Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 26, 2018
David Adjaye and Peter Allison Adjaye, Africa, Architecture: A Photographic Survey of Metropolitan Architecture New York: Thames & Hudson, 2016. 400 pp.; 700 color ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780500343166)

This compact edition of David Adjaye’s exploration of Africa brings together in one volume the fruits of his eleven-year-long project to visit and visually document the capitals of the continent’s fifty-four countries. The front cover image of Adjaye, Africa, Architecture: A Photographic Survey of Metropolitan Architecture serves as a key to the intellectual and conceptual approach of the book: a map of Africa’s six climatic zones. This map, credited to his architectural practice Adjaye Associates, is referred to as both a terrain and political map. This captures well the essence of his approach and investigation, namely, the rich and complex relationship between geography, politics, culture, and identity across the continent. For him, place is powerfully shaped by geography and culture across the varied climates and their associated landscapes. The book sets out to share his direct experience of this relationship using two main components: a visual survey of the capital cities and a set of six supporting essays.

The visual survey is arranged according to the six climatic zones of Africa: the Maghreb, Desert, the Sahel, Forest, Savanna and Grassland, and Mountain and Highveld. The location and characteristics of each zone is described in a concise and factual manner and followed by an overview of each of the capital cities within their respective zones. Adjaye’s own experiences and observations are seamlessly woven into a fact-based narrative in a balanced way so that the information is both useful as well as insightful. Adjaye’s lens for reading place and culture is relatively neutral and this allows the reader the opportunity to penetrate the information through their own subjectivity. Each city is visually represented in three pages of photographs showing the civic, commercial, and residential life of the city under consideration. These photographic surveys are powerfully “bland,” meaning that they are everyday snapshots that capture scenes that make up city places: people, cars, streets, pavements, and buildings. The notion of architecture with a capital A is completely negated. What the book promotes is architecture not at the forefront of cultural output but rather as the backdrop to rich and diverse everyday lives. This is incredibly refreshing in a discipline in which representations have become over styled and are often devoid of any element hinting at habitus.

The second component of the book comprises six essays. In “African Metropolitan Architecture” Adjaye explains the origins of his project as rooted in the many opportunities he had through childhood to experience and know Africa directly and indirectly as a diplomat’s son. It is interesting to note that his desire to understand Africa better was born from the world he occupied outside of the continent. Adjaye makes clear that his main interest is urban, as the city represents the coming together of urban and rural identities, impacted by processes of colonialization and modernity. The measure he adopts to read across Africa’s differences is its geographies, and he uses the term “geographical inflection” to describe the process of drawing out particularities of a place. As far as architecture is concerned, he makes it clear that this does not refer to the traditional role of architecture but rather to architecture of habitation, of humanity, and specifically not of freestanding icons. This comes across very clearly in the photographic survey of the cities. The key for Adjaye is direct observation.

“Cities, Connections, and Circulations in Africa” by Garth Myers and Jenny Robinson focuses on the commonalities in architecture and city forms that can often be found across the great diversity of cities in Africa. They briefly argue that this is due to “a genealogy of circulation” (379), namely the precolonial and colonial pasts and the connectivities and conversations of these places and rightly point out that there is some way to go before the meaning of these similarities will really be understood. The rest of their essay focuses on contemporary circulations: the impact of globalization and migrations. Finally they touch on residual connections, such as Zanzibar’s postindependence link to socialist East Germany and formal connections such as the adoption of propaganda styles for the making of monuments. Rather than offering an in-depth survey, their essays point to a range of instances of connections to/from the outside as well as connections within. The value of reading across places opens up opportunities for much scholarship that could deepen our understanding of relationships across cities in/of Africa.

Okwui Enwezor’s essay “Friend, Enemy, Neighbour, Stanger” brilliantly unpacks the topic of space in relation to lived experiences of separation and neighborliness. Using the biblical edict “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” as a reference point, Enwezor critically assesses this prospect within a philosophical interplay between Sigmund Freud’s and Frantz Fanon’s scepticisms in relation to neighborliness. From this Enwezor moves onto Martin Heidegger’s exploration of the metaphysical relationship between the concepts of dwelling and being as a means to address the unresolved antagonism between native and settler in Freud’s and Fanon’s writings. Through a range of diverse examples that span the continent, Enwezor shows that many societies in Africa still suffer from estrangements brought about by historical, social, cultural, and religious divisions. How, he asks, can this “crisis of hospitality bedevilling Africa cities” (388) be resolved?

In “A Tale of Three Highland Cities,” Naigzy Gebremedhin offers the reminiscences on having grown up, and over the course of eight decades, lived and journeyed in Africa. Gebremedhin, best known for his study of Asmara’s modernist architecture, recounts his experiences of change over time in the three Rift Valley cities of Addis Ababa, Nairobi, and Asmara and contemplates the advantages and challenges that the high-altitude locations of these cities have posed and still pose. It is an account rich in personal insight and experience.

Suzanne Preston Blier in “The African Urban Past” considers the establishment and evolution of early African cities in relation to the local conditions and sociopolitical factors that impacted early settlement. This she relates to three historic patterns of urban settlement: monumental urbanism, satellite urbanism, and migratory or peripatetic urban settlements. Her contribution offers an informative historical background to Adjaye’s contemporary survey of Africa’s capital cities.

In “Imagined Topographies,” Nana Oforiatta Ayim analyzes imaginings of Africa by four contemporary artists: the memory sculptures of Aboudramane, representations of time in the works of Susan Hefuna, the palimpsests of space and time in the works of Julie Mehretu, and the sculptural graphics of Bodys Isek Kingelez. Ayim shows how these artists’ works both derive from and fit within the local as well as the global worlds.

The value of these essays, including the foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah, cannot be overstated. Each deals, in its own way, with a personal/theoretical position on African cities: their pasts and presents and how historical, social, economic, political, and cultural forces have shaped and are still shaping them. As with Adjaye’s photographic survey, the approaches in these essays are far from the sweeping generalizations that often typify discussions of African urbanism. Specific urban conditions are carefully located within broader discourses and arguments; examples of such conditions are always located within a specific physical and cultural context.

The nebulous nature of attitudes and narratives on Africa that represent a measure of prejudice in the negation of the continent’s rich geographic and cultural diversity is subtly challenged in both the survey and texts of Adjaye, Africa, Architecture: A Photographic Survey of Metropolitan Architecture. The tendency to collapse the entire African continent into a single and simplified geographic, cultural, and political entity is criticized on websites such as; in the app Africa Isn’t a Country, developed by the journalist Nicolas Kayser-Bril, which tracks the number of references to Africa in the Guardian and New York Times newspapers that do not include a reference to any single country; and finally, in public commentary such as in the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk (2009), in which she cautions against the danger of “single story narratives” wherein entire cultures are summed up in one description. These are but a few of many examples that challenge the reduction of Africa to a generalized description. Adjaye, Africa, Architecture: A Photographic Survey of Metropolitan Architecture makes a valuable contribution to this discourse and will serve very well any reader who wishes to experience Africa’s richness through Adjaye’s eyes.

Alta Steenkamp
Associate Professor, School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics, University of Cape Town