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What the West can learn from Africa

David Adjaye’s Royal Gold Medal presentation provides added impetus for us to reassess our view of African architecture, to learn from it and apply its lessons to design in the West

National Cathedral of Ghana.
National Cathedral of Ghana. Credit: Adjaye Associates.

With the Royal Gold Medal ceremony taking place tomorrow, what immediately jumps out from the RIBAJ interview with David Adjaye marking this occasion is his reference to the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy as one of his inspirations. As Adjaye’s honour sparks renewed interest in contemporary African architecture – he also works there – it is time to re-evaluate our relationship with it. African architecture is not just about vernacular tradition or Afro-Futurism; it is and should be part of our present practice: right here, right now.

The dissemination of knowledge on African buildings has often been carried out under the lens of Western architecture. Accounts of African buildings by modernists such as Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer abound, while other African buildings have been restricted by a historicising gaze, seemingly freezing them in time. Most architecture students will have heard of the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali dating from the 13th century, and practically all are familiar with the Great Pyramids of Egypt. In fact, as every Western architecture course seems to begin with the pyramids, it is easy to forget that they are, in fact, not the origin of the European architectural canon, but first and foremost part of the rich history of African design.

It is time for European architects to learn from contemporary African architecture and transcend the stereotypes. Currently, Karakusevic Carson Architects’ Nana Biamah-Ofosu and Bushra Mohamed (RIBAJ Rising Star 2020) of David Kohn Architects are co-operating under the name of Studio Nyali to undertake a rigorous, scientific research project into the compound house, a type of multigenerational living arrangement found across the continent from Tunisia to Zimbabwe. The compound houses of Ghana, for instance, have lived many different lives; most recently in the form of low-cost and somewhat overcrowded student rentals. As a result, many are earmarked for demolition in favour of anonymous apartment blocks. But Biamah-Ofosu and Mohamed are distilling lessons for contemporary urban density from their research into this multi-faceted type of communal housing, to preserve the best examples for the future. 

In this vein, the release of the most recent, if not the first, major encyclopaedia of sub-Saharan African architecture couldn’t be more timely. Finally, the breadth of African architecture is starting to be given appropriate breathing space in text and image in order to be regarded with the nuance that it deserves. Published by DOM of Berlin, the Sub-Saharan Africa Architectural Guide features, among others, Diébédo Francis Kéré – professor at the Technical University of Munich in Germany. Perhaps better known to UK audiences as the designer of the Serpentine pavilion in 2017, he is but one of the talented architects from the African continent to design the prestigious temporary structure. 

This year, Sumayya Vally of the South African practice Counterspace will be the youngest architect ever to present a Serpentine Pavilion design to UK audiences. Fascinatingly, her pavilion will respond to different neighbourhoods of London, taking away parts of the structure to marginalised areas before reuniting them with the main building in Kensington Gardens. It offers a unique perspective of London by an African architect that is refreshingly different from the one-directional views of Westerners looking to bestow their knowledge onto projects on the African continent. Perhaps, in time, some of our best and most innovative thinking on housing and urban communities will come from redirecting our gaze.

Sarah Maafi is RIBAJ/Future Architects winner 2021. Read more of her work here