UAE’s third most populous city continues to ramp up its culture cachet in the region
British practice Adjaye Associates, led by Sir David Adjaye, has unveiled images of its upcoming project, the Africa Institute, in Sharjah – the cultural epicentre of the United Arab Emirates. The tiered building in the city of Sharjah will be an academic centre dedicated to the study and research of Africa and its people. When completed, the building will offer graduate programs in the fields of African studies and the African diaspora, as well as African language diplomas. The Africa Institute currently operates out of a defunct school with fellowships and is expected to begin hiring faculty soon. Construction will begin in the second quarter of 2022.
In 1976, Sharjah’s modernist Africa Hall building was inaugurated when it hosted the cultural and political event, the Arab-African Symposium, and was demolished in 2015. The Africa Institute’s new campus will be built on the site of the former building and will accommodate an auditorium that will function as the new Africa Hall. Back in 2017, the institute’s president, Hoor Al Qasimi, was instrumental in identifying Adjaye Associates as one of the potential firms to design the campus, before it was officially selected in September 2020.
The 31,900m2 (343,175 sq ft) rectilinear building will comprise five structures that will vary between four and seven stories, and that will be connected by “two two-storey horizontal bars” on the ground level, said Mr Adjaye. Two of the buildings will cantilever over the connecting “bars” to form a courtyard in the middle of the structure. Their underbellies will provide shade to the outdoor plaza underneath – an open space which will feature reflection pools and indigenous trees and plants. The campus will house classrooms, faculty rooms, a library, and archives, as well as an auditorium, café, and bookstore.
The facade will be finished with pigmented concrete mixed with earth that will give the exterior a rusty-red appearance – a nod to rural African buildings that are made with laterite (local soil and rock that is rich in iron and aluminum). Adjaye’s Ruby City art center in San Antonio and his Los Angeles store, the Webster, also feature a similar pink-red hue, the architect clarifies that the pigment on The Africa Institute is completely different from his other works. “My use of colour is about geography,” he noted. “It’s about buildings that are loving the land.”
Located in downtown Sharjah in a prominent part of the city, opposite the Government House Square, the campus will have a rectangular plan with access points on all four sides. The tiered design is a reflection of the city’s many modernist buildings, as well as its medieval structures, and aims to create a new type of skyline for the city. “We wanted to create an oasis of learning and a place of sympathy and exchange, but also one that could create a community among academics and intellectuals,” said Adjaye.
Situated between the Gulf region and Africa, The Africa Institute in Sharjah hopes to champion Arab-African studies and exchanges. In addition to academic programs, it also will host conferences, lectures, and screenings. “Sharjah is very uniquely positioned to house this institute,” said Salah Hassan, Director of The Africa Institute and Cornell University Professor, at the press briefing. “If you think about its geography and migration, this area has been a host to the mixing of populations across the Indian Ocean.”
Recently, Sharjah also unveiled Foster + Partners’ House of Wisdom library and cultural center, with its massive cantilevering roof and perforated aluminum panels. Additionally, the emirate has also embarked on several heritage conservation projects that have seen older buildings being being preserved for adaptive reuse. The emirate also hosts an art biennial as well as an architecture triennial, which launched in 2019 as the Middle East’s first major platform for the built world.
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