A photo exhibit, not about photography but about architecture and urban patterns…
Tanzanian-born, London-based, Award-winning architect David Adjaye who is at the forefront of his generation in architecture has had an exhibition at the London Design Museum for the last 5 months titled “Urban Africa”. The photo exhibit is drawing to an end on the 5th of September and has definitely made a strong impression on all those who have had an opportunity to experience it. The architect, Adjaye, makes a fitting author if any, as at the age of 12, with his father being a diplomat, had already lived in seven different places in Africa.
Africa is often portrayed and viewed as a continent, which has little to show for resounding vernacular when it comes to architectural history and much to show for poverty and corruption. However, Adjaye journeys through key cities in the continent documenting patterns and trends in urbanism, invites his audience to view a different urban Africa. The collection takes on a personal facade and suggests that Adjaye has permitted us to share in a very intimate experience. It’s almost akin to a photo diary/tour, albeit one that took 10 year journeying around an entire continent.
The absence of a narrative or chronological approach to the presentation also encourages the viewers to take their own meaning from the exhibit. There are nearly 3,000 photographs which make up this project, the earlier photos which included 10 major cities in the continent were included in an exhibition at Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 2007. The accolade received for this small exhibition as it were, encouraged Adjaye to engage in a more thorough project. He visited major cities in the remaining 43 countries in the continent and displayed his documentation of each one with the exception of Mogadishu in Somalia, as he felt adding this city to his collection “would turn the project into a documentation of ruins, which is something else entirely”. Adjaye saw this project as an exploration of civil life and urbanism in Africa and in Somalia, he felt this was nonexistent as the country has been in the middle of a civil war for almost 2 decades. Although using unconventional and unprecedented methods, he is able to engage us through this quasi-amateur visual journey, in the process displaying a truly organic form of architecture and urban living, in the streets of Abuja, Asmara, Ouagadougou and Niamey, to name a few. Adjaye does not shy away from the ideal of quantity over quality.
Many of the photos are out –of –focus and badly composed with fences, moving cars and lampposts making a regular appearance. However, after a thorough review of the exhibit, one realises that the sheer volume of images, and the huge quantity of subsidiary information one can pick up by scrutinizing individual images, is the architect’s real intention. The volume of work is staggering yet Adjaye insists on not producing a singular analysis of the continent, allowing observations and conclusions to be self directed.
From viewing this exhibition, it is palpable to anyone that Africa as a continent has been neglected.
As an African, I was ashamed that I was unable to recognize the names of many major cities within the continent. I, however, felt a sense of relief that Adjaye had opened a door for other architects, urbanists, architecture analysts, media persons and even civilians to explore Africa and not in the conventional sense as a Saharan nation/ developing city, but as a continent overflowing with organic urbanism, with many major cities each with their own individual urban flair and distinctive architecture. Adjaye has taken the first step in an unbiased exploration of African architecture for architects and architecture enthusiasts to follow.
In an interview with artinfo.com published about a week ago, when asked, “what can be the role of creative architectural design in an area or in a country’s development?” this was Adjaye’s response:
“When it’s good, it absolutely elevates the quality of life of each citizen and it makes a powerful contribution to their sense of what they are capable of doing in their cities and in their communities. A great piece of architecture transforms a place from being completely hopeless to being a place of potential — that’s the sort of architecture I’m interested in. There are certain things I saw that made me realize that architecture can become a motif, or a leitmotif, for people to gather around — an idea of nationhood, or culture, or Pan-africanism, or whatever their identity is. It can become both a monument and a kind of regenerative tool.’’
I couldn’t agree more. The concept of empowering the collective through architectural incentives is one I live by. A book of his
photographs, will be published shortly after the exhibition closes and will be on sale at the London Design Museum.
Itohan Barlow is an aspiring Architect. She blogs at Levernissplendeur