Architecture and Politics in Africa

Edited by Joanne Tomkinson, Daniel Mulugeta and Julia Gallagher

Welcome to the African Griot! Can you please tell us one or two things you want readers to take away from your book Architecture and Politics in Africa?

The book includes work by 14 authors writing about architecture in 8 countries in sub-Saharan Africa – Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe. It looks at the politics of a wide range of buildings from housing, shopping malls, libraries, airports, police stations and parks through palaces, cathedrals and parliaments, to the African Union headquarters. And it draws on approaches from architectural history, politics, sociology and anthropology.

The book explores what architecture means politically in the broadest possible terms – not just how it shapes political life from the perspectives of the architects and engineers who make it and the politicians who commission it, but how it is experienced and understood by the citizens who live with it.

The book thinks about the materiality of politics, not in a conventional flattening way as merely a ‘politics of the belly’, but as how politics is a material process about resources, the embodiment of the state as expressed by elites and understood by populations, the balance of mutual creation of things and communities – as well as about ideas. Its starting point is that buildings both materially and through ideas impact on the political life of countries, states and citizens.

Your book is the first in Making & Remaking the African City: Studies in Urban Africa, a new series from James Currey. What does this new series hope to achieve and how does your book fit into it?

The series is about how African cities and urban environments are being made and remade across the continent. Its contributions will do this from many disciplinary perspectives. Our book kicks off the discussion by focussing on buildings, the stuff of cities. It explores how they are shaped by political processes and how they in turn shape political and social life. A first group of chapters focuses on the ways buildings are initially put together: how they are paid for, where and why they are erected, whose ideas shape them. A second group looks at how people live in and with buildings: how political relationships are understood and mediated through them, how they are used and misused and reused in ways other than those intended. A final group explores how buildings relate to political imagination – of pan-Africanism, of pre-colonial history or of projections into the future. Across all of this, the buildings showcase the dynamics of political making, unmaking and remaking.

Your book looks at some of sub-Saharan Africa’s ‘most significant buildings’, how did you define these and choose the buildings to study?

There’s a big range of buildings in the book, but all of them contribute to socio-political relationships in some way. For example, prestigious state-driven projects like national cathedrals, parliaments, mass housing schemes or airport terminals speak to elite interests and international cooperation. Projects like a shopping mall or the renovation of a colonial-era library by an NGO speak to social conceptions of identity and community. Police stations and prisons explore questions around state violence and its legacies. And traditional palaces and the AU building speak to broader ideologies and the difficulties of turning ideals into concrete. We didn’t set out to limit ourselves to one type of buildings – but we did want to make sure that all of them were thought about explicitly within political terms.

Tell us about your cover.

The cover, ‘Government Housing’, is by the Nigerian-born artist Olalekan Jeyifous. Olalekan makes collages, models and sculptures that investigate the past, present and future of an ‘Urban Africa’. We loved his depictions of African modernism which often juxtapose formality and informality – they play with the tensions between the two which is a theme explored in many parts of the book.

Architecture and Politics in Africa

Making, living and imagining identities through buildings

Edited by Joanne Tomkinson, Daniel Mulugeta and Julia Gallagher

£25.00 / $36.95
Paperback & Open Access,
294pp, 3 b/w, 35 illus.
September 2022

Making & Remaking the African City:
Studies in Urban Africa

James Currey


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JOANNE TOMKINSON is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Politics at SOAS, University of London. Her current research explores the role of airport buildings and infrastructure in national development strategies, focusing on Ethiopia and Ghana.

DANIEL MULUGETA is a Lecturer in International Politics of Africa and a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at SOAS, University of London. His works include The Everyday State in Africa: Governance Practices and State Ideas in Ethiopia, published in 2020. His research looks at the connections between architecture and regional and pan-African politics.

JULIA GALLAGHER is a Professor of African Politics at SOAS, University of London. She has published books on Zimbabwe’s International Relations, Images of Africa and Britain and Africa under Blair. She currently leads a five-year research project on architecture and politics in Africa.