When one considers African architecture, it’s more than likely that landmarks such as the Great Pyramids Of Giza and the Great Mosque of Kairouan spring to mind. While these are undeniably two architectural feats, the continent is also home to several examples of modern design that goes beyond the cliché.
African architecture has a varied range of styles and techniques, owing to the diversity in the region. Though there is certainly much to appreciate about pre-colonial African architecture, there’s a lot to admire about contemporary design on the continent. Whether it's through thoughtful urban planning or adapting to cultural environments, these five modern architectural wonders by African architects are sure to inspire and amaze.
Alara Concept Store
Providing a splash of bold contemporary aesthetics to Lagos’ urban landscape, the Reni Folawiyo-owned Alara Concept Store is a hybrid retail, art, and lifestyle space masterfully designed by globally celebrated Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye (Adjaye Associates). Situated on Akin Olugbade Street in the Victorian Island area of the city, the space was spatially conceived as a gallery of sorts—one that invites visitors to appreciate the store’s array of furniture, textiles, fashion, sculpture, and art as they would in a museum or exhibition space. The nine-meter-high, rectangular building features a series of suspended platforms, staircases, and landings that display the store’s objets d’arts, while a chic café at the rear opens onto a shaded garden that offers respite from the frenetic energy of Lagos. With its striking façade of geometric stamps in abi-chrome palette of red and gray, the store subverts cliched notions of African architecture. Its modern glass and concrete form serve as a beacon of bold modernist architecture. “I wanted the space to work as a celebration of design talent,” Adjaye told Condé Nast Traveller, “but also as something that would function as a new kind of cultural hub and destination for West Africa.”
Hikma Community Complex
The winner of two Lafarge Holcim Awards in 2017, Nigerien architect Mariam Kamara (Atelier Masomi) and Iranian architect Yasaman Esmaili’s Hikma Complex in Dandaji is a visually stunning space that includes a mosque, library, and community center. The exterior was inspired by the rammed earth building technique—an ancient method using compacted natural raw materials such as earth, chalk, lime, or gravel to create a beautifully stratified surface. The magnificent structure serves as a cultural and education hub where the secular and religious peacefully coexist to cultivate minds and strengthen the community. Situated in an area characterized by a substantial youth population, low literacy rates, and economic precarity, Hikma offers a space in which to combat this through the provision of books, a computer lab, and quiet study spaces. Beyond this, the center also enabled Kamara to devise new ways of producing old forms, given that the project took its initial cue from reviving a derelict mosque. Instead of starting anew, they used this as an opportunity to produce new interpretations of old techniques and invited the original masons to join the project’s team. Together they conceived of a contemporary take on a traditional space where crisp, art deco–like details and tall, razor-straight walls enclose the new mosque’s volumes. “I want to make sure that it comes from the local know-how and the local skills, so it is also something that you recognize,” Kamara has said. “But then we always try to find ways to elevate it...because we are so used to [thinking] that anything that is monumental or that looks amazing should only have a Western aesthetic.”
Houghton Jumma Mosque
Johannesburg, South Africa
The Houghton Jumma Mosque strikes a fine balance between traditional Islamic architecture and modern Western design elements. Designed by Driehaus Prize-winning Egyptian designer Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil and South African Muhammad Mayet (Muhammad Mayet Architects & Urban designers), the pure white building is visible from the busiest highway in the southern hemisphere, the M1, making it a dominant landmark of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. And whilst rooted in tradition, El-Wakil’s design approach was less restricted in order to give the building a more contemporary character. The outside of the mosque is defined by two tall, elegant minarets, the inside by a timber courtyard structure, wooden doors and frames, and a handcrafted mimbar (pulpit). The plain white walls feature beautifully carved inlays, while carved arches soar into the vastness, and light pours in from tall, semi-circular arched windows. The overflow prayer area of the courtyard meanwhile has a completely different feel, dominated by a bespoke pergola and columns of Zimbabwean teak wood. One of the mosque’s most unique elements however is the fact that it was designed to be eco-friendly, with green features including insulated walls and many skylights, reducing the need for extra lighting.
MAPUNGUBWE INTERPRETATION CENTRE
LIMPOPO PROVINCE, SOUTH AFRICA
Situated in the spectacular landscape of World Heritage Site Mapungubwe National Park, the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre – designed by Peter Rich (Peter Rich Architects) – is an exemplary take on contemporary African architecture. The winner of the World Building of the Year award at the World Architecture Festival 2017, the centre is situated at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers and serves as a physical celebration of the site of ancient native communities. The complex natural landscape and history were both the inspiration for the design and the source of most of the materials for its construction, resulting in a composition of structures surfaced in local rubble that is authentically rooted in their location. A collection of stone-clad vaults balancing on a sloped site, three hollow cairns evoke rock route markers commonly found in Southern African culture. The traditional timbrel vaulting of the space and locally made pressed soil-cement tiles allows the design to be materialized with minimal formwork and no steel reinforcement. Delicate walkways create a zigzagging ramped route through the complex which consists of exhibition spaces, ultimately leading to the highest point on the site which offers majestic views of its extraordinary natural surroundings.
Cape Town, South Africa
Designed by South Africa’s Wolff Architects—an award-winning firm led by husband and wife duo Ilze and Heinrich Wolff—The Watershed was created with the express purpose of increasing the intensity and diversity of human interactions in the city of Cape Town. A strikingly modernist and functional reimagining of an old industrial shed at the V&A Waterfront called Workshop 17, the ground floor of the building is devoted to a market space, with vendors of all kinds hawking their wares beneath a perforated timber ceiling. The upper level serves as a business incubator, offering office space, informal meeting rooms, and exhibition areas, all designed in an open-tiered, mezzanine style to promote and facilitate the exchange of ideas and opportunities for networking. An inevitable stop on any visitor’s tour of the V&A, a street runs throughout the lower level, setting up an urban pedestrian network that connects several popular areas around the shed. This provides economic opportunities for the resident small businesses and promotes public access to a space that has historically been largely exclusionary. “It’s kind of like our threshold between practice and the public,” Ilze told Design Indaba of her firm’s general design ethos. “We try very hard to develop public culture around architecture.”
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