This list of 10 spaces from the ancient and modern world is by no means exhaustive, but it gives a flavor of the richness of African architecture, the architects involved and the stories these buildings have allowed us to tell.
Here are the first top 5 selected from the list:
Great Mosque of Djenné, Djenné, Mali
The Great Mosque of Djenné is the largest mud- or earth-brick building in the world and is widely acknowledged to be the greatest achievement of Sudano-Sahelian architectural style.
The present-day mosque is the third reconstruction of this religious building, located on the flood plains of the Bani River. The original mosque was built in the 13th century, while today’s Great Mosque was completed in 1907. Unusually, compared with other important West African mosques, the site was not sacred prior to its establishment. In fact, a palace previously stood there.
Every spring the mosque is re-plastered, a task that the entire city participates in. The repairs are supervised by a guild of 80 senior masons who plaster the facade with mud that has been cured for weeks beforehand. Women provide water for the mixture, while the elders give advice. The festival of the Crépissage de la Grande Mosquée is a time of repairing the damage, cracks and erosion inflicted on the mosque in the previous year by West Africa’s torrential rains.
Jardin Majorelle, Marrakech, Morocco
Away from the noise and bustle of Marrakech’s old medina is the Majorelle garden and house, an oasis of calm and colour. In 1931 the French orientalist painter Jacques Majorelle commissioned the architect Paul Sinoir to build him a studio in an art deco-Islamic style. Majorelle and his son Louis, a furniture designer, decided to create a living work of art: a majestic garden of exotic plants. The garden was officially opened to the public in 1947, then abandoned after Jacques Majorelle’s death in 1962. It remained derelict for more than 20 years, until the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, a long-time lover of Morocco, acquired the property and restored it.
Church of St George, Lalibela, Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s long history of kingdoms, emperors and dynasties dates back more than 3,000 years. The town of Lalibela has 11 well-preserved and extraordinary rock-hewn medieval churches, the Church of St George or Bet Giorgis being the finest.
The roof, in the form of the crucifix, is the most visible part of Bet Giorgis from the surrounding terrain. The interior attests to how cosmopolitan this part of Africa was at this time. There are images, carvings and influences from all over Christendom and beyond: a two-headed eagle you’d have been more likely to see in Constantinople; the Star of David with the cross carved inside it; and carvings that resemble Greek icons. In the words of the 16th-century Portuguese explorer Francisco Alvares, Bet Giorgis has “edifices, the like of which cannot be found anywhere in the world”.
Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg, South Africa
In 1948 South Africa’s National party government started a process that turned over 20 million people into second-class citizens, condemning them to a life of servitude, humiliation and abuse that lasted until the country’s first free elections in 1994. Inaugurated in 2001, the Apartheid Museum on the outskirts of Johannesburg tells the story of this era and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.
Light is an important symbolic feature of the museum’s design, getting brighter as visitors make their way through a series of 22 individual exhibition areas. It acts as a guide to the final room, devoted to the liberation of Nelson Mandela, signaling the collapse of apartheid. Seven concrete pillars, 18 metres high, tower over the complex, marking the entrance to the exhibition spaces. Inscribed on them are the following words: democracy, freedom, responsibility, equality, reconciliation, diversity and tolerance, providing the foundations and vision for a new South Africa.
Independence Square, Accra, Ghana
Independence Square or Black Star Square, is the second-largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Completed in 1961, the square was commissioned by Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah.
The square is made up of several elements: the Black Star Monument, reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe, is inscribed with “Freedom and Justice, AD 1957”, commemorating Ghana’s independence; eight stands around the periphery have the capacity to seat more than 30,000 people; the vast space within the square is designed for huge events and military parades. The final element is a modernist structure, Independence Arch, that sits parallel to the beach. The inspiration for its prominent arch is said to have come from the handle of the handbag that Nkrumah’s Egyptian wife, Fathia Nkrumah, carried on special occasions.
The “black star” of the square’s name was inspired by the Black Star shipping line, founded in 1919 by the Jamaican-born civil rights activist Marcus Garvey to provide transportation to encourage African economic development, independence and freedom.