Architects Return to Guide Africa's Building Boom

David Adjaye may be the only person on earth who has visited Rwanda for its buildings. The British architect has just returned from Kigali, the capital, where he shot pictures of mosques, churches, parks, and luxury villas. It was the final stop on his quest to photograph every capital in Africa, a 10-year odyssey culminating in Urban Africa, a new exhibit at London's Design Museum (through Sept. 5). "[The project] came out of retracing my childhood," says Adjaye, the Tanzanian-born son of a Ghanaian diplomat. "I've always had a strong sense of the continent not just as a romantic idea but as a physical memory. As an architect, I wanted to understand those places in an urban context and see how they have influenced my psyche."

Now it's Adjaye's turn to return the favor. The 43-year-old, who recently won the commission to build the $500 million Smithsonian National Museum of African History and Culture on Washington's Mall, is at the forefront of a group of African designers returning to oversee the continent's building boom. He is unflinchingly optimistic about the megalopolises that worry so many aid agencies. Adjaye argues that because urban Africans have endured so many radical changes—colonial occupation, post-independence building schemes, the influence of Islam—they have a sophisticated notion of what a city can be. He is fascinated by their use of public space and the ingenuity of the urban poor in "making things happen" with severely limited resources; families in Addis Ababa, for instance, use the small yards in front of their houses for everything from washing clothes to slaughtering goats.

Though he acknowledges that the burgeoning sprawl presents serious challenges, he sees rapid urbanization as an opportunity rather than a humanitarian crisis. "If you go somewhere like Rwanda, where the population has exploded overnight, the government is constructing urban apartment buildings that I am incredibly impressed by," he says. "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."

For his part, Adjaye is building a college in his native Ghana and a community center in Johannesburg. "And I'm looking at working in Algeria and Senegal," he says. Other architects, including Burkina Faso's Francis Kere and Ghana's Joe Addo, have returned home to join in the building bonanza, constructing schools, universities, and homes. "A lot of us trained in the West," he says. "[But there's also] a new generation of practitioners trained on the continent who are creating new energy."

Africa has never been known for its modern architecture. And the photos in Adjaye's exhibit reveal rampant poverty and harsh living conditions. But they also depict each city's distinct identity through its buildings: Mali's national bank in Bamako, built from mud; the modernist mosques of Senegal's capital, Dakar; the art-deco buildings left over from Mussolini's occupation of Addis Ababa. Above all, he demonstrates how contemporary buildings are changing the face of Africa from an impoverished rural continent to an iconic urban one.

Adjaye is an anomaly among architects, a self-proclaimed Robin Hood who offsets his high-profile private projects—the hermetic, über-cool homes of artists Jake Chapman and Chris Ofili—with socially driven schemes. His regeneration projects include floodproof houses in New Orleans and an education center in London's East End.

Adjaye is determined to look at the real Africa, not the romantic view so often invoked by artists. Although his work is imbued with African influences—his minimalist homes mimic the layout of a North African riad, and his education center in London brings the concept of the market inside using strips of blue and green glass—he steers clear of stereotypes. He is more interested in sparking debate among Africans about their future than in preserving nostalgic notions of the past. Given the continent's grim history, he says, it's a near miracle African urbanism has come so far: "It takes 100 years to train people to make a city. By that measure, these countries are doing extremely well."