“African architecture – beyond Cape Town’s Sun-drenched cluster of beachfront modernism, at least – gets scant attention in the building and design press. But across the continent, young talent, both national and international, as well as the occasional heavy-hitting starchitect, are creating innovative, low-cost and sustainable buildings which offer lessons for architects and developers around the world,” says a recent article on Wired.
Contemporary African architecture is extremely varied: it ranges from sustainable rural developments to luxury apartments and offices; from schools and hospitals to swanky safari lodges; and from huge infrastructure projects to makeshift improvisations. In all of these styles is a sensitivity to local traditions combined with on-the-ground ingenuity.
Outside the continent, Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, in particular, has drawn attention to both the innovation in African architecture and its legacy of climate-smart vernacular styles. Adjaye has lived in several African countries, including Tanzania and Egypt. He has an office in Ghana and has visited every capital city on the continent to get to grips with African urban development. He published his observations in a seven-volume book called Adjaye Africa Architecture. “The most enduring and inspirational architecture on the continent generally demonstrates an extraordinarily apposite response to the climate,” he says. “It offers many examples of age-old innovations that have endured and from which we can learn.”
Meanwhile, Diébédo Francis Kéré, who was born in Burkina Faso but is now based in Berlin and is the designer of the 2017 Serpentine Pavilion (often a career-making commission), has emerged as a standard-bearer for African architecture. His work in the continent, predominantly in Burkina Faso, is a smart blend of traditional and vernacular construction techniques and materials – mud bricks and corrugated-steel sheets – with contemporary design. His buildings mostly use lightweight steel frames and are designed to be built using local labourers. This practice of capacity building – of developing local skills – is central to Kéré’s mission.
He designed his first building, a primary school for his former home village of Gando, while studying at the Technical University of Berlin. The school, with its roof of vaulted corrugated steel, helped define Kéré’s rural hi-tech style, and was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004. Even more radical is the Lycée Schorge Secondary School, also in Burkina Faso. It was completed in 2016 and features wind-catching towers and an undulating ceiling of offset plaster and concrete.
Kéré’s most ambitious work, though, is the ongoing Opera Village project in Laongo, which is a mixed-use complex near Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. That may be outdone, however, if his masterplan for a new Burkina Faso national assembly and memorial park ever comes to fruition. The country held its first competitive presidential election in 2015, and the new government asked Kéré to create a vision for an assembly building. He unveiled plans at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2016 for the ziggurat.
The building’s design also includes several green terraces, which will showcase new agricultural methods. The site of the old assembly building, which was all but destroyed in pro-democracy demonstrations, would become a memorial park. Whether it gets built or not, Kéré’s design exemplifies the best of contemporary African architecture, singular but not show-boating, rooted in vernacular styles and responsive to local needs.
Read more about the projects here, featuring work by Xavier Vlialta in Ethiopia,, Urko Sanchez Architects in Djibouti, John McAslan + Partners in Kenya and Alberto Morell Sixto in Kenya.