The Africa Architecture Awards (AAA) recognises worthy projects from around the continent. Its mandate is to create a broader awareness of the issues and opportunities inherent in the built environment – through dialogue, analysis and critique.
Zahira Asmal was advisor to the Awards in 2017, where she worked closely with project teams at founding sponsors Saint-Gobain, as well as coordinators ItsAGo, and the awards steering panel. She was effectively tasked with launching the AAA as a new global brand; creating an identity for the Awards as the most respected architectural accolade on the continent.
Having worked in design since 2003, and, specifically in architecture since 2007, Zahira was ideally positioned. Her established set of global industry networks would prove immensely beneficial to the AAA endeavour. She had, for example, already collaborated with Awards patron, and renowned architect, Sir David Adjaye. Her work on his book, Adjaye Africa Architecture, and exhibition, Urban Africa, had primed her with a unique and useful set of insights into the built environment. Added to this was Zahira’s ongoing work for research and placemaking company, The City, as well as non-profit company, Designing For All. She understands the challenges and opportunities experienced in the built environment especially in African cities.
Zahira has lectured around the world on the subjects of architecture, culture and city making. She is an instinctive ‘connector’, developing a growing contact list of like-minded professionals, academics, architects, artists, government representatives, and critics. Her connections span the continent and the globe, including African and international embassies and consulates, as well as advocacy groups and organisations – such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s Urban Resilience programme, the African Center for Cities and the pan-Africanist platform, Chimurenga.
For the AAA, Zahira leveraged these existing networks, and created new ones specifically with the Awards in mind. She successfully engaged with academia, and policy and culture groupings – as well as introduced future funding partners and funding streams.
Zahira is an established architectural commentator, writing for industry publications around the world – including Architectural Review and Icon. Her own books on the subject have also gained international acclaim. She was thus instrumental in making initial contact with local and international media on behalf of the AAA. Zahira implemented a focused communications strategy – curating, commissioning and creating content. The plan was ambitious: spread the message beyond the traditional publications, and make architecture as a topic more accessible. For Zahira, it is essential that vehicles like the AAA reach a larger audience and a celebration of the profession and all its possibilities. Architecture is a vital component of our daily lives – informed governments, informed educators, and informed citizens can make more productive long-term development decisions.
Because of her efforts, the AAA was featured in magazines such as Wallpaper*, Architectural Review and Dezeen. It was also at her urging that the steering committee appointed a PR company in order to fully integrate the brand’s external expression.
In the run-up to the Awards themselves, Zahira organised two successful events. In May 2017, the Africa Day was celebrated – themed ‘Making Place in Africa’. Then, in September, a colloquium was held at the University of Cape Town – ‘Celebrating Architecture in Africa’. Both occasions hosted prominent speakers including, among many others: Prof. Lesley Lokko (Head of the University of Johannesburg’s Graduate School of Architecture); founders of the firm Koffi & Diabaté Architects, based in Côte d’Ivoire; and Dr. Mark Olweny, the prominent Ugandan academic.
As a result of Zahira’s involvement, the AAA has made remarkable progress. In terms of raw numbers, 307 entries were received from 32 African countries – more than double what was initially envisaged. And, perhaps more importantly, the global media coverage for the Awards (valued at approximately R45m) created awareness among a broad, diverse, and growing audience.
Zahira is currently serving on the board of advisors for the International Archive of Women in Architecture (until 2021). She remains committed to lifting the consciousness of architecture across Africa, shifting conversations on the built environment into mainstream discourse.