Drawing inspiration from African houses

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BRUSSELS, Belgium — Born in Tanzania of Ghanaian origin, David Adjaye, 44, is one of Britain’s best-known architects. He made his name building geometric homes for clients in the art world.

Now, President Barack Obama has asked him to design a Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which Adjaye said will be inspired by tribal Yoruban sculpture.

Adjaye has practices in New York, London and Berlin and is eager to establish one in Africa too. “Maybe in Accra, which is where my family comes from,” he said.

Among many guises, he is artistic director of the geo-graphics exhibition at Brussels’ Bozar Center (until Sept. 26), which re-maps Africa and is made up of Adjaye’s pictures of capital cities, along with ethnographic and contemporary art. Brigid Grauman met him at its opening in Brussels.

David Adjaye, 44, is one of Britain’s best-known architects.

In your pictures of African capitals, you haven’t just concentrated on the grand monuments.

I had heard a lot about the urbanization of Africa through family and friends, and I used to visit about 10 countries regularly. But the continent has 53 countries and I realized that there was a huge gap in my understanding.

So I started by taking pictures of the places where I was brought up and the places I went to as a child. I then quickly decided to look at every single African capital city and document its architectural artifacts.

I spent a decade taking photographs of colonial and post-colonial monuments, buildings of civic life, high and low commercial architecture, shopping malls as well as markets and the informal trade happening on streets. I looked at residential architecture, from palaces to shantytown settlements.

Why has this show opted to divide the African continent into six regions?

At first I just wanted to build up a visual archive of the continent’s “built” fabric. But in preparing the show I realized that salient qualities unified entire territories, and that only by having an overview could one start to see more clearly.

Of course, we know that geography organizes things, but it’s the fieldwork that makes this plain. I felt that rather than examining the continent through countries and national boundaries, it might be more interesting to look at the salient nature of six regions: Sahel, savannah, desert, Maghreb (coast), forests and mountain.

Every region has its particular concerns. The cities of the Maghreb are European colonial cities, but when you move into the desert or the Sahel you get a cubic architecture that is ubiquitous from Chad to Burkina Faso. Where West Africa starts to dip into the forest and parts of the savannah the emphasis is on high-pitched roofs.

In the savannah, you also find post-colonial experiments in modernist architecture. This is where you see Belgian architects working with African architects, or English or German architects working with Africans. It’s a very interesting moment when Africa and Europe interconnected — Africa building nations, Europe providing infrastructural support.

Then you get to the highlands with its rarefied stone architecture built to withstand harsh winds. The local people in all these places didn’t even realize they were developing a style; they were responding to environment and context.

There is a reality, a transnational phenomenon called desert or forest which means something if you’re Cameroonian or Nigerian. You may speak different languages but you share the same cultural phenomena. I’m saying that this is a way of starting to understand Africa with its thousand languages and 53 countries. It really all boils down to six regions, six centers with arts, urbanism and cultural life.

How do you plan to apply this work in your private practice?

Geo-graphics is a step in my understanding of Africa. I wanted to stand back and observe and learn. That’s my methodology. That’s how I develop an interaction with the continent that allows me to have a meaningful engagement with it.

I try to immerse myself in its urbanism and history so that I can make a contribution to the place. I certainly hope to be building in Africa. I’m discussing several public buildings now in South Africa and Ghana, and possibly Algeria.

What did you learn from this close work with ethnographic and contemporary art?

It gave me a notion of African art practices and aesthetics, and it revealed a clear link between the art of the past and today’s emerging art. There are direct connections and aesthetic sensibilities that result from the context, even though these things are hundreds of years apart. I didn’t think I’d find those connections, but I was very moved by them.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the photo caption that identifies buildings in Cairo, Egypt.

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