Why you should care
Because this is a massive, one-of-a-kind survey of African architecture by region.
When David Adjaye set out to document African architecture in metropolitan cities across the continent, he did so informally. He’d hop on a plane, show up — often for the first time — in a city like Nouakchott or Accra or Harare, jump in a cab and ask the driver to show him around. It’s from solo trips like this, 54 in total, with 54 taxi drivers’ wisdom, that the British-Ghanaian architect constructed his latest exhibit: Urban Africa, currently showing in San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora.
What you’ll find at the small but intriguing exhibit are Adjaye’s photographs — shots of buildings big and small, fancy and simple from the Cape to Cairo and everywhere in between. They’re curated from his 397-page photo essay book Adjaye, Africa, Architecture, a lustworthy coffee table book in its own right that chronicles his insights from a decade of travel across Africa.
Urban Africa offers visitors a glimpse into a source of inspiration for Adjaye, who was recently knighted by the queen of England and is also the mastermind behind the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. In the design of the new Smithsonian, Adjaye drew from his decade documenting African architecture to capture the role the continent has played in African-American culture, he tells OZY.
The Urban Africa exhibit lines a hallway and is divided up, not by colonial influence on architecture or by traditional regions, but by physical landscape. The photographs draw similarities across topography, how the land influences the buildings, separating them out into six distinct landscapes. Each region is highlighted in a neon color on a map of Africa next to a small screen featuring a slideshow of his photographic survey of the major cities in each swath of land. It’s an innovative approach to categorizing Africa. The photos are shot, sometimes obviously, by an amateur. But perhaps that’s the whole point, to capture them as-is, without editing or stylizing.
The exhibit alone is small, but admission to the entire museum is only $10 and includes access to three floors of contemporary art installations paired with sound, virtual-reality landscapes and miniature sculptures from the African diaspora, wherever they may hail from now — from India to Nigeria to the U.S. When I visited, I was particularly drawn to the large charcoal portraits of imaginary Nigerian royalty by artist Toyin Ojih Odutola in her exhibit A Matter of Fact. The museum, which is housed in the St. Regis hotel, isn’t usually too busy during the week. But word to the wise: Don’t visit on holidays. I made that mistake on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — the line snaked around the block. Turns out 1,700 people visited the museum on that day alone.
The following Q&A with David Adjaye has been edited for clarity.
What was the original inspiration for putting the book and exhibit together?
David Adjaye: As an architect in London, I became interested in the effects that my early experience of Africa may have had on me and I needed to complete the journey that I have started in my early life. I also wanted to dispel the Western-world misconception of Africa as an impoverished or unpeopled expanse and to explore the important relationships between modernity and the ancient and the importance of geography rather than political boundaries to the DNA of African cities. I wanted to give a sense of an entire continent with all of its diversity as well as its consistencies. I set out to create snapshots — images which would convey the intensity of life on the continent — the social interaction and the animation that architecture has.
Each place, of course, has its own particularities, but culture grows from climate.
Can you elaborate on the decision not to name styles of architecture but rather to group them together climatically?
Adjaye: Working on the book and exhibition taught me that you can’t understand Africa until you realize that it has six distinct climatic zones — each one very precise and extreme. You have the Maghreb, the tip of Europe and the tip of Africa; the desert, the middle; the Sahel, the junction between those two; the forest, the next zone, which is really the interior of Africa; the Savannah, the wing of the forest, where the animal kingdom is; and then you have all the highlands, which is where there are mountains, the peaks and upper paths. Each place, of course, has its own particularities, but culture grows from climate.
If you look at the metropolitan centers and capitals as just individual phenomena — what I call population density and GDP — you miss how to understand the nuances between them. I realized the way to understand the differences was to understand the geography a little more precisely. Foreigners look at Africa with its dozens of countries and find it bewildering. But if you think of it as six climatic zones, then you can start to understand it. An American architect can look at Mali and Chad and relate to them as an Arizona-type region, or see Ghana and Mozambique as a bit like California.
What role did this decade-long project and its insights play in the design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture?
Adjaye: I have come to realize that my approach to the Africa project is in fact identical to my approach to architecture, which is to first and foremost step into the place I am working and try to understand it as holistically as possible. For the museum, the design absolutely emerged out of the kind of rigorous investigation of climate, geography and cultural context that form the content of this book and show. I think it is evident in the design that every element relates directly to the narrative of its place and context, whether it be the porch that provides an intermediate space to escape the heat of D.C.’s summer [or] the lattice motif of the façade that draws from the ironwork of the American South.
What surprised you about metropolitan African architecture as a whole or in one region?
Adjaye: The breadth. African architecture is not a monolith, and even as someone who grew up living all over the continent, I was amazed at the range of typological innovation I saw. Despite the colonial tabula rasa and the blanket of modernity that engulfed many African cities after independence, the cultural, aesthetic and social references of Africa generate a very specific kind of architecture.
The exhibit is showing through April 2, 2017.