The architect spent 11 years traversing the continent, working on a book and reconnecting with his past.

David Adjaye
David Adjaye
Photo: © courtesy Adjaye Associates

Since starting his own firm in London in 2000, the award-winning David Adjaye has designed artists' studios, retail spaces, and public buildings such as the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, currently under construction in Washington, D.C. Born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents (his father was a diplomat), he grew up in various parts of Africa before studying architecture in London. Deputy Editor Clifford A. Pearson sat down with him at his New York City office to discuss the economic, demographic, and architectural changes sweeping through many parts of Africa.

Architectural Record: Your book African Metropolitan Architecture was published this past year. What made you decide to start such a project?

David Adjaye: It began as an autobiographical effort, a way to return to my childhood. For the first 13, 14 years of my life, my family moved around—east Africa, north, and west. My memories had become thinner, and I just wanted to reconnect with these places.

How did you go about doing the research?

I started in 1999 and slowly visited all 53 capital cities. [With the establishment of South Sudan in July 2011, there are now 54 countries in Africa.] I would hire a car and driver and spend a few days, a week, two weeks exploring a place. I would spend day and night with the driver, so invariably we would become great friends. We would drive until we exhausted the city. When I felt like I couldn't take any more photographs, I would stop. I used just a digital camera to keep the process discreet. Africans don't really like being photographed, contrary to all those images you see of children running around everywhere.

How did the project turn into a book?

I showed some of the photographs to friends in the U.K., Europe, and the U.S., and realized that they had no idea of what Africa was like; they had no imagery of the built environment there. I found that astonishing. There are nearly 1.5 billion people living in Africa, but nobody in the West seemed to know anything about the urban context there. Then I did a show at Harvard and got an amazing response. People were really excited. They hadn't seen images of Africa taken from an architect's perspective.

What did you learn that was most significant about Africa?

Working on the book taught me that you can't understand Africa until you realize that it has six extraordinary geographic zones—each one very precise and extreme. In the northwest you have the Maghreb, then to the east you have the desert, and to the south the Sahel, which is between the desert and the forest. Other parts of the continent are forest lands or savanna or the mountains. 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. Each place, of course, has its own particularities, but culture grows from climate. And linguistically, there are really just two zones—the Anglophone world and the Francophone world—with Arabic in the north and Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique.

What about the political situation?

Since the end of colonialism 50 years ago, places that had been groups of kingdoms have been trying to establish national identities. These are young countries, not nations. Many of them are still struggling to identify who they are, while accelerating into the 21st century. There's also an awareness that Africa is having its Brasília moment, with about 25 countries building their capital cities, their infrastructures, their identities. And they're all wrestling with figuring out what the right model should be.

There seems to be a struggle between the concept of the nation-state and what came before in Africa.

I was talking at a conference in Nigeria recently, which was attended by lots of mayors of African cities. I was hammering home this idea that you've got to stop thinking about the nation, which is perfect for politics and governance but doesn't help when it comes to culture. For culture, you have to go back to the regional and the geographic. What are your regional ties? When you do this, you realize that actually the river-delta people have similar cultures whether they're in the east, west, or south. They're unique peoples, but they have the same kind of climatic conditions and the same kind of identities. Yes, Namibia is different from Ethiopia, but they share a mountain culture. And when you're there, you feel that. I think we sometimes overplay the specifics of history to the detriment of understanding the bigger picture of nature. People may speak 10 different languages, but if they work the land the same way and grow the same crops, they're going to have the same kind of culture. The specifics may be different, but the essential DNA is the same.

How does this translate into architecture?

I was speaking with Gregg Pasquarelli [one of the partners at the New York firm SHoP] after they won a huge project in Gaborone, Botswana, for an innovation center [page 61]. They won because they showed a specific response to the geology and geography of that place. And that's what Africa at this moment is interested in. How do you respond to this extreme climate and make an architecture that becomes African?

Having spent the first part of your career working on projects in the U.K., Europe, and the U.S., you are finally getting the chance to build in Africa. Where are you working there?

At the moment, we're doing projects in Accra [Ghana], Lagos [Nigeria], and Libreville [Gabon]. We're doing a complete range of work there, from educational to cultural to housing. The educational projects include both K-12 schools and a new university. Private-sector universities are opening in Africa now, which is changing the educational landscape. In Lagos we're doing retail work and housing. We may be getting projects in Cape Town and Nairobi. Kenya is booming. Uganda is booming. With the discovery of gas and oil recently, the east African corridor is going to experience a massive shift. Suddenly these countries are able to raise billions of dollars in bonds. The Chinese are involved in a lot of the work, but it's still up for grabs because there is so much of it.

What are the critical building needs there?

A lot of it is infrastructure. But when I say infrastructure, I mean it in the broadest sense—including not just roads, but the architecture of governance. Many of these countries want to build new administrative centers that reflect the modern world. Architecture needs to be used in a way that helps them establish a relationship with their citizens.