School of Architecture alumna leads ‘African Modernism’ exhibition in Uganda
In her hometown of Kampala, Uganda, Doreen Adengo ’05 M. Arch. co-curated a chapter of “African Modernism: Architecture of Independence,” an exhibition that documents how African nations celebrated their postcolonial identities through architecture.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a large number of central and sub-Saharan African countries gained their independence. To commemorate these watershed moments, leaders began to commission ambitious architectural projects such as parliament buildings, central banks, stadiums, conference centers, universities, and independence memorials. Although these structures represent some of the best examples of modernist architecture worldwide, they remain largely “undiscovered” and absent from dominant histories. Manuel Herz, a German architect and author who is the co-curator of the Kampala exhibition, conceptualized “African Modernism” to change this.
Herz’s main exhibition focuses on 80 significant buildings in Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Zambia. It opened in Germany in 2015 and has since toured several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. “African Modernism” is currently on display in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
Since Ugandan buildings do not feature in the original exhibition, Goethe-Zentrum Kampala, a Ugandan-German cultural society, asked Adengo to lead an additional workshop and exhibition.
“When I was an architecture student at Yale, I became very curious about the link between the buildings I was learning about in architecture history courses and the buildings I saw growing up here in Kampala,” said Adengo, the principal architect at Adengo Architecture. “This exhibition has been a fascinating opportunity to understand my own city better.”
Adengo worked with independent photographer Timothy Latim to document 11 local buildings that showcase a range of typologies involved in the formation of a new state: institutional, residential, commercial, and industrial. Uganda gained independence on Oct. 9, 1962. A period of optimism followed, but the Idi Amin regime of the 1970s wrecked much of the country’s modernist architecture. While preparing for the exhibition, Adengo quickly realized that most of the remaining historic material resides in the British archives. In fact, a single British architecture firm, Peatfield & Bogner, designed a large number of Kampala’s modernist projects.
This raises a tension that proved provocative for viewers of “African Modernism,” Herz notes.
“Could the formation of a new national identity through architecture therefore be described as a projection from the outside? Or does the international dimension rather represent the aspirations of the countries aiming for a cosmopolitan culture?” he writes in “African Modernism,” a book that emerged from the exhibition.
“My response is that these foreign architects took great care to adapt the buildings to the African climate, which is mostly tropical, and to the topography,” said Adengo. “However, they did not take into account the African culture. I left it to the audience to think for themselves what it means to design a building with an African identity.”
In some ways, Uganda is still struggling to find its architectural identity. The general public tends to view architects as engineers, says Adengo, but the Kampala chapter of “African Modernism” may be teaching people to think a little differently, she believes. Adengo, Herz, and Kenyan photographer James Muriuki kicked off the exhibition with an intensive, five-day workshop involving local students and young professionals. They asked the participants to find the story of each modernist building and document it through a series of photographs.
“The photography exhibition is very important to me as an architect because it celebrates architecture as an art, which rarely happens in Kampala,” said Adengo.
In addition to studying the buildings themselves, the participants also consulted the records of Peatfield & Bogner.
“The firm’s archival drawings are in its office, under the control of architect Phillip Curtin, who has been with the firm since the 1960s. Curtin therefore became an invaluable resource for the workshop, as he was the only person we could find who knew the stories behind the buildings at the time they were constructed,” said Adengo.
While Curtin provided historical context, the workshop participants documented how users have adapted these buildings over the years. For instance, in their report on the National Theatre, the participants commented on “the theatrics around the theater.” They point to the various craft shops, offices, restaurant, bar, and paid parking lot that now exist on the premises and conclude that the National Theatre has transformed into “a business hub of sorts.”
Although no policy on architectural preservation currently exists in Uganda, Adengo hopes that the workshop, photographs, and exhibition as a whole will create awareness about the need to protect and preserve Kampala’s buildings. She is interested in expanding on the success of the exhibition by continuing to research modernist structures in the city and by brainstorming other accessible ways to disseminate information, such as short videos, online archives, and coffee table books.
Adengo believes that her time at Yale equipped her with the skills and insight to execute the exhibition.
“I took an elective with Eeva Liisa Polkenon on Alvar Aalto, who came of age as an architect at a time when Finland was searching for a national identity. In his design for the Finnish Pavilion in Paris in 1937, he was faced with the task of representing Finnish culture,” she said.
She also recalls a history of architecture course taught by former School of Architecture dean Robert Stern.
“The stories he told made me understand that architecture is a way of life rather than a 9-5 job,” she said.
Adengo remains in touch with her classmates and frequently connects with Yale graduates who travel to Kampala. She also follows Yale’s efforts to prioritize and expand its commitment to the continent.
“I think President Salovey’s Africa Initiative is a great opportunity for learning on both sides. I am an advocate for collaboration and exchange, and I look forward to seeing the impact that this initiative will have in Africa,” she said.
To learn more about “African Modernism” view this video.