The Africa Centre’s new home exudes the colours, sounds and atmosphere of the whole continent, along with a shop, exhibitions, restaurant and bar and events space
Beaded hanging lightshades, bulbous handmade terracotta pots, geometric patterned fabrics, woven and solid carved wooden stools, niches centred with anthropomorphic sculptures carved in black-stained wood, air bricks forming low separating walls, indigo and earth-tone clay walls that graduate in colour like a 360º savannah sunset around the room. Aesthetic languages from across the continent are drawn together at the new Africa Centre in Southwark, London. You can almost smell and taste it. By day, the sounds of the bush might echo in your ear, by night possibly the bustle of Accra or Johannesburg.
Bright red, yellow, blue and green curving winged dining chairs sprinkled on the pavement against the newly black-painted brick facade spark curiosity from the outside of the organisation’s refurbished home. The fabric of the street blends into the front of the building; paving setts lead to the entrance while granite blocks form the border of two asphalt patios. Between the flanges of a steel beam that fronts a newly added porch, capital letters welcome you to The Africa Centre.
‘It was important to make the welcome mat feel part of the street,’ explains the project’s architect Jonathan Hagos, co-founder of Freehaus (RIBAJ Future Winner March 2021). ‘We had a lot of conversations about transparency; being able to see in and out… The idea of a window the full height of the building is to use it as a banner for promotion.’
The Africa Centre is a 58-year-old organisation. It was founded in Covent Garden at 38 King Street, gifted in perpetuity by the Catholic Church to the people of Africa to promote non-governmental relations between newly independent African nations and to maintain informal cultural links between the continent and its diaspora. In its heyday it was a place of provocation via exhibitions, club nights, lecture programme and as a venue for important conversations and meetings leaders including archbishop Desmond Tutu and South African politician Thabo Mbeki.
However, by the early 2000s it had entered a period of relative dormancy. In 2013 it moved permanently to Great Suffolk Street, securing its financial future by leasing out the central London building and simultaneously putting itself into the borough with the largest black African community in London. Initially it moved into two railway arches and bought the four-storey, 1960s yellow brick former office building known as Gunpowder House – site of its newly refurbished home.
The idea behind the project has been for the organisation to become a cultural institution with a headquarters to match, able to keep company with others such as the Jerwood, Young and Old Vic and Tate Modern. Freehaus was appointed in 2019 at RIBA Stage 3 – post planning approval which was achieved by MAP Architecture. The other change was that the renewed centre should also speak to a wider breadth of people.
‘The criticism previously was that the Africa Centre had been too Christian and West African,’ explains Hagos. Now, to improve its social sustainability, it is aiming to be more pan-African and inclusive of other religions, people from all regions and people who live in Africa, people who migrated and also those among the general public who might not have previously felt connections to the continent. It has developed five pillars of purpose: culture, entrepreneurship and innovation, education, intellectual leadership and community.
These pillars are manifested across the new building, which has only had its first phase completed, having suffered funding cuts during the Covid 19 pandemic. At ground floor are a reception and restaurant serving African fusion food, with a lounge and bar on the first floor and an exhibition space on the second. The two additional levels were not included in phase 1 but eventually the third floor will become a digital learning space in which to access the organisation’s archive, do training and connect with classrooms across Africa. Meanwhile the fourth floor will be a business incubator space that takes advantage of the existing roof terrace. The arches behind the building remain, one as the organisation’s office; the other is currently let to external businesses but will become a performance space.
The brief was to make the project a ‘uniquely African’ and ‘welcoming institution’. The Africa Centre took the brave step to reuse Gunpowder House, yet this embedded the scheme with some challenging constraints. Each floorplate is quite tight at between 65 and 70m²The architect also had to work around the existing core and stairwell, ensuring contemporary building regulations were met. Externally the brick has been made good and painted black to change its character. Within that the architect has reworked the ventilation and heating strategies, including adding a heat recovery unit. The stairwell is now used as a thermal chimney. Meanwhile, the entrance has been opened up with more glazing to promote visibility and transparency. The portal frame acts both as a canopy for the entrance and a terrace for the first floor bar, creating a livelier and more dynamic facade where people can stand or sit alongside the canopy of the street trees.
On the ground floor Freehaus has extended 2m into a rear courtyard to create a more informal part of the restaurant so people can spill out front and back to give life to the street. Combined with the railway arches running alongside the back of the building, it’s possible to imagine the pedestrian passage between becoming a kind of Africa quarter filled with small businesses, social enterprises, food outlets and arts activities as the centre’s cultural and outreach programmes ramp up.
Inside, every step has been taken to get as broad mix of participants involved in the design as possible, including African-origin designers and makers. Interior design was done by Tola Ojuolape, joinery by Kenyan/Warrington couple Studio Propolis, art curation by Alexia Walker and brand design by Mam’gobozi Design Factory. The centre’s current exhibition is Sungi Mlengeya's ‘Bodies in space’. This approach has created carefully overlapping themes and aesthetics against a solid architectural backdrop that includes beautiful details like terrazzo flooring for the first step to mark a threshold – an architectural device common in parts of Africa. The bar on the first floor is inspired by the sheer hedonism of Marvin Gaye’s album cover ‘I want you’ – a darker, moodier, sensual space. The huge mural on the way up the new steel rail stair – painted on plaster by Mozambican artist and poet Malangatana Ngwenya in 1987 – was removed from the original King Street site when the Africa Centre moved out and put into storage, funded by Nando’s. It contributes perfectly to the vibe. Upstairs in the gallery, movable panels inspired by John Soane’s house in Holborn can be opened and closed to create hanging space or close off the walls of horizontal glazing. The whole space is painted indigo, referencing the dye trade, and thematically connecting this space to the stairwell below.
As phase 1 only, there is still more due for this project, including a full building-height screen climbing up the facade from the first-floor front terrace, as well as the digital learning and business incubator hub. The beauty of the scheme being incidentally split into phases means that the Africa Centre is able to open partially, as a testing ground, before the organisation makes more decisions and ossifies its vision of itself in the now. The Black Lives Matter movement had already had an impact on its course during the construction period (it went on site in 2020). For example, some of the interiors are stylistically very powerful. It’s a question in my mind as to whether they’ll feel 100% welcoming to all the groups the centre is intended for. And as the screen on the facade wouldn’t add floorspace, it doesn’t feel like a necessary addition as the front already appears to work. We’ll have to keep our eyes peeled.