I think that design can provide a critical inquiry into social responsibility and civic consciousness. I have always sought to work out the aesthetics of this inquiry in my work. At its best, architecture should contribute to a social change agenda. The language of architecture can explicitly talk about social agendas, which is what is brilliant about it. Somehow, that language is not fully understood in terms of the power it really has, what it says to a civilisation about what citizenship is. There is a lot of power that can be had in using architecture to shift political ideas that say that they are moving one way but are in fact moving another. I am always for using architecture as, what I call, a special forces strategy – get it in there, let smart architects build in the strangest places. If you are building architecture, not just making a building, you are actually recoding the notion of the social and the citizen, by default. Also, many of the projects I have worked on have in volved local communities and NGOs– from Sugar Hill in Harlem to the Hackney Fashion Hub in London. This is an essential part of the design process and an invaluable imperative in understanding the cultural nuances and the social context for the project.
You have significant experience in collaborating with artists in architectural projects as well as installation/pavilion design. What is the significance of artistic collaboration in your work? How did you benefit from your collaborations with artists such as Doug Aitken and Olafur Eliasson?
I have always sought to cross creative platforms, collaborating with artists and designers from different disciplines and focusing on the creative discourse surrounding the act of making things. It is the dialogue – the cultural intersection -, which excites me.
Your photographic survey of African capital cities (1999-2010) compiled in the book series ‘Adjaye, Africa, Architecture’ (I own a copy), and exhibited at the Design Museum with the exhibition ‘Urban Africa’, introduced ‘geography and climate’ as means of understanding the complexities of constructed environment in the African continent. The research also goes beyond the boundaries of national architectural styles and achieves to embrace the whole continent of Africa. Why is itimportant to transcend the national or socially constructed boundaries?
What the project really opened me up to, was the realization that in my early work, apart from dealing with art, I was focusing on the craft of making. In dealing with the community, I was incorporating the notions of history, place, and patterns. Returning to Africa, I realized that is how I think of geography: it is more than just a school text book; it is really the phenomenon of pla
ce, or the way in which it conditions communities, cities, and societies that in turn form a place. When you move around a lot, you start to realize how explicitly those geographies inform the ways of cities and places. There is a very primary geography in Africa, and it was surprising that the diverse cultures of the continent don’t always recognize this. It is very clear in Africa,
how neighbouring cultures are so different from one another. These things –history, place, and patterns—are a very important part of the matrix.
Approaching Africa by analysing geography and climate might also suggest a research method that has the potential to branch out, and bring issues of history/memory, culture and social change into the discussion. What would be the further steps in this research within the context of contemporary design and architecture in Africa?
Moving forward, I believe it is crucial to deconstruct the idea of the nation state, and instead, to discuss the development of urbanism in Africa with reference to regional specificity. Ultimately, it is models and examples that define how a place looks. If you could start to create specific models for each region – you would begin a chain reaction and there would be the foundations for a new, regionally specific vernacular. We recently used a concrete and red earth composite for a villa that we designed in Ghana, for example. The contractors were surprised that it turned out so well, and are now proposing it to other clients.
Ability to adapt to climate and geography is very fundamental, yet complex when interpreted within the context of culturally and ethnically diverse Africa. Specifically in the African continent, how do you think this diversity in adaptation and responsiveness will evolve and negotiate with contemporary needs of the society?
An architecture that derives inspiration from ‘place’ will articulate a compelling sense of place, and have a stronger social relevance – so absolutely, I do believe that regional specificity can effectively negotiate the contemporary needs of
society. I believe there is now an opportunity to create extraordinary architecture that is both the agent and image of positive social change for the continent.
Lagos, Accra, Nairobi, Khartoum, Cairo, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Dar es Salaam (your birth-city) are Africa's fastest growing mega cities. What can these cities do to jump ahead of the curve in dealing with the problems that the planet face today: sustainability, ecology, housing while incorporatinga strong sense of aesthetic and originality? How do you envision the potential evolution of African cities within the backdrop of shifting economic and political paradigms?
Politics can certainly hinder development. The four year electoral window is often at odds with urban and infrastructure projects – which can require a decade of political commitment. So private investment is crucial – yet is rarely associated with aesthetics and is more focused on profit. It is therefore vital that architects are involved to create the models that will generate the chain reaction of a new, environmentally smart contemporary aesthetic.
In the global architectural scene, the relationship between the locality (urban texture and regional culture) where architectural projects are realized, and the architectural project (mostly realized by star architects or global architectural firms) is a heated debate. How would you explain your approach to the relationship between architecture and urban space, specifically in your Urban Regeneration Project in Kampala, Uganda?
My work avoids monolithic statements, and the use of utility logics to organise urban frameworks. Rather, it is dominated by the experience of transition, the possibility for capturing memory and meaning, and the constant striving for an organic quality that can shift to express the sense of the city as an evolving diagram. In Kampala, I have drawn up a master plan for a 50-acre site for government related buildings. Using Kampala’s landscape and climate as a guide, we have tried to establish a system for storm water management that ties in with the landscaping and the overall environmental strategy.
Even though Africa is still labelled with under-development and poverty, which the humanity projects for the ‘Third World’ like to address, your research introduces a wider image that illustrates the complexities of both the modern world and regional realities. Do you think African art and design will be instrumental inchanging how Africa is perceived? How do you envisi on the role of art and design in catalysing and mediating social change in Africa?
Art, design and architecture can make tangible the momentum of change. For me, design has to work practically but also emotionally and intellectually. The dialogue – the cultural intersection – offers possibilities to mediate social change. For example, when I carried out my research project in Africa, I became absolutely frustrated with the prevalence of a misconceived understanding of the continent. I was born in a metropolitan city; I was born in a cosmopolitan condition among different groups of Africans, Indians and Chinese – that is my beginnings, and it was against a backdrop of metropolitan skylines. The Africa I was born in had towers, was very metropolitan; we knew different cultures and religions – this is how I started my project. I am really perplexed by this dilemma of the dual images, one being projected from the West, and the one that actually exists. Of course, there is poverty and all these things, but at the same time there is this notion of the city and urbanity. I felt the only way I could systematically deal with this was to literally demonstrate it. I used to deal with it in talks, but it needed demonstration.
We know you are often in Lagos, can you share what sort of projects have brought you down to the city?
I am working on a concept store with Reni Folawayo. It is due to complete later this year – which is very exciting.