Optimism, sustainability and ideas sharing are rooted in the design of the Africa Centre’s new headquarters in Southwark.
The Africa Centre is a London-based charity that has championed African culture and its diaspora since the early 1960s. Its new site on Great Suffolk Street provides a physical home for its activities, which centre around exchanging culture and ideas through events and conferences.
Crafted from a 1960s office block, Freehaus Design led the refurbishment and collaborated with interior designer Tola Ojuolape and brand designer Mam’gobozi Design Factory. Their retrofit design sidesteps generalisations and focuses on shared design traditions across Africa and its diaspora. Its six stories include the pan-African restaurant Tatale, a bar lounge and an art gallery.
In the centre, charcoal-hued facades open onto a ‘warm world’ of sandy clay plaster walls, red-hued terrazzo flooring and lush plants. It has metallic beaded curtains and repeating wall arches which frame dining areas and seating nooks. Stacked cement air bricks form the upper backs of banquette seating, while woven containers and pendant lighting, cork stools, and carved timber furniture furnish its spaces.
‘There’s a strong focus on expressed thresholds, tactile surfaces, quality of light and practices of reuse and appropriation,’ said Freehaus co-director Jonathan Hagos. Hand-applied wall finishes ‘show the maker’s mark’, its indigo staircase wall speaks to the dye-making heritage in Nigeria and Burkina Faso, and its wall arches suggest Islamic architecture in northern Africa. All of its pieces are by designers/makers from Africa and its diaspora.
‘[Our design] is about shifting the narrative to a buoyant and boisterous mood to create an “embassy of optimism.” That was the galvanising thread and the start of the design journey as many voices needed to be heard,’ Hagos said, referring to the project’s extensive research process.
It also refers to its long history through the colourful 1987 mural by Mozambican artist Malangatana Ngwenya, transported and restored from its former base in Covent Garden.
The Africa Centre’s original Covent Garden premises were opened in 1964 by Kenneth Kaunda, who became the first president of Zambia in that year. It was established to provide a different narrative of Africa and a ‘home away from home’ for Africans in London. Desmond Tutu, Thabo Mbeki, Maya Angelou and Wole Soyinka have all visited the centre’s former site, which closed in 2013.