How Architecture can create a new Africa

It has become an argument in recent times on how colonialism and European styles of Architecture have unfortunately destroyed the scenery that once planted traditional forms of Architecture in Africa.

From Eritrea, where Italian styles of Architecture are prominent, to Accra in Ghana, where earlier post-independence architects have embraced European modernist architectural style in the city.  Even in Abuja, where the use of different imported building materials make up the beauty of the new city, down to Johannesburg, where a concoction of high-rise office buildings are a replica of European cities. There is a general feeling that growing African economies are about to birth unsustainable, unaffordable, non-ecofriendly forms of Architecture that lack originality.

Afro modernism was the gift colonialism left behind in Africa. Having gained independence between the 1960s and the 1970s, some African cities were left with modernist styles of architecture. Dotted around many of such cities, at post-independence, were widely European styles of architecture and design, which could not solve the immediate problems of harsh climatic conditions or the spacious and communal ways of living which original Africans were accustomed to, so much so, Indigenous architects were not confident enough to continue to work or design without the influence of the west. With the scars of colonialism left in Africa’s biggest cities, it has become a concern for stakeholders and professionals to create a new Africa that would be built through architecture to create new urban and rural areas that can help citizens engage in different forms of activities with ease.

The African Design Center in Kigali, Rwanda, have estimated that by the year 2050, the population of Africa will double to about 2.5 billion citizens that will engage actively in socioeconomic and sociopolitical activities. This will put much more pressure on African cities, city planners and building authorities in finding urgent solutions to the unavoidable challenges that Africans of the emerging era will face. Provision of adequate and affordable housing, sufficient infrastructure and a return of architectural identity all over African urban and rural areas will become the unavoidable discussions of this new era.  It is estimated that in 2050, Africa would require 700,000,000 new housing units, 310,000 new schools or institutes, and 85,000 newly built health centers to meet with the demands of this doubling of Africa’s population. Top on the list of considerations would be construction techniques and materials specifications, as well as energy use. This will be an era that would witness architects prioritizing the use of sustainable building materials that are locally available, affordable, and eco-friendly, having a less harmful effect on the environment in  a bid to create architecture that has the potential to provide a number of solutions to numerous societal challenges. Some new African architects are emerging from all over continent are already tackling some of these challenges, helping to change the narrative a birth the new Africa of the future.

Kunle Adeyemi, principal and founder of NLE, is globally recognized for his design proposal to revitalise the Makoko community, an informal coastal settlement in the megacity of Lagos. He designed and built a prototype of his Makoko Floating School with an aim to generate sustainable, ecological, alternative building systems as well as urban water cultures for the teeming population of Africa’s coastal cities. With no evidence of government infrastructure in Makoko, residents were faced with poor housing and health conditions which Adeyemi rose to address through architecture. The floating school was designed to be built with locally sourced timber struts and boards, floating on empty rubber barrels, with renewable energy to be the only source of energy supply. It addressed many challenges, including access to good health clinics, with many christening the idea as the new Venice, but I insist that it is much more attractive and sustainable.

Kunle Adeyemi’s Makoko Floating School.

Rwandan born architect – Christian Benimana and the international award winning architect – Diebedo Francis Kere, born in the small village of Gando in Burkina Faso are also beginning to chart a new course for a friendlier Architecture for the new Africa. Kere has successfully used community participation, energy and skill to reinvent the use of locally sourced natural clay in the construction of school buildings in his community. These aesthetically finished classroom blocks optimally address the issues of climate. The mud bricks used to erect the walls provide a cozy interior that is fit for learning, while clay pots are used to create round openings through the ceiling, covered by aluminum roofing sheets raised and supported by locally made steel struts, which allow for extensive daylighting into the classroom, office spaces etc and reduce heat intensity.

Clay pots inserted into the ceiling of Gando School Library to enhance air flow and daylighting.
Gando School Library built with locally sourced clay by the community’s effort.

Benimana, perplexed by the high mortality rate of expectant mothers in Rwanda, came up with the idea of making good standard maternities and clinics accessible to rural communities of Rwanda. His designed and built prototypes are of mud bricks and construction techniques similar to that of Diebedo Francis Kere. Around Africa, young architects and designers are standing up to the challenges of the new era, but the lack funding and inadequate trainings have limited the professionals in the motherland.

On the 6th of March 2018, as Ghana celebrated her 61st Independence from colonialism, President Akufo-Addo announced the commissioning of the New National Cathedral Accra, designed by Ghanaian-British architect – David Adjaye – and his team at Adjaye Associates. This design, which will address the missing link in the nation’s architecture by providing a church of national purpose is described by Adjaye as “…a building that not only understands its landscape but one that will be unique to Accra and the Ghanaian nation.” The New National Cathedral in Accra is designed in an African modernist style that draws from both Christian symbolism and Ghanaian heritage. It is both a religious and cultural institution, with a community hub for gathering and learning. David Adjaye intends to showcase the power of African Art and Architecture through his design, and has also commissioned Ghanaian and African artists to create religious adornments and furnishings.

The new National Cathedral Accra by Adjaye Associates recently commissioned by the President Akufo  – Addo.

There is need for Architecture and Design institutes to spring up all around Africa, to help create designs that will answer the many pressing questions that we have failed to address. If African political leaders wake up to the ruins and loss of identity caused by years of corruption and war, and accept to fund new ideas and pathways, we will be well on our way to restoring an Architecture which was once the first and most admired among many nations. African architects and designers must be encouraged to network among each other, to allow the opportunity for new ideas. The mission of the African Design Centre is to empower the leaders who will design a more equitable, just and sustainable world.

Fellows at the African Design Centre. Image credit: Mass Design Group.

In 2017, Nigerian born architect Stephen Ajadi established the African Collaborative Institute of Design – ACID, described by him as a new-age critically evaluating ‘place’ for design at various current levels that is mostly anchored in the African context. ACID is a research think-tank, with the task of evolving Architecture, Planning, Economics and Design to meet up with the tempo and demands of the contemporary African context, drawing capacity from an interdisciplinary base. The role these design institutes would play in the future of Africa cannot be overemphasized.

In January 2018, Christian Benimana gave a TED Talk where he stated that future African cities retain the capacity to become the most resilient and socially inclusive places on earth. As future African cities are still growing through their phases, it is very possible for architects to ensure that design schemes are originally rooted and traceable to the continent, while they address the several environmental, socioeconomic, health and population challenges. This can be achieved if architects, designers, engineers along with rural and urban communities in Africa synergise, network and share knowledge that could give birth to better and more acceptable designs and construction methods that are unique to the problems of the continent. Until this is achieved, traditional architectural solutions would remain a thing of the past, missing the opportunity to evolve into the new, vibrant and viable Africa.

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