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The Africa Centre, Southwark

Words:
Regional Awards Jury

Freehaus turns relatively undistinguished 1960s office building into billboard for African art and culture

The Africa Centre.
The Africa Centre. Credit: Taran Wilkhu

2024 RIBA London Award

The Africa Centre, Southwark
Freehaus for The Africa Centre
Contract value: Confidential
GIA: 669m2

The Africa Centre was established in 1964 to represent a new Africa in the UK. A place to exchange ideas and provide advocacy and support to people arriving from Africa, it was located at King Street in Covent Garden. In its 60th anniversary year it has moved to this dynamic new home in Southwark – a once relatively undistinguished 1960s office building that has been given new life inside and out by architects Freehaus. The thoughtfully designed exhibition, event and social spaces are complemented by an eye-catching use of the exterior as a billboard for African art and culture.

  • The Africa Centre.
    The Africa Centre. Credit: Taran Wilkhu
  • The Africa Centre.
    The Africa Centre. Credit: Taran Wilkhu
  • The Africa Centre.
    The Africa Centre. Credit: Taran Wilkhu
  • The Africa Centre.
    The Africa Centre. Credit: Taran Wilkhu
1234

The Africa Centre’s original membership included politicians, artists and religious leaders, including Desmond Tutu, as well as civil servants and students. By the 1990s, it had a broader remit and put connecting people with arts and culture at its heart. It championed three Turner Prize winners, musicians, educationalists and helped its members with the business of making art. The challenge for its new home was to connect with this legacy and inspire future generations of creatives.

The building was purchased with funds from the Greater London Authority and the sale of the former Africa Centre building. The architects embraced the challenge of reworking the structure to make it welcoming for all and of reflecting African culture in its broadest sense – Southwark is home to the one of UK’s largest African diaspora communities.

  • The Africa Centre.
    The Africa Centre. Credit: Taran Wilkhu
  • The Africa Centre.
    The Africa Centre. Credit: Taran Wilkhu
  • The Africa Centre.
    The Africa Centre. Credit: Taran Wilkhu
  • The Africa Centre.
    The Africa Centre. Credit: Taran Wilkhu
  • The Africa Centre.
    The Africa Centre. Credit: Taran Wilkhu
12345

Circulation is well planned. The architects have designed a grand staircase, which links the ground-floor lounge, where food and non-alcoholic drinks are served, to the first-floor bar where music events take place. Deep earth tones are used throughout and walls are clad in clay and other natural finishes, making the interior feel warm and comfortable. Architectural motifs with loose connections to the African continent are also employed in the design.

A highly flexible gallery space has walls that can swing on hinges to create niches to display a large collection of art. This theme of exhibition continues outside: for example, the gable is decorated with a giant portrait of social reformer Ignatius Sancho by artist Dreph.

Neither the building nor the organisation it houses is static. There are plans to extend the use of the top floor as and when funds become available, and this concept of evolving is meanwhile being embraced in finding additional uses for the space. The jurors saw all this as an inspiring example of flexible, intelligent and exciting design.

See the rest of the RIBA London winners hereAnd all the RIBA Regional Awards here.

To see the whole RIBA Awards process visit architecture.com.

RIBA Regional Awards 2024 sponsored by EH Smith and Autodesk

Credits

Contractor QOB Interiors

Structural engineer Price and Myers

Environmental/M&E engineer OR Consulting

Quantity surveyor/cost consultant Metric CM

Acoustic engineer Hann Tucker

Project management Cambridge CCM

Approved building inspector Quadrant AI

Licensing Liam O'Hare

Art consultant Alexia Walker

Interior design Tola Ojuolape

 

Credit: Freehaus
Credit: Freehaus
Credit: Freehaus
Credit: Freehaus
Credit: Freehaus
Credit: Freehaus

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