Disorienting Cityscapes

In the frequently dreary lobby of Gund Hall, an exhibition hovers between document and poem, chaos and order, microcosm and macrocosm. In “African Cities, A Photographic Survey by David Adjaye,” on display through May 23, Adjaye navigates these gentle tensions masterfully and in doing so reveals how an architect “sees” architecture and urbanism, in the several senses of the verb.

Adjaye, the Graduate School of Design’s Tange visiting professor in architecture, was born in 1966 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania—just years after the country gained independence from the United Kingdom. Adjaye moved to London to finish his education and has become one of Britain’s leading architects.

“African Cities” shows roughly 40 photographs each of 10 capital cities Adjaye snapped in his travels to the western, southern, and eastern regions of the continent.

Many African capitals seem wracked with the same problems: a previous architectural tradition hijacked by colonialism and poorly managed since independence. Adjaye has his eyes largely on colonial and Modernist architecture, but also on the more informal architectural phenomena—marketplaces, slums, and so on—that spring up without the support or consent of the government.

Directly following achievements of national independence in the late 1950s and 1960s, Modernist architecture became a powerful public symbol of progress and optimism. Although Modernism was meant as a break from colonial architecture, it implicitly bought into European aesthetic values and alienated the public for which the buildings and monuments were built, something apparent in the lack of public engagement that Adjaye’s photographs depict.

After a brief written and cartographic orientation come the positively disorienting photographs. The organization of the photographs into four categories—“Cityscape,” “Civic City,” “Commercial City,” and “Residential”—makes the urban chaos more manageable, and creates a comfortable rhythm throughout the exhibition without being overly formulaic.

Only a few of the photographs are remarkable in their own right and many are outright flops. There are no individual titles for a series of identically-sized photographs (a modest 6” x 8”), which, evoking urban sprawl, are assembled on a loose grid. Many look as though they were taken from a moving car, not because of blurriness, but because of the sheer inattention paid to composition. Adjaye seems to operate with few artistic guidelines other than keeping the building, monument, or general architectural oddity in the frame.

Together, however, the photographs form something incredibly impressive. Adjaye curated the exhibit, himself, and his own architectural skills come out in the design and organization of the exhibition, revealing a brilliant use of space—something not readily apparent from the photographs.

The gridded layout is a striking contrast to the seeming urban chaos and begs for comparisons between buildings within neighborhoods, neighborhoods within cities, cities within regions, and regions within the continent. Adjaye’s arrangement, which is surprisingly lively and skillfully avoids desiccating the subject, makes these comparisons both accessible and rewarding.

His depictions sometimes seem arbitrary, though such a flaw is unavoidable in cities as large as these. Rather than detract from the experience, the arbitrary nature of the photos contributes to the exhibition’s magnetic quality. Adjaye photographs what interests him and what catches his eye in his limited time in each city, something wholly interesting in itself. They are at once very personal in the story they tell of visual exploration, yet these stories arrive in the context of sprawling cities with extensive histories.

Adjaye is honest about the project’s limitations, though he seemingly surpasses them. The exhibition has no pretensions to art or science. However, like both art and science, it nobly attempts to make sense of a largely unintelligible world, and succeeds in creating an astonishingly full-body experience from which it is nearly impossible not to learn.

—Staff writer Jeremy S. Singer-Vine can be reached at