Last month, the president of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, unveiled the design for a national cathedral that the government will build in Accra. This is a huge deal. It signals that the country is poised to consolidate the gains of decades of democracy. And the new interdenominational Christian cathedral will inspire ambitious civic architecture projects across the continent that harness the talents of Africa’s emerging artists.
Not everyone is cheering, though. Some West Africans have complained that the mixing of church and state is ill advised. They argue that it’s a worrisome case of official partisanship in a part of the world rived by religious conflicts. Others say the money for the project should have instead been invested in schools, hospitals and infrastructure — stuff that, according to them, Africa really needs. They are right to point to these endemic problems; but they are wrong to connect them with the cathedral.
The cathedral is the first major project in Africa by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, who was knighted last year for his services to his field. He is perhaps the most exciting architect in the world. His reputation is built on his stunning designs for Rivington Place in London, the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo, and, most spectacularly, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
This Accra commission is not just a recognition by his homeland of Mr. Adjaye’s acclaim. It also signifies that Africa can build a major work by a leading architect at the top of his game. This is a remarkable thing: Ghana will get to brag about a globally recognized architectural landmark.
Mr. Adjaye has proposed a monumental building with delicate timber elements on the concave facade, a reminder of the curved seats of Asante royal stools. And its staggered, high-pitched roofs are a welcome nod to traditional Akan architecture. While Mr. Adjaye is known for incorporating local designs into his buildings, the poetry of the cathedral’s allusions to indigenous traditions raises the bar. To embellish the building’s interior, he will collaborate with well-known Ghanaian and other African artists.
Mr. Adjaye has designed a fabulous church, with chapels, a baptistery and a 5,000-seat auditorium where state religious events will take place. But I’m thankful it’s more than that; it also includes an art gallery, a music school and a bible museum.
The wide expanse of steps leading to the building makes this a veritable public space, which major African cities like Accra have lacked for too long. When it’s finished, it will be a place “where religion, democracy and local tradition are seamlessly and symbolically intertwined,” Mr. Adjaye’s firm said. I hope it becomes a model for how art museums in Africa can also be multifunctional public institutions. And this is why the criticisms of the cathedral are misplaced.
The project should not be a symbol of what is widely perceived as the profligacy and megapastor-mania of the new-age churches in Africa and the third world. Nor should it be confused with the big white elephants of past dictators, like the humongous Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, the “Basilica in the Bush” built by Félix Houphouët-Boigny, then Ivory Coast’s leader, in his hometown. Instead, the cathedral, as a religious and cultural institution, will be supported by diverse segments of the population, beyond just the church and the state.
Also, there’s something worrisome about the idea that until every home in Africa gets a mosquito net, every village a school, it should not build concrete dreams and inspiring structures. This mind-set has strange old bedfellows in the refusal of colonial governments to build universities in West Africa in the early 1900s (because what the colonized needed was basic education) and the defunding of higher-education institutions in many parts of the continent beginning in the 1980s (because poor countries could not afford them).