fNeon pink, acid yellow and lime green lashes shine on a first floor terrace in Southwark, London, bringing a splashy taste of sunny climes to a nondescript office and apartment street. They are the first signs that after almost 10 years without a home since the closure of its Covent Garden base, the Africa Center is back – with a bang.
Stepping inside the black-painted brick building reveals an unexpectedly warm world of sandy adobe plaster walls, carved wood furniture, and woven lighting fixtures, where metallic beaded drapes and rows of arches frame dining platforms and cozy sitting areas. Seductive fabrics cover the cushions, while perforated blocks line the restaurant counters and booths, reminiscent of the brise-soleil screens of modernist architecture on the African continent.
It’s unrecognizable from the dingy 1960s office block that architects Freehaus and interior designer Tola Ojuolape faced when they began the project to create something that has ambitions to become “the most welcoming cultural space in London.” .
“We wanted it to feel inviting to as wide an audience as possible,” says architect Jonathan Hagos, co-founder of Freehaus. “Not the kind of place where you have to complete a commercial transaction to be there, but an open, welcoming, accessible place for anyone interested in Africa – African or not.”
The new center has a tough act ahead of it. Originally established in 1964 and opened by Kenneth Kaunda, the then newly elected leader of independent Zambia, the Africa Center has become an important center of political and cultural activity for the diaspora. Home to a lively bar, restaurant and music venue, it was a place where pro-independence movements were stoked, anti-apartheid struggles debated and where Nelson Mandela’s public statement was famously published during his captivity on Robben Island. Archbishop Desmond Tutu met Thabo Mbeki here, while the resident Soul II Soul sound system drowned out wild nights downstairs and artists such as Sonia Boyce and Lubaina Himid displayed their fascinating paintings upstairs.
The 2000s saw the center fall through tougher times and the lease of the Covent Garden building was sold in 2013 despite vocal opposition from the community. The sale proceeds, along with £1.6m, were used by Arts Council England to purchase the small office building in Southwark – in a prime location just 10 minutes’ walk from Tate Modern. Using the proceeds from the upkeep of the Covent Garden property to subsidize its activities was a smart move, with an additional £1.6million from the Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund for the capital project. In the hands of Freehaus, the building was completed with a series of low-cost interventions that completely transform the space and fit a tight £2.6 million construction budget.
The ground floor has been extended at the back, with a set of glass doors that open fully, connecting the restaurant to a busy alley of railway arches lined with cafes, bars and a theater, where the center also has two units housing startup -office space. It’s a fitting place for the first permanent home of Tatale, a former supper club run by Akwasi Brenya-Mensa, who conceived the new restaurant as a homage to Ghana’s chop bars – “a hub for conversation, which literally revolve around food”. Dominated by a bar terrace, the stage is set for lively conversations that spill out into the alley and form the soulful center of what is hoped to become a new African Quarter.
Giving the uninviting office building a sense of openness was crucial, and the architects punched a large, new access entrance into the front of the building, framed by a sturdy black steel roof that supports the terrace above – “around the Celebrating users as part of the facade,” as Hagos puts it, echoing the nearby Young Vic theater. A new staircase leads up to the first floor bar, past an impressive mural by the late Mozambican artist and poet Malangatana Ngwenya, which has been carefully removed from the centre’s previous home, restored and reinstated here. It pops out of a deep indigo wall plastered with the same textured clay plaster, reflecting the rich hues of traditional West African dyes.
“The brief was supposed to be unmistakably African,” says Hagos, “but we wanted to avoid cross-continental generalizations and superficial stereotypes. My family comes from Eritrea, whose aesthetics are strongly influenced by the Italian colonial past – very different from a Nigerian or Ghanaian perspective. We didn’t want to present an overly specific take on what Africa looks like, but rather celebrate what we have in common and show what a message for a 21st century continent might look like.”
Rather than resorting to well-worn visual tropes, the designers developed a number of common themes, including heavily emphasized thresholds, tactile surfaces, quality of light, and reuse and appropriation. If you look closely you will notice that the color of the earthy plaster on the ground floor intensifies as it rises through the building, ranging from sandy shades to pink tones to a rich terracotta as it climbs the levels, emphasizing its texture getting rougher climbs. Moments of transition are celebrated, such as in the polished green terrazzo speckled with pink stones that marks a step into the restaurant, as well as handcrafted elements like the chunky built-in furniture crafted by Kenyan and British designers Studio Propolis .
Even some of the torn scars where the building was cut open have survived, leaving knotty areas of spalled concrete and exposed steel rebar over expanses of new thermal glazing. “We wanted to recognize that the Africa Center is already making a grand gesture by retrofitting this rather drab 1960s building,” says Hagos. “We tried to incorporate as many passive environmental measures as possible, like using the staircase as a thermal chimney for natural ventilation, but preserving the building”—and avoiding carbon-intensive demolition—”is something it really should be proud of.”
A second staircase lined with artwork leads to the third-floor gallery, one of the building’s most impressive rooms, which, at Ojuolape’s direction, is bathed in the same inky blue indigo as both staircases. Given the lack of wall space, the architects took inspiration from Sir John Soane’s Museum and designed a clever system of panels that fold out from the walls to provide more hanging space and create booth-like corners for the artworks.
The intense choice of colors may sound overwhelming, but it provides the perfect backdrop for the inaugural exhibition of dazzling paintings by Tanzanian artist Sungi Mlengeya, whose balletic black figures radiate from their gleaming white canvases and fill the room with their limbs gleefully liberated (and perhaps a foreshadowing of some of the shapes that could be thrown in the bar below).
In a second phase of work, which is currently seeking funding, the third and fourth floors will be converted into an educational space to be digitally connected to classrooms in Africa and an incubator for Afrocentric businesses, along with plans for a mashrabiya-inspired screen to cover the facade of the building. Unfortunately, plans for illuminated roof lettering with a view of the railway to announce the center’s presence were rejected by local planners, but all indications are that the energy emanating from this self-proclaimed “message of optimism” is spreading far and wide nonetheless will reverberate.