Designed By Freehaus, The Africa Centre Opens Its New Southwark Home

This totally reimagined ‘embassy of optimism’ celebrates pan-African culture in all its diverse forms

interiors of the africa centre in southwark
TARAN WILKHU

Six decades after it first opened in Covent Garden as a ‘home from home’ for Africans in London, this month The Africa Centre is throwing open the doors to its brand new headquarters: the dramatically modified, 1960s building Gunpowder House in Southwark.

London-based architects Freehaus have helmed the transformation, turning the old office space into a thoroughly modern institution that reflects the rich heritage and diversity of the African continent and diaspora – what they call an ‘embassy of optimism’. Chosen from a pool of more than 60 architects, Freehaus took on the challenge to represent a diverse Africa, while creating a forward-looking space.

the exterior of the new africa centre in southwark
The exterior of the new Africa Centre in Southwark
TARAN WILKHU

‘The key to the brief was for The Africa Centre’s new headquarters to be unmistakably African,’ says Jonathan Hagos, co-director of Freehaus. ‘We were keen to avoid stereotypes and well-trodden aesthetic tropes. At the same time, we wanted to avoid continent-sweeping generalisations.’

jonathan hagos, codirector of freehaus
Jonathan Hagos, co-director of Freehaus
TARAN WILKHU

The result is a clean, contemporary space that also has a clear respect for ancestry and tradition: think clay plaster finishes, bespoke furniture and curated artwork. Highlights include the strikingly repainted black exterior, and a 1987 mural by Mozambican artist and poet Malangatana Ngwenya, originally painted on the wall of The Africa Centre’s former base in Covent Garden and painstakingly transported and restored in its new home.

a 1987 mural by mozambican artist and poet malangatana ngwenya, originally painted on the wall of the africa centre’s former base
A 1987 mural by Mozambican artist and poet Malangatana Ngwenya, originally painted on the wall of The Africa Centre’s former base
TARAN WILKHU

Together with interior designer Tola Ojuolape and brand designer Mam’gobozi Design Factory, Freehaus worked to design the six floors of the building (the first four of which are open now). Key references included the work of David Adjaye in creating cultural institutions for Black and Afro-centric organisations, former Africa Centre trustee Chris Spring’s book African Art Close-Up, and African Architecture Evolution and Transformation by Nnamdi Elleh. ‘We wanted to envisage what an embassy for a continent might look like in the 21st century,’ says Hagos.

interiors of the africa centre in southwark
Interiors of The Africa Centre in Southwark
TARAN WILKHU
interiors of the africa centre in southwark
Interiors of The Africa Centre in Southwark
TARAN WILKHU

There’s also a comprehensive approach to sustainability, with extended glazing to optimise light, passive ventilation thanks to the co-opting of the central staircase as a thermal chimney and heat pumps that recover heat waste from the kitchens to provide hot water. ‘As an industry we have a collective duty to chase every kilogram of carbon reduction we can because, collectively, the impact on us all will be significant,’ says Tom Bell, co-founder of Freehaus. ‘We must also recognise that sustainability isn’t just carbon related. Building sustainable communities and promoting social value are equally important to society.’

tom bell, cofounder of freehaus
Tom Bell, co-founder of Freehaus
Taran Wilkhu

The Africa Centre will now be home to a host of different spaces, including ‘Tatale’, a pan-African restaurant, a bar lounge, a multifunctional gallery and event area, a digital learning facility and an incubator for Afro-centric businesses. There are also set to be more extensive transformations to the building’s exterior, as part of the second phase of the project.

The redesign was a collaborative experience, informed by multiple voices and perspectives and influenced by a programme of public conversations and events, including a London Design Festival discussion. An advisory group created by Freehaus – that included staff, board members, young Africa Centre trustees and users of The Africa Centre – steered the process.

interiors of the africa centre in southwark
A balcony at The Africa Centre in Southwark
TARAN WILKHU

‘The result of Freehaus’s intuitive ability to capture the essence of what was a multi-layered and complex brief is… an environment which will be relaxed, welcoming and uniquely Pan-African,’ says Oba Nsugbe QC, SAN, Chair of The Africa Centre.

Overall, the effect is powerful: a reimagining of this enormous space as a cultural, forward-thinking hub that celebrates Africa’s history and heritage. ‘[The phrase] “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,’ says Hagos. ‘We wanted to turn this misnomer into a strength… to envisage a space that demonstrates what connects us and binds us to one another, while celebrating the dynamism of the continent.’

The Africa Centre is open now at 66 Great Suffolk Street, London, SE1 0BL. africacentre.org.uk

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