Dezeen and MINI World Tour: we speak to architect David Adjaye, fresh off the stage from his presentation at Design Indaba, about his relationship with Africa and why he believes the continent provides a great opportunity for architects. Update: this interview is featured in Dezeen Book of Interviews, which is on sale now for £12.

Adjaye was born in east Africa, to Ghanaian parents, before moving to London at 14. He explains that, after graduating from the Royal College of Art, he felt the need to return to the continent where he grew up.

"Africa is an extraordinary opportunity at the moment" - David Adjaye

Above: Nairobi, one of the photographs taken by Adjaye for his research

"I wanted to revisit the continent of Africa" he explains, "but I wanted to revisit it, not through the lens of my parents or through any kind of formal experience, tourism or anything. I wanted to claim it for my own."

He spent 11 years, from 1999 to 2010, visiting the capital city of each country on the continent "to try to understand the nature of the cities in Africa, to understand their past and their present, to understand their history and their geography."

"Africa is an extraordinary opportunity at the moment" - David Adjaye

Through this research, which was published as a seven-volume book, Adjaye realised the importance of Africa's unique geography. "It became clear to me that the political map of Africa that we have is a very difficult way to understand the continent," he says. "Fundamentally, the way we should be looking at it is through geography."

Adjaye created his own map of the continent (below), divided into six distinct geographic zones, which, he believes, have shaped African culture. "In these [zones], all the civilisations of Africa have manifested themselves," he says. "Their unique identities come from that, the artefacts of the continent reflect that geography."

"Africa is an extraordinary opportunity at the moment" - David Adjaye

This realisation was important to Adjaye's own approach to architecture. "I wanted to create a blueprint for how I wanted to work on the continent," he explains. "I didn't just want to make contemporary architecture with the usual references of anonymous abstracts and global things, I wanted to find a way of making architecture that could take onboard issues that are big, but also specific enough to make unique objects."

"Africa is an extraordinary opportunity at the moment" - David Adjaye

Adjaye believes that, despite the continent's considerable problems, Africa presents a great opportunity for architects. "GDP growth over the last decade is anything between 10 and 15 percent, which is extraordinary. It's greater than what China was doing," he explains. "This economic drive is changing the political paradigm because as people are becoming more wealthy they are starting to question politically their structure.

"What's amazing is that, unlike working in Europe or America at the moment, [as an architect] in Africa you can try to ascribe a new paradigm. If you get the right political agency and the right construction environment, you can make extraordinary moments in architecture. That for me is very exciting."

"Africa is an extraordinary opportunity at the moment" - David Adjaye

This movie features a MINI Cooper S Countryman.

The music featured is by South African artist Floyd Lavine, who performed as part of the Design Indaba Music Circuit. You can listen to Lavine's music on Dezeen Music Project.

Political map of Africa above is courtesy of Shutterstock.

See all our Dezeen and Mini World Tour reports from Cape Town.

  • Colonel Pancake

    Africa’s economic growth of 10-15% that he cites is fairly irrelevant when you consider a great deal of it comes within sectors of the economy that are largely controlled by international investors who take the earnings offshore, such as mining, telecom, tourism, etc. Architecture in Africa of any significance for society is dependent on wealth creation within the middle and upper-middle classes, where unfortunately commercial innovation and labor skill are alarmingly non-existent (much of Africa’s skilled labor has already relocated to Europe and the US).

    Until we see a broad class of architectural consumers emerge in a way that might piece together enough new architecture to develop the continent’s cities, it’s hard to expect anything but random projects here and there that project their expectations upon Africa, which seem unlikely to ever be met (like Le Corbusier at Chandigarh.) I wish I were more optimistic about Africa’s future, but I just don’t see it.

    • taptap

      As the saying goes: “Rome wasn’t build in a day.” ;)

  • Dieudoné

    Says the guy working from Europe. At what point will real and good architecture practices really settle in our continent?

    Africa has extraordianry opportunities that nobody seizes. Most of the production here is horrible, badly desinged and a pale copy of Chinese and western design. Africa deserves better, we deserve an architecture true to our diverse culture and aspiration, not just copy-and-paste.

  • moladi

    The biggest growth in Africa is simply “affordable homes”. Urbanisation has created a vast backlog of decent affordable accommodation. The second pressing issue is unemployment and lack of skills. Solution – “train the unemployed to build for the homeless”.