Friday, April 16, 2010

An architect's homage to African cities

LONDON. Africa is the only continent I haven’t visited and like many other I know little about most of its major cities.
Earlier this week in London I got a chance to take a quick tour of more than 50 African capitals, from Tunis in the north to Maseru in the south. My gratitude goes to the Africa-born and London-based architect David Adjaye and his herculean effort to document buildings in all African capitals.
The result is on display at the London Design Museum in the form of hundreds of snapshots showing all types of buildings in African cities. The exhibit Urban Africa, which opened March 31 and ends September 5, is Adjaye’s way of letting us get a taste of some of the most unknown major cities of the world.
The 43-year-old David Adjaye is an established star on the world architecture scene, with his fame enhanced when he last year won the commission to design the National Museum of African History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
The exhibit aims to give an overview of the urban environment of the African city. For Adjaye, born in Tanzania where his father was a Ghanaian diplomat, the project has also been a return to his roots. Moving around with his family, he lived in several African countries during his childhood.
Over the past ten years, Adjaye has tried to visit every one of the 53 African capitals. He missed one, Somalia’s chaotic and dangerous capital Mogadishu, due to security reasons. The project began as an exercise, as he puts it in the presentation of the exhibit, “to piece together fragments of memories, documenting where I was born and grew up as a child”.
The exhibit starts with a bright, yellow room with maps and facts of Africa. The visitor can then choose to see Adjaye’s images either in a slide-show on multiple screens, or in the form of hundreds of snapshot-sized photos pinned to the walls.
His trips were not planned in detail and he didn’t look for certain buildings to record. Adjaye would approach each city without preconceptions and just jump into a local taxi and criss-cross the city for days with the digital camera as his sketchbook, as he puts it.
With his pictures Adjaye wants to “depict the overlooked and understudied African city as a complex, dynamic and successful environment where people live and work”.
Despite the problems African cities face, Adjaye sees the rapid urbanization of the continent as an opportunity rather than a humanitarian crisis.
“In the next 10 years, people are going to be shocked by what they see coming out of Africa. There’s a renewed sense of modernity gripping the continent”, Adjaye says in an interview in this weeks issue of Newsweek.

Urban Africa/David Adjaye, 31 March-5 September, Design Museum, Shad Thames, London.

Copyright: David Adjaye/Design Museum, London
Asmara in Eritrea, with its old Italian architecture, is one of the unknown capitals of Africa.

Touring Africa with the help of David Adjaye's snapshots of the continent's capitals.