Oculus Book Review: African Metropolitan Architecture

David Adjaye at the Center for Architecture.

Daniel Fox

African Metropolitan Architecture
By David Adjaye; edited by Peter Allison

First published in the United States in 2011 by Rizzoli International Publications; originally published in the United Kingdom in 2011 by Thames & Hudson Ltd.

African Metropolitan Architecture is a commanding series of architectural journeys through 53 cities in Africa that integrates personal narrative with the prevailing power of architecture. Documented with urban history, fact files, maps, satellite imagery, and groundbreaking photographs by architect David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, RIBA, each image, much as John Berger wrote in his classic 1972 Ways of Seeing, portrays that “the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe […] We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.”

In each of the seven lush volumes, the first of which is filled with essays by leading scholars and critics, you experience how varied the concept of metropolitan is as you make the passage through Maghreb (northwest Africa), the Sahel (the semi-arid fringe south of the Sahara), Savannah and Grassland, and Mountain and Highveld Desert and Forest.

“The concept of the ‘metropolitan’ has had a different history and trajectory from other continents and carries a distinct meaning,” writes Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, RIBA. Although the “histories of the cities may have much in common, the character of each city is unique to its location.” (Listen to Adjaye’s “Oculus Quick Take” podcast interview with Miguel Angel Baltierra, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP.)

In reflecting on this decade-long project at the Center for Architecture on 10.15.12, Adjaye spoke about the particular challenges facing those African cities that were transforming from local to national significance.

Conversations about how to reconcile the traditional with new approaches to architecture often became explosive. When asked how he was able to tackle so many cities with this level of intensity, depth, and understanding, his response was indicative of his voice as a writer and his passion as an architect: “My father was a diplomat and we moved every two-and-a-half years. I absorbed cities. It’s how I negotiated change and learned about how you make one’s personal perception visible to other people.” African Metropolitan Architecture accomplishes that and so much more – it removes the veils of mystery and misconception that have existed for far too long about this great continent and its approach to the built environment.