Style Safari: Africa's Cities Are As Absorbing As the Bush

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David Adjaye

Tunis The distinctive architecture of the Maghreb, as found in Tunisia's capital

Think of Africa, and for many people, what come to mind are HIV and hunger, big game and shantytowns. Urban design does not — but with his epic new work, African Metropolitan Architecture, architect David Adjaye hopes to change that. Never mind the villages and the veld. Here are the cities, documented just at the time when Africa leaves behind postindependence nation building and turns toward a hoped-for 21st century boom.

Compiled by the 45-year-old Adjaye over the past 11 years, the seven-volume opus chronicles the urban condition of 52 capitals in every African nation except Somalia, using images, city histories, maps and satellite pictures. There are thousands of photos, consciously taken as unsentimental snapshots rather than lavish architectural studies, and unburdened by any contrived Africanness. "Africa is permanently painted as this picturesque, overly romantic virgin continent," says Adjaye. "But I wanted to balance this narrative."

Born in Tanzania to Ghanaian diplomat parents, educated mostly in Britain and today designing buildings on four continents, Adjaye's history embodies the new Africa that is his inspiration. "With their melting-pot nature, cities like Maputo and Dakar personify the new metropolitan condition," says Adjaye. "They present important ideas about diversity and how differing groups can form an equilibrium amid economic and cultural difficulties."

Adjaye divides the anthology geographically. There are six collections — the Maghreb; Desert; Sahel; Forest; Savanna and Grassland; and Mountain and Highveld — plus a book of essays. "I was surprised how urbanism evolved in tandem with geography," says Adjaye. Light, for instance, has played a critical role in shaping the sun-drenched savanna cities. Thermal-control measures such as tinted glass and recessed arcades are found in Abuja's main mosque and Catholic cathedral, which vie for dominance at the city's central square in a manner suggestive of the tension between Nigeria's two main religions. Further south, heat and humidity — mixed with centuries of Portuguese rule — have resulted in the modernist mélange of coastal forest cities like Luanda and Maputo. Dense apartment blocks in both capitals are perched on cantilevers and clad with geometric-patterned, louvered facades to control airflow.

The author is careful to factor in political and colonial influences too. The austere, fascist architecture in Eritrea's high-altitude capital, Asmara, still reflects the 1938 master plan of Vittorio Cafiero. South Africa's capital, Pretoria, is even more "explicitly European," Adjaye argues, defined by a series of inward-facing squares that literally turn their back on the surrounding grasslands.

While most of the book's buildings are uncredited, Adjaye specifically salutes the contributions of seminal architects like the Portuguese-Mozambican Amancio "Pancho" Guedes, whose futurist, semi-Surrealist apartment and office buildings remain colorful curiosities. "Guedes figured out a number of critical things," Adjaye says. "Particularly his strong understanding of shape and the importance of how shapes work." Also depicted are works by Herbert Baker, who designed much of Pretoria, and Gustave Eiffel, who completed buildings in Mozambique, Angola and Egypt.

Adjaye made around 300 trips to Africa in the course of research. Sometimes his camera aroused suspicion. During a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, he was followed by secret police and stopped at Kinshasa's airport. "You have this image of Kinshasa as informal, the airport as derelict," says Adjaye, "but in an instant, they had Googled my name and knew everything about me."

The architect is currently based in the U.S. and working on the most ambitious project of his career — the Smithsonian's $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. With a design partially inspired by the traditional crown motifs of Nigerian Yoruba sculpture, the museum is scheduled to open in 2015 to tell a story that Adjaye insists will resonate as strongly with Africans as their descendants across the Atlantic. "Every African understands American black history as their history," Adjaye says.

As for Africa's relationship with its own architectural past, Adjaye worries that nationalist zeal coupled with unregulated development are destroying much of its European-influenced patrimony. To Adjaye, it's "a big loss and big mistake." Preservation, he argues, "is another part of modernity, and that also needs to be embraced." For a continent trying to define its architectural values, African Metropolitan Architecture is an invaluable reference.