“An embassy for optimism”: the mythical Africa Center is reborn | Architecture


Feyelashes of neon pink, acid yellow and lime green furniture gleam from a first-floor terrace in London’s Southwark, bringing a zesty taste of sunnier climes to a nondescript street of offices and apartments. These are the first signs that after almost 10 years without a home since its Covent Garden base closed, the Central Africa is back – with a bang.

Enter the black-painted brick building and you’ll discover a surprisingly warm world of sandy clay plaster walls, carved wooden furniture and woven light fixtures, where metal bead curtains and rows of arches frame dining platforms and comfortable seating areas. Alluring fabrics cover the cushions, while perforated blocks line the restaurant counter and banquettes, reminiscent of the Sun blocker displays of modernist architecture on the African continent.

It is unrecognizable from the dingy 1960s office building that architects Freehouse and interior designer Tola Ojuolape faced when they launched the project to create what has the ambition to be “London’s most welcoming cultural space”.

Airy and green… the bar terrace. Photography: Taran Wilkhu

“We wanted it to be inviting to the widest audience possible,” says architect Jonathan Hagos, co-founder of Freehaus. “Not the kind of place where you have to do a business transaction to be there, but an open, welcoming and accessible space for anyone with an interest in Africa – whether African or not.”

The new center has a tough act to follow. Originally founded in 1964 and opened by Kenneth Kaunda, then the newly elected leader of independent Zambia, the Africa Center has become a vital center of political and cultural activity for the diaspora. Home to a lively bar, restaurant and music venue, it was a place where independence movements were fueled and anti-apartheid struggles debated, and where Nelson Mandela’s famous public statement was issued during his imprisonment. at Robben Island. Archbishop Desmond Tutu would meet Thabo Mbeki here, while the resident Soul II Soul the sound system presided over wild nights in the basement, and artists like Sonia Boyce and Lubaina Himid exhibited their fascinating paintings upstairs.

In the 2000s the center fell on tougher times and the lease of the Covent Garden building was sold in 2013, despite vocal opposition from the community. Proceeds from the sale, along with £1.6million from Arts Council England, were used to acquire the small Southwark office block, in a prime location just 10 minutes’ walk from Tate Modern . It was a smart move, using the revenue generated from retaining freehold Covent Garden to subsidize its activities, with an additional £1.6m from the Mayor of London’s Good Growth fund for the capital project. In the hands of Freehaus, the building has been cleverly stripped down and opened up, with a series of low-cost interventions that completely transform the space and advance the tight £2.6 million construction budget.

The ground floor has been extended to the rear, with a row of glass doors that open fully, connecting the restaurant to a bustling alleyway of railway arches, lined with cafes, bars and a theater, where the center also has a pair of office space housing boot units. It is an ideal place for the first permanent residence of Tatale, a former supper-club managed by Akwasi Brenya-Mensa, who designed the new restaurant as a tribute to Ghana’s chop bars – “a conversation center literally around food”. Overlooked by a bar terrace, the scene is set for lively conversations to spill out down the aisle, forming the stirring center of what is hoped to become a new African neighborhood.

“An embassy of optimism”… the interior of the centre.
“An embassy of optimism”… the interior of the centre. Photography: Taran Wilkhu

Introducing a sense of openness to the unwelcoming office building was key, and the architects cut a large, level access entrance to the front of the building, framed by a sturdy black steel canopy that supports the terrace above – “celebrating users as part of the facade”, as Hagos puts it, in the style of the neighboring Young Vic theatre. A new staircase leads to the first floor bar, past a striking mural of fire Mozambican artist and poet Malangatana Ngwenya, which was painstakingly removed from the old center house, restored and reinstated here. It springs from a deep indigo colored wall, rendered in the same textured clay plaster, echoing the rich hues of traditional West African dyes.

“The dossier had to be unmistakably African,” says Hagos, “but we wanted to avoid continent-wide generalizations and superficial stereotypes. My family is from Eritrea, whose aesthetic is very much influenced by its Italian colonial past – completely different from a Nigerian or Ghanaian perspective. We didn’t want to bring too specific a view of what Africa looks like, but celebrate what we have in common and show what an embassy for a continent could look like in the 21st century.

Rather than resorting to well-known visual tropes, the designers offered a series of common themes, including strongly expressed thresholds, tactile surfaces, quality of light, as well as reuse and appropriation. Look closely and you will notice that the ground floor earthy plaster intensifies in color as it rises through the building, changing from sandy shades, through rosy tones, to rich earth. baked as it rises in levels, becoming coarser in texture as it climbs. Moments of transition are celebrated, as in the polished green terrazzo, dotted with pink stones, which marks a milestone in the restaurant, as are handcrafted elements such as large fitted furniture, made by Kenyan and British designers. Propolis workshop.

Rendering subtly changes hue as levels increase.
Rendering subtly changes hue as levels increase. Photography: Taran Wilkhu

Even some of the tattered scars have been preserved from where the building was sliced, leaving gnarled areas of chipped concrete and exposed steel rebar above expanses of new thermally efficient glazing. “We wanted to recognize that by renovating this rather drab 1960s building, the Africa Center is already making a big gesture,” says Hagos. “We tried to include as many passive environmental measures as possible, like using the staircase as a thermal chimney for natural ventilation, but keeping the building ‘- and avoiding the carbon-intensive act of demolition -‘ is something we ‘they should really be proud of.’

A second staircase lined with artwork leads to the third-floor gallery, one of the most evocative spaces in the building, drenched in the same inky indigo blue as the two staircases, as directed by Ojuolape. Faced with the lack of wall space, the architects were inspired by Sir John Soane Museum and devised a clever system of panels that fold out from the walls to provide more hanging surface, creating cabin-like nooks for the artwork.

The choice of intense colors may seem overwhelming, but it provides the perfect backdrop for the opening exhibition of dazzling paintings by the Tanzanian artist Sungi Mlengeyawhose ballet black figures shine on their stark white canvases, powerfully occupying the space with their joyfully liberated limbs (and perhaps foreshadowing some of the shapes that might be projected into the bar below).

A second phase of work, currently seeking funding, will see the third and fourth floors transformed into an educational space, to be digitally connected with classrooms in Africa, and an Afrocentric business incubator, as well as plans for a mashrabiya inspiration screen to cover the facade of the building. Plans for illuminated lettering on the roof, facing the train tracks to advertise the centre’s presence, have unfortunately been vetoed by local planners, but all signs suggest the energy emerging from this so-called ‘Embassy of the ‘optimism’ will reverberate everywhere, no matter what.

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