The Africa Center, a British non-profit that serves as an African cultural center in London, this week opened a new headquarters designed by Freehaus, a 2022 RECORD Design Vanguard. Located in the London neighborhood of Southwark, the project transforms a nondescript six-story office building into a welcoming hub for visitors.
Two new entrances make the first floor, which houses a reception area and the restaurant Tatale, a permeable space linking the main entrance with a new pedestrianized area behind the building that the organization hopes will foster the growth of an African quarter in Southwark. Three upper floors house a bar lounge, a gallery and event space, and a kitchen. New windows and terraces open up the brick façade, which has now been painted black.
A future phase of the project, for which fundraising is now underway, will add a digital learning center and an incubator space for Afro-centric business on the building’s top two floors. It will also include a large exterior screen inspired by the mashrabiya lattices of northern African architecture, which will give forceful outward expression to the center’s mission and work.
“The key to the brief was for the Africa Center’s new headquarters to be unmistakably African,” said Freehaus co-founder Jonathan Hagos in a release. The firm, he says, wanted to turn the misconception that Africa is a country rather than a continent on its head and “envisage what an embassy for a continent might look like in the 21st century: a space that demonstrates what connects us and binds us to one another, while celebrating the dynamism of the continent.”
In the resulting design, Freehaus sought to draw on shared traditions with broad meaning across the continent and throughout the African diaspora. These include expressed thresholds, tactile surfaces, particular qualities of light, and practices of reuse and appropriation. The same themes also guided the work of the project’s interior designer, Tola Ojuolape, and its brand designer, Mam’gobozi Design Factory.
The finished product “is a building which, on its various floors, will provide opportunities for learning, relaxing, eating, and holding business meetings, in equal measure—an environment which will be relaxed, welcoming and uniquely pan-African,” said Africa Center chair Oba Nsugbe in the release.