Monday, 8 June 2015

African architecture: infinitely, thrillingly diverse

FINANCIAL TIMES | African architecture: infinitely, thrillingly diverse

the Bristol hotel in Asmara, Eritrea
©Alamy | Italian Art Deco style: the Bristol hotel in Asmara, Eritrea

The temptation to talk about an African architecture is great, but it is, of course, ridiculous. There is no such thing and never was.

Africa’s architecture is infinitely, thrillingly diverse and its variety embraces everything from the modernist ambition of post-colonial visionaries to the invention of the ad hoc informal settlements around some of the world’s most dynamic and fast-growing cities.

It includes the urbane elegance of Hassan Fathy’s experiments in creating new towns in Egypt that absorbed arts and crafts attitudes, vernacular intelligence and modernist ideals, but it equally includes the remarkable menagerie of modernist optimism that punctuates Accra with the bravura of Brasília.
There is the Italian Art Deco of Asmara in Eritrea, a haunting 1930s landscape that blends futurism and LA glamour. There is the sculptural modernism of Ghana. There is the dictator chic of the leaders’ leopard-print and gilt interiors and the vast, yet oddly truncated, blend of Ceaucescu and Michelangelo at the Ivory Coast’s Basilica of Our Lady of Peace. And there is the endless poverty of Kenya’s Kibera or South Africa’s Khayelitsha.

The richness of traditions and the discrepancies between the corporate behemoths and the ingenious interventions into the informal make Africa an impossible subject. The situation is made yet more complex because so many of Africa’s finest architects work outside the continent. Also, the most interesting recent buildings here have been built by young foreign practices trying to invest energy and intelligence into socially conscious schemes in deprived regions that would otherwise see no architecture beyond the most starkly utilitarian.

Chief among the architects of the diaspora is London-based David Adjaye. Born in Tanzania, educated in the Middle East and London, Adjaye made his name thanks to striking buildings in the UK. But his passion has been Africa. 

His photographic studies of the continent’s architecture have been a constant and rich source of inspiration. Published as a multi-volume book (Adjaye. Africa. Architecture), these are not art photos, but rather reference pictures of a continent undergoing change at a breakneck pace and underlining his assertions that Africa is not the series of disasters usually portrayed in western media but a space of immense opportunity and invention. Adjaye’s most prominent project is about Africa but is in the US: the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.

He is also building in Africa. Ghana’s Cape Coast Slavery Museum is a smaller mirror of the US institution. The Sylvia Bongo Ondimba Foundation in Libreville meanwhile echoes in its gleaming white, open modernity the optimistic international style of the immediate post-independence era. Glistening on the seafront this institution based around rights is a totemic structure, its perforated proscenium arch intended to speak of openness.

Another young architect making waves back home is Diébédo Francis Kéré. Kéré studied in Berlin and stayed there but it is his wonderful works back in his native Burkina Faso that have made waves. His schools and library in Gando blend traditional construction techniques (particularly mud bricks) with modern aesthetics. The architect overcame scepticism about the use of vernacular crafts to create a very rooted, extremely elegant architecture of low cost and low energy, easy to build and easy to maintain. The combination of traditional vaults and arches with ubiquitous materials — the mud and corrugated steel sheet — make an accessible and seemingly timeless African architecture.

NLÉ Architects, based in Amsterdam and Lagos, was founded by Kunlé Adeyemi. The Nigerian architect’s Makoko Floating School, a towering waterborne structure made for the community living by and on the lagoon in Lagos made waves well beyond the bustling city as a striking, polemical and symbolic gesture to bring the issues surrounding the education of the poor on the radar.
Another prodigal son is Joe Osae-Addo, an LA-based architect whose return to the Ghanaian scene led to some wonderful buildings, most notably his own house in Accra. The building blends modernist West Coast glamour with rich local materials — bamboo partitions and seductive hardwoods — to create an elegant and distinctive African modernity.

It sometimes takes a foreigner to notice what is most special about a local style or craft. Recently, much of the most interesting architecture on the continent has been contributed by outsiders working with communities to create intelligent, sustainable structures. In a way it is a reaction to the international-style modernist buildings strewn around the continent that were often expensive to build, hard to maintain and perhaps overly grand. Young architects are showing an interest in how ad hoc materials can be combined with local techniques and crafts to make cheap, useful buildings.
Spanish architects Selgas Cano (who designed London’s Second Home and the much-awaited Serpentine Pavilion) have completed a wonderful community structure in Turkana, northern Kenya. The structure with a corrugated metal roof has bright colours inspired by local fabrics and serves as everything from a vaccination centre to a school. 

Dutch architects Abba’s design for the Netherlands Embassy in Addis Ababa, meanwhile, is rather different but its reddish mud-coloured walls chime with traditional Ethiopian construction, yet combine Dutch modernity.

South Africa is, as ever, its own special situation. It also exemplifies the extraordinary diversity of the continent’s economic and social extremes in its architecture but it has thrown up a number of real jewels over recent years. Jo Noero’s Red Location Museum in the New Brighton township of Port Elizabeth is a remarkable building expressed in the same stark, industrial materials that characterise the surrounding informal settlements — the corrugated metal, reclaimed timber and plywood sheets of self-built construction. Yet it encloses some breathtaking spaces and a flexible, beautiful museum.
Peter Rich’s Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre on the Limpopo river is a very different kind of cultural institution. A building about the landscape it seems to actually meld into its surroundings, its mud brick domes bulging and undulating like a cluster of massive mole hills.

Inside however the spaces are filled with light — the brick vaults create an almost numinous series of spaces and clerestorey lighting flooding in from beneath the vaults and from an oculus in the dome is quite spectacular.

At an entirely different scale Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby Atepa has been building with the modernist ambition of the post-independence designs. His striking, sculptural buildings are pierced with monumental arches and characterised by the kind of gaudy grandness more often associated with the Gulf of the boom years.

The most notable development, however, has arguably been very un-African. Just as the postcolonial era saw a surprising importation of the architecture of the former overlords, the new era is being characterised by the emergence of Chinese construction companies. Their importing of architecture, engineers and contractors is a mixed blessing. It is providing much-needed infrastructure and efficient, if generic, urbanism, while robbing local architects and craftsmen of the chance to develop their ideas and skills.

The extraordinary growth of the continent’s biggest cities consistently throws up surprises and delights. We may expect the future of the world’s big cities to look like Dubai or Shanghai, but, for better and for worse, they might well look more like Lagos or Accra.
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