, the result will be magnificent.”

Michele Koh Morollo is a writer and frequent contributor to architecture and design titles, including Dwell Asia, Surface Asia, Singapore Architect, Design Quarterly, In Design, LOFT and Perspective Global. Her favorite buildings are those where modernist forms meet traditional local styles.