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Competition: The Africa Centre, London

Gunpowder House
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The Africa Centre is recruiting a design team to overhaul its headquarters in Southwark, central London

The winning team will deliver a ‘bold and creative’ revamp of the cultural venue which has been based inside a former office block – known as Gunpowder House – in Southwark since relocating from Covent Garden in 2013.

The project, which has received £1.6 million from the mayor’s Good Growth Fund, will deliver a café, bar and terrace; lounge bar; gallery; learning and research centre; and meeting suite inside the four-storey building. MAAPS Design & Architecture won planning for the scheme in 2017.

Africa Centre director Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp said: ‘The redesign of Gunpowder House opens the next chapter in the story of the Africa Centre.

‘We’re really excited to see how designers and architects rise to both the challenges and opportunities of designing a pan-African centre for the 21st century. It’s so important that members of our community have a place that they can call home; our central aim is to become the most welcoming cultural hub in London.’

Founded in 1964, The Africa Centre hosts art exhibitions, conferences, lectures and other events focusing on the African and diaspora community. The venue closed its former headquarters in Covent Garden six years ago and is now based at 66 Great Suffolk Street.

The centre is opposite the newly refurbished 53 Great Suffolk Street by Hawkins\Brown and occupies a four-storey 686m² office block and two railway arches – restored by Designers Block and artist Yinka Ilori – which feature a co-working space and performance space.

The latest project will transform Gunpowder House into a landmark cultural venue with a ‘pan-African aesthetic that embraces the rich diversity of the African continent’.

Key elements will include a café-bar with a ‘strong African flavour’; a gallery and connected lounge bar; a learning centre and library; and a meeting space designed for hosting broadcasts, interviews, video blogs and other events.

The winning team will deliver the scheme from RIBA Stage 3 through to completion. The deadline for applications is midday, 18 April.

How to apply

Email the project manager Cambridge CM (emea-enquiries@ccm.to) with your expression of interest to receive the brief and further details

Contact details

Email: emea-enquiries@ccm.to


Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp, director of the Africa Centre

Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp

Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp

Source: Image by Megan Taylor

Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp

Why are you launching a tender for a design team to upgrade the Africa Centre in Southwark?

As a largely publicly funded project, and one which has such strong cultural importance within the African and African-Caribbean community, it felt absolutely essential for us to reach out to the wider community, to allow for a range of voices, known and unknown, to have the chance to consider this unique opportunity. The architectural firm who helped secure planning permission for the development in 2017 was MAAPS Design and Architecture, headed by Peter Mance.

What is your vision for the upgraded building?

‘Gunpowder House’ is a 7,100 square foot site [660m²] occupying a strategic position on Great Suffolk Street, Southwark, SE1, in the midst of a culturally vibrant area, within a short distance of the Young Vic and Old Vic theatres, the Jerwood Space and Tate Modern. Southwark is also the London borough with the largest black-African population.

As a former office block, the four-storey building is at present, a rather prosaic, neutral and utilitarian building. The challenge and the opportunity afforded are to imbue the building with the essence of Africa and the diaspora, to embrace a pan-African identity, and transform the building into an Africa Centre for the 21st century. It’s so important that members of our community have a place that they can call home; our central aim is to become the most welcoming cultural hub in London.

It is essential that the project delivers the best in environmentally sustainable practice, within the limitations of the budget. We also see this as a unique creative opportunity to develop a strong green/living environment both externally and internally.

What sort of architects and designers are you hoping will apply?

We hope to encourage a range of interest, including both larger and smaller practices, but it is important that the team can demonstrate sufficient track record of successfully delivering cultural projects on a comparable size and scale, on time and on budget.

The Africa Centre’s reach operates locally, nationally and internationally. As such we aspire to be a cultural beacon. At the same time, it is vital that the building is one that feels owned by the Africa and diaspora community in the broadest sense, as well as those within the immediate locality.

In design terms, we are keen to encourage a pan-African aesthetic that embraces the rich diversity of the African continent, its 54 nations, and diaspora, to influence areas such as exterior and interior design, furniture and fittings, materials, signage, graphic identity. This implies a plurality of influences, and perhaps a range of contributing creative voices, but how practices approach this is up to them.

We are equally keen to encourage a design approach that recognises culturally specific behaviours and sensibilities, and for this understanding of African and diaspora culture to positively inform not only the look and feel of the building, but also to inform and enrich the user experience – in other words, the people who cross our threshold every day.

Which other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects/designers be procured?

The redevelopment of Gunpowder House is phase 3 of the Africa Centre’s development plans. Plans for Phase 4 include the development of the Heritage Experience and Performance Space in neighbouring Arch 29, and a bridge connecting Gunpowder House to the two railway arches – a combination of design and capital works, technical infrastructure and content curation.

Are there any other recent cultural centre projects you have been impressed or inspired by?

At the end of February, I spent several days in New York catching up with colleagues at the Africa Center. Our namesakes in Harlem have an amazing location, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 110th Street, overlooking Central Park. Like us, their new home is partially open, with other parts still under construction. I loved the look and feel of their space and was pleased to note that as organisations we share very similar aspirations, in our desire to reflect a diverse, dynamic and contemporary Africa, while also celebrating our rich cultural heritage.

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