An architect’s snapshots of Africa’s cities

Image of Edwin Heathcote

There is an assumption that if only the Global South could become a little more like the Global North, with its efficiency, its good governance, its wealth, then things could begin to get a little better. But what if most of the world is actually getting a little more like Africa? Hotter, poorer, hungrier, more overpopulated? Lagos, for instance, is the fastest growing city on the planet – by 2015 it is estimated that it will be growing by 58 new inhabitants an hour, 10 times faster than London. In this exhibition, the architect David Adjaye is attempting to explore the diversity embodied in the African city, partly to document, but also partly to dispel the clichés, the notions of these extraordinary places as dystopian monocultures of poverty, of the lost cause.

Born in Dar-Es-Salaam but based in London, Adjaye, as an African-born architect now on the world stage, is in an unusual situation. Last year he won a competition to design Washington DC’s Museum of African American History, the final major museum on the city’s Mall and a milestone in the recognition of African heritage. In Britain, Adjaye has already completed a handful of buildings that describe an approach to black culture in the contemporary city; the post-industrial cool of Rivington Place in London’s Shoreditch as well as two cultural and community centres which remember significant black figures. The Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham (named after a controversial local MP) and the Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford (named in honour of a local teenager murdered in a racist attack).

It is not his exclusive concern: Adjaye became known for a series of fiercely criticised private houses and some ambitious public schemes across the country. But, at this moment in London, as some boroughs approach the tipping point at which ethnic minorities cease to be minorities, there is genuine value in attempting to understand difference. What is it that makes the city? And what is it that makes each of these cities so different?

I spoke to Adjaye and asked him what he was trying to achieve. “It’s a 10-year hobby of mine,” he replies. “I have about 50 cities photographed now, all capitals [so Lagos isn’t here, but Abuja is]. It’s an attempt to document the components of the African city. There seemed to be loads of academic texts about African cities – lots of theory – but no pictures.”

What the photos show are cities of strange architectures, of collisions of the formal and the informal. Pop artists and avant-garde architects in the 1960s discovered the joy of the western everyday vernacular, and Adjaye’s African panoramas display a similar pop-sensibility, the cool post-colonial modernist infrastructure of the 1960s juxtaposed with ragged markets, endless traffic jams serviced by car-door-to-door salesmen, inventive signs mashed with the Esperanto of global logos. And people, the dense thickets of brightly clad bodies so conspicuously absent from conventional architectural photography. “We know all about the fragility of the African cities,” Adjaye says, “but not the vibrancy.”

The photos themselves are no masterpieces. These are not the stunning panoramas of industry and exploitation of Nadav Kander or Sebastiao Salgado, designed to provoke, to tease beauty from the ugliness. They are, frankly, snaps. But in their almost throwaway spontaneity, they manage to capture something of the seething intensity of the African city. After experiences in all those disparate places, I ask, what are the things that define the African city? “There is this diaphanous relationship between inside and outside space,” says Adjaye. “There is also no real differentiation between the country and the city. People have recently arrived from the country and have brought their lives with them.”

He calls them “accelerated, laminated cities. Most of them have three or four layers of modernism which have impacted on them. There is the imperial city, which becomes the colonial port, there are Christian and Islamic layers, the era of nation building [often supplied by Western architects and engineers], of post-colonial zoning of the city and these distinct readings all exist simultaneously.”

The intriguing thing about studying these diverse cities is the idea that perhaps, rather than dictating from outside what the African city of the future should be like, others are beginning to understand that there are things we could learn from them. The intensity of life as it is lived, the animation of the street, the spontaneity of trade but also the social interaction – even those cocooned in their cars in the traffic jams Adjaye captures are party to the culture of the street, talking and trading. Our cultural images of Africa can tend to be confined to the lost cultures – the Benin Bronzes, the Ife Heads – or to news pictures of poverty and war. Adjaye’s photos, displayed to an insistent rhythm of African beats (supplied by his brother Peter Adjaye), provide a stimulating counterpoint. These are not images of perfection or of disaster but of a continent undergoing rapid and perpetual change.

‘Urban Africa’, Design Museum, London, March 31 to September 5.

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