credit David Adjaye
words Justin McGuirk
Adjaye. Africa. Architecture. The three As: an architect, a continent and a discipline – together at last. Adjaye comes first. He’s not just the author, he’s the title. Seven volumes in a slipcase. Their covers are black, like Adjaye’s houses, and they show up your greasy fingerprints. Is this a branding bonanza or a crime scene?
Adjaye Africa Architecture is the book of the exhibition Urban Africa, held at the Design Museum in London last year. The show consisted of hundreds of photographs taken by the architect on his visits to 52 of the then 53 (there are now 54) capitals on the continent. It felt desperately thin. It could have been called Urban Africa: Adjaye’s Holiday Snaps. The photo-montages purported to capture the texture of urban Africa but they felt more like evidence that he had actually completed his grand tour. I have no intention of belittling that tour. It’s an impressive feat, a mammoth attempt to come to grips with a continent that is woefully understudied. Urban Africa could use a champion. Why not Adjaye?
The head of UN Habitat, Joan Clos, recently pointed out that Africa is the first continent to experience mass urbanisation without industrialisation. The consequences of this extraordinary situation are clear. More than 60 percent of African urbanites live in slums, and most non-agricultural employment in sub-Saharan Africa is informal (and therefore untaxed). In Kinshasa and Lagos, Africa has two of the fastest growing cities in the world, and yet the continent’s share of global trade is less than 2 percent. So where will the money come from to pay for the absent infrastructure? You will not find such questions addressed in Adjaye Africa Architecture because this is not really a book about cities. This is a book about architecture.
Adjaye’s contribution to the study of the continent is a taxonomy of cities by geographical region. He divides the volumes into six landscapes: mountain and Highveld; savanna and grassland; forest; the Sahel; desert; and the Maghreb. (I’ve always understood the Maghreb to be a cultural definition rather than a topographical one but perhaps I’m wrong.) Establishing this taxonomy is an important step towards breaking down any perception of Africa as a monolithic entity, while at the same time moving beyond easy colonial readings of its cities as French, British or Italian. What makes African cities different? At times the distinctions are clearly born out by the pictures, as in two Sahel cities that I visited last year: Bamako in Mali and Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. Here the buildings take on the colour of the parched earth. But we learn that there are also invisible forces at work. Addis Ababa, for instance, is a classic mountain city in that residential areas are located higher up, above the mosquito line.
On the whole, though, the urban observations come as a breezy patter. On Harare, Adjaye writes, “You have the sense that this is a really habitable city – well organised and not too big.” He is more engaged when it comes to architectural form. The photos are all of buildings, from civic showpieces to the plainly commercial to vernacular housing. While they’re standard tourist snapshots, they do convey a sense of what these cities are like from the street – as opposed to from the air, the perspective of so much contemporary urbanism. Adjaye is interested in the language of African architecture, whether it’s shading devices in Maputo or mosque typologies in Nouakchott. And he has genuine insights. On Ouagadougou he describes how the bold geometric forms are designed to counteract a light “that flattens everything”.
Adjaye’s focus on architectural style is oddly old-fashioned, but there is a case to be made for understanding the city through form. Contemporary urban discourse is all density, demographics and infrastructure; the sociological aspect often comes at the expense of the spatial dimension. However, while this big book aspires to an AMO-style scope, it fails to deliver the arresting, counter-intuitive conclusion. Even the scholarly essays, which get their own volume, are oddly tangential, and don’t really address the urgent issues of urbanity in Africa. The overall effect of the book, then, is impressionistic. Yet Adjaye’s project does shed some light on the continent. And even though he is using it to position himself as Mr Africa, that is no small feat.
credit David Adjaye