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New talent Freehaus wins Africa Centre contest

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Emerging practice Freehaus has won the competition to overhaul the Africa Centre’s headquarters in Southwark, central London

The studio – founded by Jonathan Hagos and Tom Bell seven years ago – defeated an undisclosed shortlist of rival teams to win the prestigious commission.

Freehaus will now deliver a ‘bold and creative’ revamp of the cultural venue, which has been based inside a former office block known as Gunpowder House at 66 Great Suffolk Street in Southwark since relocating from Covent Garden in 2013. Founded in 1964, the centre hosts exhibitions, conferences, lectures and other events focusing on the African and diaspora community.

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 consent for the scheme in 2017.

Africa Centre director Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp said: ’Freehaus’s vision was bold, intelligent and rooted in our identity and purpose as an organisation, putting the people who will engage with us, and how we will connect with them, at the heart of their vision.

‘Their sensitive understanding of both the heritage and future of The Africa Centre was evident throughout, as was their understanding of how we will exist as an organisation in these newly developed spaces, not only through how the spaces look and feel but also, crucially, in the way that people will inhabit them.’

We want to draw from the provenance of the organisation over the past 50 years

Hagos said: ‘As a member of the Eritrean diaspora, I grew up with The Africa Centre in its iconic former home in Covent Garden. We want to draw from the provenance of the organisation over the past 50 years, while looking ahead to ensure its new home in Southwark has the same impact and cultural resonance for the next 50 years.

’“Africa isn’t a country” is a response, often born of frustration at a dismissal of the breadth in peoples, cultures and traditions that span the African continent. The team and I want to turn this misnomer into a strength and envisage what an embassy for a continent might look like in the 21st century: a space that demonstrates what connects us and binds us to one another, while celebrating the dynamism of the continent.’

The centre sits 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.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Industry Professional

    "New talent Freehaus..." thank you Merlin for including the young practice's name in the headline, whether this was the result of my recent comment or not it's very welcome!

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