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Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library

An African solution for an African solution

By Jen Stern

, |

Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library

An African solution for an African solution

By Jen Stern

, |

3 min read

The design of the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library is a truly African interpretation of Mbeki’s concept of African Renaissance, and a wonderful example of the place- and culture-specific style of award-winning architect David Adjaye.

The Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library

The establishment of the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library is an integral part of making real the vision of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, which is to ‘be a catalyst for the achievement of an African Renaissance’. And Adjaye was the obvious choice to design the building. Working within Mbeki’s vision and philosophy, he came up with a design consisting of eight circular structures that bring to mind the small granaries that are to be seen at the edge of every rural African home.

The design incorporates ‘the knowledge of the land’ and functions as a metaphor for knowledge-based nourishment – the new building references the structures of granaries, which allow for the extension of grain production and the systematisation of cycles of feeding, planting and harvesting.

This reflects how Mbeki envisions the library as nourishing generations of Africans: ‘My vision for the new presidential library aims to encompass both an African past and an African future. It will be a place where Africans uncover their own history and identity, a place where we are empowered to script a brighter and more prosperous future. Through this wonderful collaboration with Sir David Adjaye and his team, I believe this building will become the epicentre for an African Renaissance – a place of pride, celebration and future forward thinking in which a strong sense of the African identity is empowered for further leadership in service to humanity.’

David Adjaye – true to place

Ghanaian-born Adjaye, who has offices in Accra, London and New York, is one of the most innovative architects practising today. With buildings on almost every continent, his designs range from tiny structures like the Hugh Masekela Memorial Pavilion in the Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg to huge multi-use precincts like the 98-hectare Marine Drive development in Accra, and include iconic institutions like the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, the opening of which was named Cultural Event of the Year (2016) by the New York Times.

Adjaye’s focus is always on the local – on people, and how they work and fit in with their environment, their history and their community. And, interestingly, it’s this inward-looking tendency that has inspired such respect and recognition. In 2017, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and was recognised as one of the 100 most influential people of the year by TIME Magazine. Sir Adjaye is also the recipient of the World Economic Forum’s 27th Annual Crystal Award, which recognises his ‘leadership in serving communities, cities and the environment’. And, earlier this year, he was awarded the 2021 RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Royal Gold Medal – considered one of the highest honours in British architecture. So it is not surprising that his design was chosen as a truly African solution for interpreting Mbeki’s African solution.

But also practical

While it is for his creative syncretisation that Adjaye is honoured, he is also an imminently practical architect. Whether it be the conception of a whole new precinct like Marine Drive, or a functional but user-friendly inner-city affordable housing project, he tempers his creativity with a practical feet-on-the-ground approach to creating buildings that work in the space in which they are situated. And you can’t ask any more than that of an architect.

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