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A tired 1960s building in Southwark has been transformed into ‘the most welcoming cultural space in London’ and The Africa Centre’s new HQ.
Photography: Taran Wilkhu
Sixty years after it was first established in Covent Garden as a ‘home from home’ for Africans in London, Freehaus has taken a nondescript 1960s office building and guided its transformation into ‘the most welcoming cultural space in London’ – a 21st-century institution that reflects the rich heritage and diversity of the African continent and diaspora.
Freehaus took on the multi-faceted challenge of intelligently representing the diverse cultures and heritages that make up modern Africa, while also creating a forward-looking space that maintained a connection to The Africa Centre’s six-decade history.
Rather than focusing on particular motifs or patterns, Freehaus identified specific areas and themes, encompassing expressed thresholds, tactile surfaces, quality of light and practices of reuse and appropriation, collaborating with interior designer Tola Ojuolape and brand designer, Mam’gobozi Design Factory.
The first four of the building’s six floors are now open, comprising a reception and pan-African restaurant Tatale on the ground floor, a bar lounge on the first, a multifunctional gallery and event space on the second, and kitchen storage in the basement.
Key references included the work of David Adjaye, Chris Spring’s book African Art Close-up and African Architecture Evolution and Transformation by Nnamdi Elleh. In addition, the work of Burkinabé architect Francis Kére and Atelier Masōmī’s Hikma religious and secular complex in Dandaji, Niger, both served as strong departure points for Freehaus’s architectural approach.
“The key to the brief was for The Africa Centre’s new headquarters to be unmistakably African,” says Jonathan Hagos, co-director at Freehaus. “Given the breadth of diversity on the continent and among the diaspora, we were keen to avoid stereotypes and well-trodden aesthetic tropes. At the same time, we wanted to avoid continent-sweeping generalisations.
“‘Africa isn’t a country’ is a familiar response, often born of frustration at the dismissal understanding of the breadth in peoples, cultures and traditions that span the African continent. We wanted to turn this misnomer into a strength and envisage what an embassy for a continent might look like in the 21st century; a space that demonstrates what connects us and binds us to one another, while celebrating the dynamism of the continent.”
The interiors are enriched by natural clay plaster finishes, bespoke furniture and curated art – celebrating African craft and championing contemporary talents.
The development of the building design was highly collaborative, speaking to the desire of both architect and client for the new headquarters to be informed by multiple voices and perspectives. The developing design was informed throughout by a programme of public conversations and events, including a London Design Festival discussion, and steered by an advisory group created by Freehaus to include staff, board members, young Africa Centre trustees, and users of The Africa Centre. Visits to comparable institutions, including cultural and arts spaces as well as members’ clubs, helped to underpin their approach to core elements such as ethos, function and approach to welcome.
Environmental impact has been a priority area for all stakeholders in the project. As a retrofit, The Africa Centre is inherently more carbon-efficient than a new build, and a raft of additional measures have been integrated into the fabric of the building to minimise impact and maximise energy performance.
Measures include extended glazing to optimise light, passive ventilation thanks to the co-opting of the central staircase as a thermal chimney, CO2 heat-recovery ventilation systems, and heat pumps to recover waste heat from kitchens and server rooms in order to provide hot water.
“As an industry we have a collective duty to chase every kg of carbon reduction we can because, collectively, the impact on us all will be significant,” says Tom Bell, co-founder at Freehaus. “We must also recognise that sustainability isn’t just carbon related. Building sustainable communities and promoting social value are equally important to society. The Africa Centre project has empowered Freehaus to provoke environment change, raise industry awareness and galvanise community values.”
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