A field of triangular roofs pokes up above the horizon on the outskirts of Dakar, like a forest of wigwams that have been baked to stone under the scorching sub-Saharan sun. They sit on a triangular concrete plinth, from which bigger triangular pavilions protrude, accessed by flights of triangular steps from the dusty streets, along which triangular gutters jut out. It could be Toblerone Town, a city-sized hymn to the three-sided prism.
This mysterious complex, which looks like what might have happened if the Mayans had discovered reinforced concrete, is the Foire Internationale de Dakar, or FIDAK for short. It is a sprawling exhibition centre built in the capital of Senegal in 1975 to host the country’s biennial international trade fair – and trumpet the new nationstate’s presence on the global stage. Designed by little-known French architects Jean-François Lamoureux and Jean-Louis Marin, it is a project of obsessive and extraordinary detail. There are facades decorated with coloured pebbles and tiled mosaics, psychedelic sand art murals that evoke the rocky African coastline and its azure seas. Yet outside Senegal, this building is almost entirely unknown.
It is just one of the astounding projects documented by Swiss architect Manuel Herz, who has spent the last few years researching the architecture of African independence with his team at ETH University in Zurich. A period of bold structures and strident new forms, it is strangely absent from the recorded history of modern architecture. “There was an intense flowering of experimental and futuristic architecture in the 1960s and 70s, which the young African countries used to express their national identities,” says Herz, who has curated an exhibition of more than 80 buildings from sub-Saharan Africa, showing at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, until May. “But we simply don’t know about it. When people think of Africa, they think of poverty, misery and violence, while architects fetishise informality and focus on slum-upgrading. But we wanted to show this incredible cultural wealth that also exists.”
The buildings, a number of which have been beautifully shot by Dutch photographer Iwan Baan, portray a period of extreme confidence and political ambition. They are mostly the products of big, state-sponsored initiatives, from heroic parliament buildings and imposing central banks to daring universities and vast stadiums, many the pet projects of Africa’s “big man” leaders, built for propaganda purposes as much as anything else.
The Kenyatta International Conference Centre, whose pink cylindrical shaft towers above Nairobi, was initiated by the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, as a lavish new HQ for his ruling Kanu party. At 32 stories, it was by far the tallest structure in east Africa until the 1990s, a big column for Kenya’s big-man chieftain. Yet its great size can be credited to an accident of international intervention. In the midst of its design, the World Bank decided it would host its 1973 annual meeting in Nairobi, and the building was chosen as the venue, forcing a growth spurt. The tower almost tripled in height, while a magnificent auditorium shaped like a closed lily-bud was also added, and mirrored by an open flower form at the top of the tower containing a revolving restaurant.
I am looking at plans of the presidential palace in Libreville, Gabon, as existing and as proposed. The first shows gates, walls, guardhouses, accommodation for the president’s elite soldiers. The second shows public space, welcome zones, trees, landscaping, the elements of enlightened contemporary city planning. It is a diagram of liberalisation, of a new era assisted by design.
I am also looking at an image of a business school in Moscow, an unabashed work of oligarchic bling, that pre-empts its future rediscovery as a piece of ironic-lovable kitsch. There is a cool, white, slatted structure in an idyllic Mediterranean landscape, apartment blocks in Doha, and a composition of 10 inverted cones, to be arranged in a giant circle in Kampala. These are works of a realigned world, where the distribution of money and power ignores former distinctions of third and first worlds. They collectively offer the same reorientation as those world maps that dispense with the Eurocentric bias of Mercator’s projection.
The location is a black-floored, black-walled office on the edge of Marylebone, London, with shelves of black files with small white lettering. Galvanised steel shelves denote work, but a black, oblong pool of water, bright green curtains, and an impressive bunch of lilies suggest more an exclusive club or hotel. Possibly the lair of a Bond villain, only more benign. Architectural models are displayed like artworks, although inopportune beige printers puncture the stylishness. The entrance to the office, as often in David Adjaye’s projects, is barely perceptible.
Adjaye is late, as he often is, but is then generous with his time, as he also often is. He says something nice about my personal life, as I make to sit down in the Eames chair by his desk. “Er, that’s mine,” he then says, directing me to a plywood seat opposite, which turns out to be a touch excruciating, in front of shelves bearing a discriminating selection of architectural books, and opposite a wall of inspirational images – great buildings, beautiful bodies, maps of Africa, the former model Ashley Shaw-Scott, whom he recently married. “Do you mind if I eat?” he asks, as he uncovers a late lunch from a local curry house, “I have to eat.” He is on the move, as usual. Where has he come from? “Just New York.” Diplomacy and charm are at work here and a tiny assertion of status, which have helped get him where is, but the warmth is also genuine.
New York is where he has another office, a more informal, light-filled place above an old bank on Canal Street. He has a third in Accra. This tri-continental practice is not bad for an architect in his 40s who seven years ago, when the credit crunch hit, nearly went bust, but the nature of the commissions is more impressive. He has a knack for projects freighted with significance, the foremost of which is the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the highly charged turf of the National Mall in Washington DC, just across from the Washington Memorial. (To be more precise, Adjaye is one of a team of four architectural practices working on the museum, with his role described as “lead designer”.) It is due to open next year, a century after the idea of such a museum was first mooted by some black veterans of the civil war.
He also has a knack for associating with conspicuous and interesting people. In the early years of his practice these tended to be creative types – the artists Jake Chapman, Tom Noble and Sue Webster, Ewan McGregor, Alexander McQueen. Now it is more people like Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, for whom Adjaye has designed a house in Ghana. Or the new mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, who recently toured Adjaye’s housing development in Sugar Hill, Harlem, or Barack Obama.
He doesn’t want the latter connection to be exaggerated – “I am not on his speed dial” – and he scotches rumours that he is to design Obama’s presidential library: the choice of architect hasn’t been considered yet. But the Smithsonian museum will be the most significant architectural project of Obama’s presidency, and Adjaye has had more contact with the White House than most architects.
Adjaye’s friends praise the range of his influences and interests. “I was incredibly, incredibly inspired by the breadth of his vision,” says Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, of the time she first heard him speak. “There’s Bauhaus in it,” says the artist Lorna Simpson, for whom Adjaye designed a studio building in Brooklyn, “but also the places where he grew up as a child – ornament, pattern, the way light comes in, different things from different places.”
Adjaye was born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, his father a diplomat, so these formative places included parts of Africa, Saudi Arabia, and eventually London. It was in London that he studied architecture, launched his practice, and designed his first projects.
From the Great Pyramids of Giza to the rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia; the Swahili stone houses of Kenya to the Bedouin tents of Morocco — indigenous African design bespeaks grace, style, imagination and verve. Over hundreds of years, the continent has also absorbed layers of influence from other cultures through explorers, invaders, soldiers, stonemasons, merchants and missionaries hailing from such far-flung places as Turkey, India, Europe, China and Arabia. Today’s architecture and interior design draws on this variegated past, often fusing local, hand-crafted elements with modern technology to create an aesthetic that is absolutely African.
One example is pictured – North Island Lodge (www.north-island.org). The Lodge opened 10 years ago on a private paradise island in the Seychelles and caters to the ecologically-minded. The entire place was built after extensive coordination with the government to make certain the environment was not only undisturbed, but preserved. The owners’ philosophy is to rehabilitate habitats and reintroduce the critically endangered flora and fauna of Seychelles.