With West African economies growing in tandem with demand for new urban buildings, how are architects designing for the future?
Words Nana Ocran
It’s little wonder that over the last decade or so, when most people think about African architects, the name that regularly pops up is that of British-Ghanaian David Adjaye, OBE. His many cosmopolitan works include the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, the Skolkovo Moscow School Of Management and two Ghana-based projects — Elmina College in Cape Coast, and a hotel resort at Princes Town in Takoradi. Without question, these are blueprints to inspire, but who else is shaping the landscapes of African cities?
This was a question I’d had for a while, and a few answers came during the lead up to a project I co-curated this year. Afrofuture took place during Milan Design Week, in the form of an experimental showcase of design ideas, each with an African thread running through them. Of the talks, workshops and performances that took place, one discussion featuring a creative mix of designers, researchers, photographers and architects featured Nat Amarteifio. A curator, architect, art collector and former Mayor of Accra, his views – particularly on Ghana’s urban environments — go back to the country’s pre-independence days.
His working life reads like a mini travelogue. After studying architecture in the US during the 1960s, he practised in both the US and Canada during the 1970s, Ghana in the early 1980s, and then pitched up in Port Harcourt, Nigeria in the early 1990s. This last location, he recalls ‘was like a city on autopilot’. Nigeria presented a huge challenge, but it was a learning curve that graced him with the right skills at the right time when he returned to Ghana in 1993. At that time, the country’s capital was in need of fresh ideas about transportation, health and infrastructure. “They needed all this in one bag,” Nat explains, “and I had enough international experience to help stitch all these things together as Mayor of Accra.”
Coming from the post-independence era, his architectural icons include Victor Adegbite, Ghana’s prominent — and still-surviving — 1950s architect, whose modernist template is perhaps easy to overlook for the non-ornamental style that dominated the post-independence governmental buildings.
“They were the kind of ministerial buildings that are easy to overlook now because they were copied so much, but at the time they seemed very daring. Most of those early Ghanaian structures have been revamped,” says Nat. “There’s now a whiff of Chinatown around most of them. It’ll be interesting to see if that continues.” His general critique of much of Ghana’s past and present architecture is that there’s a limited focus on durable design.
“Back when I was studying,” says Nat, “it was important to think about the climate that buildings were surrounded by. These days, the last thing that’s thought about is the comfort of residents, because systems like air conditioning can be manipulated manually. In some ways, the colonial period in this country — despite its dominant European culture — had the most environmentally sensitive buildings we’ve ever had. Those structures had overlays and high ceilings, or were built on stilts. Since then, technology has taken away the need for many of these solutions.”
His assessment runs in tandem with his views on the Netherlands-based architect, urbanist and founder of design company NLÉ, Kunlé Adeyemi — another strong voice during the Afrofuture Design Week event. On meeting in Milan, a cross-generational bond was formed, with Nat being struck by the younger architect’s ethos when it came to the solutions for what has become a widely recognised prototype project — the floating school on the Makoko waterfront in Lagos.
“It was his approach that interested me,” Nat says. “There are a few waterborne villages on Ghana’s coast. They’re typically fisher folks’ homes built on stilts. I like the way Adeyemi has gone into the thinking of the people from Lagos, and has come up with a solution that engaged the whole community in the construction. He used local materials and labour, and made sure everyone in the community contributed.”
The floating structure that Nat, and much of the international design community, is captivated by, is built on Lagos’ lagoon fringe. Adeyemi’s innovative approach addresses the resident’s social and physical needs in line with the impact of climate change in a rapidly urbanising African context.
I first met Adeyemi back in 2011, when his notion of working with the Makoko community was in its infancy. As he tells it, he’d been seeing the area from the distance of the 3rd Mainland Bridge at Lagos Island, whenever he visited Nigeria. “It was while I was researching affordable housing solutions that my curiosity for Makoko led me to visit it,” says Adeyemi. “I was shocked by the conditions, but at the same time, inspired by the way of life and building.”
The residents were the ones who expressed the need for a school, and this was the first step in the collaborative process.
“We slowly earned the trust of the community through our commitment, engagement, open communication and performance over two years,” he explains. “We made it happen.”
He goes on to outline an emergence of a “global megacultural renaissance”, something that’s fuelled by urbanisation. “Design and aesthetics in Africa are increasingly being nuanced by different physical, cultural and historical assets of the continent,” he says. And is he a pioneer? “Only to the extent that the needs, dreams and visions of the people I work with are in alignment with my action.”
Adeyemi’s major influences are his father, the late architect Fola Adeyemi, and a previous mentor, Rem Koolhaas, his one-time boss at Rotterdam’s Office For Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). However, his closest contemporary peer is fellow African architect Francis Kéré. Berlin-based, Kéré has gained plenty of press coverage over the last decade, for his work in building primary and secondary schools as well as the ongoing construction of an African Opera village in his home country, Burkina Faso. His use of locally sourced materials and a strict decision not to use any machines that labourers couldn’t fix, or tools that couldn’t be locally manufactured, puts him and Adeyemi in the same ethical bracket.
Adeyemi: “The aesthetics of the floating building is mostly influenced by the local materials and building techniques of the people of Makoko. This is combined with very technical solutions to the challenges of stable foundations and increasing flooding.”
Adeyemi’s style and that of Kéré’s were previously acknowledged by Nat, who was keen to point out during our conversation that both men represent a new set of young architects now approaching maturity. In their cases, both clearly have reached back into the past, and both have learned from traditional African architecture and used its methods unapologetically.
Nat: “My generation of architects were taught that traditional African materials [like clay and bamboo] had less worth. Even today, most architects have become unimaginative, getting everything from abroad, which means a great deal of money is spent for solutions that can be done in Africa. Adeyemi and Kéré are actually going back to their roots and figuring out ways of using available resources to build urban structures.”
Through his architecture, design and urbanism practice — NLÉ — Adeyemi’s future plans are to start an extensive research project called ‘African Water Cities’ to identify, analyse and document many informal settlements in coastal Africa in view of urbanisation and climate change.
A project like this is exciting, and represents the level of creative risk, innovation and imagination that’s taking place on the continent, particularly when it comes to fusing tradition and heritage with fresh new ideas.
Other innovative projects such as the 2009 Ethiopian Pavilion — a fusion of Japanese and Ethiopian architecture — come as an additional example of the use and adaption of traditional styles and materials. In that particular case, Japanese firm Atelier Tekuto worked with Ethiopian architect Fassil Giorgis to build a cultural centre in Ethiopia’s old imperial capital, Gondar, by recycling architecture that represents the two cultures.
Build on the promise
It’s a great story of invention on the continent, but a more recent conversation with renowned Ghanaian architect Joe Osae-Addo provoked more thought. Osae-Addo is the founder of the Accra-based ArchiAfrika organisation, which has a salon-style forum for like-minded art lovers, artists and architects, who meet once a month to discuss contemporary art and design in Ghana.
Passionate about rekindling mentorship throughout Africa, he talks of a growing community of designers with “young, fresh or persistently curious minds,” whose concepts are getting lost in a world that bombards them with imagery. To him, it’s the “usual suspects” (of which he disarmingly includes himself) who are singled out as spokespeople regarding the continent’s built environments.
He reeled off a number of key names to look out for including Jean-Charles Tall, who co-founded Senegal’s independent (and only) architectural college; Frank Amankwah, who has designed a show-stopping house in Ghana; Ugandan architect Jennifer Mpyisi, the Lagos-based architectural think-tank, Bukka; and the slick Côte d’Ivoire-based firm Koffi & Diabaté before stating that: “The conversation about creative, innovative and aesthetically led African design has been going on around the world for a decade or so.”
However, “the problem”, as he sees it, from travelling throughout the continent, is that the amount of building being done by Africans within Africa is minimal. With the level of global energy that’s being focused on the continent’s creativity in terms of its design and environmental solutions, his views seem like a warning — or at least a call to arms. The 21st century African design narratives are interesting and inspiring but, as Osae-Addo points out: “If we as Africans aren’t careful, the discourse may very well be taken away from us”.
A new wave of African or African-influenced design and architecture organisations are tapping into the continent’s urban future.
An experimental event
that fuses design with
African innovation for
Milan Design Week.
An inspirational Accra-based organisation that’s broadening the conversation about Africa’s built environments.
A Japanese architectural firm that created an Ethiopian and Japanese pavilion, which exists as an innovative cross-cultural centre.
This London-registered organisation was set up to run debates, talks and exhibitions focusing on non-European societies and cities.
David Adjaye Associates
The design practice of the OBE-awarded architect, considered a trailblazer for Africa‘s diverse architecture.
Francis Kéré Architecture
Project information, publications and videos all about this innovative Burkinabé architect, famous for building an opera village.
An inspiring visual showcase of UK-based Amankwah’s latest design projects in West Africa.
Koffi & DiabatÉ Architects
Koffi & Diabaté have designed buildings and apartments in Cotonou, Addis Ababa, Abidjan and Lomé.
A one-stop portal for blogs, stories, features, factual background and other useful information on the social, political and cultural life of cities within Africa.