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Into Africa: Adjaye On Tour

A journey into Africa with Adjaye

European urbanity is summed up, for almost any reader of the AR, by the default model of the Italian hill town. Siena springs to mind, or − everyone’s favourite − San Gimignano. The American city elicits a similarly familiar stock of signifiers: Downtown, Main Street, the Gridiron. From Austin, Texas, to Grand Junction, Colorado, the urban DNA is the same. However, when the conversation turns to African cities, we scratch our heads. Urban representations ofthe continent are asuneven and misleading in the media as they are in the histories and theories that most students encounter.

But not for much longer. London-based architect David Adjaye has been accumulating air miles − close to a quarter of a million − in order to bring the Africa we imagine into line with its urban realities. Landing in each of the 53 African capitals (except Mogadishu − too dangerous) with a camera and an insatiable appetite for urbanity, he has compiled a catalogue of photographs.

Though he presents snapshots rather than works of art, he nevertheless provides visual records of each city at street level and reassembles these according to categories defined by overlaying the continent’s physical and political geographies: cities are grouped by ‘terrain’ − the Maghreb, Desert, the Sahel, Savannah, Grassland, Mountain and Highveld, and Forest. Despite its science-project simplicity, this analytical manoeuvre is effective, funnelling the ungraspable whole of Africa into six colour-coded volumes which, together with a seventh, containing an intellectual hotpot of reflections and cross-readings, complete the black-clad box set. Our first glimpse of Adjaye’s undertaking emerged in the form of an exhibition at the Design Museum in 2010; this is the much-heralded companion publication.

Networking a flight plan across Africa is, for Adjaye, born to Ghanaian parents in Dar es Salaam (and now ‘just over 40’, according to the press blurb; Debretts gives his year of birth as 1966), not just part of a research methodology but also an effort ‘to complete the journey I had started in early life’. Reconnecting with childhood places on a continent that is ‘still, in many respects, shrouded in darkness’, offers him an opportunity to open Africa up to professional perspectives.

Acknowledging existing scholarship on African cities, he bemoans the ‘lack of information for architects, urban designers and planners’. What he partly means is that entry-level data, of equal value to the visiting consultant and the fresh-faced research student, is too diffuse to be useful. Answering to this set of demands both motivates and limits the project’s scope. It allows Adjaye to skate lightly across a vast topic, gathering up questions that span the diversity of the urban challenge. What can we understand about Djibouti by looking at Cairo, or Luanda? How are these cities different and yet the same?

Piloted by the steady hand of architectural academic and author Peter Allison’s overview texts, Adjaye’s impressionistic compendium of urban images begins conversations between places, inviting comparisons and suggesting common ground.

Francophone Dakar, a lively coastal settlement marking the natural border between Arab and black Africa, occupies a peninsula at the mouth of the Senegal River. As the seat of Adoulaye Wade’s government, the city − distributed around public spaces such as the Place de l’Indépendance, on raised ground above the waterfront − gives expression to the political life of the nation. On the opposite side of the continent at about the same latitude, but on desert terrain rather than temperate grassland, Khartoum tells of a slower, harsher way of life. Yet its citizens, numbering more than five million in the metropolitan area, are blessed and brought together by the gift of water: Khartoum is where the Blue Nile and the White Nile meet on their long journey northward to the Mediterranean.

For Adjaye, lining these cities up in order to contemplate their conditions is a provocation: ‘I hope the reader will compare different places and see emerging patterns of development.’ He is at pains to point out that his architectural perspective does not mean he is only interested in buildings, but rather in ‘habitation… in the city as an inclusive conglomerate’.

Where the exhibition failed, the book succeeds; the deeper thinking demanded by the topic is here represented by a volume of essays which draws together key voices in debate about the nature of the African city: Kwame Anthony Appiah, Suzanne Preston Blier, Nan Oforiatta-Ayim, Okwui Enwezor, Garth Myers, Jennifer Robinson and Naigzy Gebremedhin. Even though these authors have only cameo roles, the exchange between their contributions and Adjaye’s photographic conspectus provides the reader with a glimpse of the organisational power of his project.

Adjaye · Africa · Architecture: A Photographic Survey of Metropolitan Architecture

Author: David Adjaye

Editor: Peter Allison

Publisher: Thames and Hudson

Price: £65

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