The mention of 20th-century architecture brings to mind Europeans such as Le Corbusier and Antonio Gaudí, or Americans such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry. The 21st century sees a more international crew, including Shigeru Ban from Japan, Moshe Safdie from Israel and Wang Shu from China. But where is Africa in architecture’s hall of fame?
Powerful colonial influences, coupled with a history of political and economic turmoil, left the people of Africa with less time to ponder the aesthetics and ergonomics of houses, malls and skyscrapers.
But the tide is turning. According to Tanzanian-born British architect David Adjaye, a growing number of organizations, architectural contests and architects themselves are placing African architecture on the world’s stage. “Through initiatives such as these — awards, events and peer group support,” Adjaye says, “This decade will see a striking new horizon for African architecture and its global impact.”
This growth in contemporary African architecture has led several distinguished African architects who have lived and worked overseas to return to their home countries. The most well-known is Ghanaian Joe Osae-Addo, 42, who moved back to Accra in 2004.
Although Osae-Addo had run a thriving architectural practice in Los Angeles, he hoped to better align himself with his beliefs on sustainability, and Ghana was the place to do so.
At that time, most urban homes in Accra, the capital of a former British colony, were concrete-block houses made with imported English Portland cement. Dissatisfied with this drab approach to living, Osae-Addo was determined to find ways to build his home with locally sourced materials.
“I wanted to explore ideas of light, cross-ventilation and lightness of structure,” he says. As a result, Osae-Addo designed his home to stand 3 feet off the ground on a wooden deck, so that under-floor breezes would cool the space naturally. He also incorporated slatted-wood screens and floor-to-ceiling jalousie windows for cross-ventilation.
“Interstitial spaces and landscape are what define tropical architecture,” he says. “It is not about edifice but rather harnessing the elements — trees, wind, sun and water — to create harmony, not the perfection that modernism craves so much.”
Osae-Addo applied these sustainable building principles to other projects, too, such as the Oguaa Football for Hope Centre in Cape Coast, Ghana, which was constructed with reclaimed scaffolding, donated shipping containers, and indigenous bamboo and adobe bricks. “Africa is not just a place of inspiration,” he says, “but a place to live, grow and create.”