Sino-African Architecture

A Look at the Rise of Chinese-Built Projects Across the African Continent

Hannah Sloan Wood
14 min readMar 3, 2020
Illustration by Hannah Wood

A boom in Sino-African trade relations since 2000 has catapulted China from being a relatively small investor in Africa into becoming the continent’s largest economic partner. This shift, in combination with a decreasing profit margin for construction projects in mainland China, has encouraged both Chinese state-owned construction firms (SOC’s) and private contractors to seek new project opportunities on African soil. In 2011, Chinese contractors surpassed European construction companies to become the biggest player in the continent’s construction explosion and rapid urbanization.

In addition to SOC and private enterprise developments, there is a strong political will from Beijing to increase Chinese presence in Africa. At the close of the ‘China-Africa Forum for Cooperation’ summit held in 2018, the Chinese government announced that it had set up a new $60 billion funding pot for the development of projects on the African continent. Today Chinese firms, with their proven track record of delivering within budget and on time, claim a 40%, and growing, share of Africa’s construction market.

“Sino-African architecture” is a snapshot of six projects currently under construction, or recently completed, by Chinese contractors in different African contexts. The projects have been selected to offer an insight into how Chinese investment is shaping African cities beyond the “efficient” or “generic” infrastructure that has come to characterize recent Chinese development in Africa.

Headquarters for the African Union, Ethiopia

The colossal headquarters for the African Union in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, often referred to as “China’s gift to Africa”, was part of the first wave of high-profile construction projects completed by China on the African continent. At 1.2 million square feet, the $235 million HQ became the tallest building in the city when the doors officially opened in 2012 and continues to be an iconic landmark of Addis’ skyline. In front of the HQ rests a 16-foot high Tai Hu Shi stone donated by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce to “symbolize the friendship between Africa and China.”

The design of the HQ, a reimagining of a site formerly used to detain political prisoners, was a collaboration between architects from Tongji University, the China State Construction Engineering Company and the China Architecture and Design Research Group. The complex includes a 20-story main office building, a 2,505-person capacity conference center and a sub-conference building with 32 rooms. While the center makes use of passive cooling to lower in-use energy loads, it is reliant upon air conditioning for the majority of indoor thermal comfort control.

HQ for the African Union building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © Tongji Architectural Design Group

The HQ’s functional spaces radiate from the central conference center and are bordered by concentric rings of landscaped gardens, ceremonial paving and parking. The focal point of the complex is the angled office tower which rises high above Addis’ Kera district to catch the evening sun. In an interview with China Daily, the special counselor to the project from China’s Ministry of Commerce, Zeng Huacheng, explained the significance of the 99.9-meter high (327-foot) tower — a nod to the founding of the African Union on September 9, 1999. “The panoramic view of the conference center is like two hands holding each other,” he said, “signifying the strengthening friendship between China and Africa.”

On-site construction was undertaken by the China State Construction Engineering Company with a workforce of 1200 and materials largely imported from China. Since the construction of the African Union HQ, Addis has been radically transformed by Chinese investment. Chinese funded or built projects include the first metro system in Africa, high-rise housing (such as the $60 million Poli Lotus development), an $86 million ring road, Ethiopia’s first six-lane highway costing $800 million, and the $345 million expansion of the Bole International Airport, among many others.

Inside the African Union HQ building. © Tongji Architectural Design Group

An espionage investigation published in French newspaper Le Monde — later confirmed by the Financial Times — accused China of inserting a “backdoor” in the HQ’s computer system which enabled the transfer of confidential data back to servers in China. The reports suggest that in 2017 a technician noticed a peak in data usage between midnight and 2am each night despite the building being vacant. It was suggested that data was being copied to servers in Shanghai, an allegation the Chinese ambassador firmly denied. Following the discovery, security experts swept the building and reportedly discovered microphones concealed in the desks and walls.

Parliament of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe

In November 2018, the state-owned Shanghai Construction Group (SHG) broke ground on the construction of a landmark new parliament building for Zimbabwe. The 355,000-square foot building is located in the village of Mount Hampden⁠ — 15 miles west of the capital Harare⁠ — which president Mnangagwa has earmarked to become a new parliamentary district to replace the former colonial precinct downtown. Once the parliament building is complete, it is expected that both the judiciary and executive branch of the Zimbabwean government will relocate to Mount Hampden. In anticipation of the move, the Chinese company Anjin is in the process of constructing a hotel complex in the area.

Architects’ impression of the new parliament complex gifted by the Chinese government to Zimbabwe © SHG

The striking and playful design of the parliament building hints at “hypermodernism”, a term used by Antoni Folkers in Modern Architecture in Africa to refer to monumental architecture that adopts modernist construction techniques while referencing forms from a region’s vernacular heritage. The towering conical elements which frame the entrance facade of SHG’s proposal are said to allude to the “Great Zimbabwe” monuments (a group of early dry stone structures which, following recent archaeological debate, are now accepted to have been built by Zimbabwean artisans).

Brought to life by the Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez in his City Dreams model series, exhibited in 2018 at MOMA, Folkers also includes the works of West African architects including Pierre Goudibaby Atepa and Amadée Ouédraogo and East African architects Kayazi Kalambo and Nunu Inyangete as part of an emerging pan-African hypermodern movement. He goes on to suggest, “these hypermodern buildings embody progress, economic growth and proof of African abilities”; and that Kingelez “might have been the first person to see a possible modern African identity, that may have been embraced in many places on the continent.”

Étoile Rouge Congolaise, Bodys Isek Kingelez, 1990.

With six stories and two congress halls, the new $100 million parliament will be the largest parliament building to be funded by the Chinese government in a southern African country. It includes two vast conference centers with a capacity to accommodate around 350 people and a banquet hall for 1,000 ministers to dine simultaneously. It is predicted that to bring the project to completion, 4,000 tons of steel and 20,000 tons of cement will be used in the build.

Construction works on the new parliament building reportedly continue on schedule despite Zimbabwe’s deepening economic crisis. Hyperinflation, in combination with severe drought, has pushed national reserves to their limit. Niels Balzer, the World Food Programme’s deputy country director for Zimbabwe, warns that food supplies are expected to run out at the end of February 2020. Project manager Cai Li Bo told the Zimbabwe Independent that works on site are being affected by the lack of fuel supply, continuous power cuts and the inability to withdraw local currency from the banks.

Copperbelt International Airport, Zambia

Copperbelt International Airport, Zambia. Image © Zambia Airports Corporation Limited

The Copperbelt International Airport project, set to be completed later this year, is part of a larger airport upgrade program across the south-central African country of Zambia facilitated by Chinese development finance. The Zambian economy is today one of the fastest-growing on the continent due to the rapid increase in exports of mined metals. An estimated 40% of the world’s copper and over 50% of global cobalt reserves (key materials used in the manufacture of electronic devices), and 46% of the world’s remaining manganese deposits (used in steel manufacture) can be found in Africa. The need for inexpensive raw materials for the manufacture of products on mainland China continues to generate significant investment interest for developing mining regions both in Zambia and across Africa.

With a project value of an estimated $397 million to $522 million, dependent on sources, the Copperbelt International Airport complex aims to become the main transport hub serving mining towns in the Copperbelt region. The airport upgrade program forms part of a larger Chinese-Zambian long-term regional strategy which includes the creation of an economic partnership zone around the Chambishi copper mine.

The airport complex has been designed and is being constructed by the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (Avic). Works on-site began in April 2017 and are set to complete in mid-2020, a year later than expected due to a reported 400 villagers refusing to vacate the airport site. The complex is designed to have the capacity to handle a million tons of cargo per annum and includes a control tower, 8 aviation parking stands, aircraft maintenance hangar, quarantine center, a hotel and a business center.

Terminal building with a floating glass facade from © ‘Design of the Copperbelt Airport’ 2016

The centerpiece of Avic’s design is the new 1.4m sq ft terminal building which can be accessed from the first level via a traffic bridge. The building employs the three key elements of Corbusian modernist design — a free groundplan, structural pilotis, and a floating facade of curtain glazing — to create flexible multi-use spaces within the building. Avic has utilized the traditional modernist building technologies of cement, glass, and reinforced steel in their terminal design, all of which are now widely available (and increasingly affordable) in Zambia, and across Africa, due in part to a surge in imports of foreign construction products. The concertinaed glazing panels of the facade create architectural interest by reflecting light into the building at contrasting angles and help break up the scale of the floorplan. The sweeping roof design features skylights which bring extra light into the terminal during daylight hours.

The River Estate, Kenya

River Estate Nairobi © Erdemann Property Ltd.

A key sector that is drawing China’s private investors to Africa is the growing demand for housing. Current predictions by Shelter Afrique estimate the continent currently has a deficit of 56 million residential units, 2 million of which are required in the East African country of Kenya.

Chinese billionaire Zeyun Yang, through his private firm Edermann Properties, is compiling a burgeoning portfolio of over 4,000 properties in the Kenyan capital Nairobi and connected seaport of Mombasa. His developments include the Greatwall Apartments — explored in the Go West Project by Shanghai-based architect Daan Roggeveen and Amsterdam-based journalist Michiel Hulshof — and most recently the $70m River Estate residential complex. Located in Nairobi’s central-east district, the development will offer 2,720 high-rise apartment units in 8 separate 34-story apartment blocks. The towers will form a 2.3-hectare gated community which will be accessed from downtown Nairobi via a pedestrian bridge. Following completion in late 2021, the River Estate will become the second tallest housing complex in East Africa, behind Mark Properties’ “Dubai-style” Le’mac Towers.

lan of a 1-bedroom apartment in the River Estate Nairobi © Erdemann Property Ltd

Each floor of the Estate houses eight 2-bedroom apartments (arranged into two different internal configurations) and two 1-bedroom units, all organized around a large central access and service foyer. The towers are designed to include a large perimeter to maximize daylight into the apartments. The 1-bedroom unit totals 602 square feet and includes an open plan dining and living area with an inner kitchen and bathroom and a double bedroom with built-in furniture. In terms of the real estate value of new high-rise apartment complexes in Nairobi, it is not only the urban views and ‘penthouse’ desirability which affects the price per square foot. While some residents may prefer upper floors for security, homeowner’s association (HOA) dynamics may also come into play, which can influence others to opt for walkable floors.

Congolese Parliament, Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville)

Decades of civil war and militia conflict, coupled with the recent downturn in global oil prices, has left half the population the Republic of Congo in abject poverty, according to the World Bank. The new Congolese Parliament building, a $58 million complex currently under construction by Jiangsu Provincial Construction Group Co Ltd., has caused a national controversy from both the political opposition and human rights groups active in the area who argue that it is drawing attention and resources away from more acute issues affecting the country. Despite the building being donated from Beijing, the huge cost of the project has also exacerbated internal fears over ballooning foreign debt.

Despite the Congo region being a notoriously turbulent and high-risk market for foreign investors to access, the new parliament building closely follows a string of projects undertaken by China in the region. Urban scale activities include the creation of a 405.5-acre Congo-Brazzaville Special Economic Zone (modeled on SEZs in China) and infrastructure projects such as the 120-megawatt hydropower dam in Imboulou, 260km north of Brazzaville.

National officials of Congo-Brazzaville and China stand together in front of a render of the new parliament building © Unknown

The new parliament building strikes a grandiose figure: a multi-story entrance gateway punctuates the facade overlooking the entrance courtyard which is shaded by deep vertical concrete louvres. The inner courtyard features two curved chambers facing one another, perhaps symbolizing the future joint sittings of the senate and the national assembly. Construction on the project has been ongoing since 2017 and is set to complete later in 2020.

The Congolese planning minister Jean-Jacques Bouya stated in Construction Review, “this project is helping to open the capital city to modernity and remains one of the biggest cooperation projects carried out by China in sub-Saharan Africa in the form of a gift.”

The Congolese and Zimbabwean parliament complexes follow a string of Chinese-built parliament buildings in Africa, notably Malawi’s $40 million parliament (completed 2010), Guinea Bissau’s $18 million parliament (completed 2005), Lesotho’s $8.4 million parliament (completed 2012), the renovation of Sierra Leone’s parliament and the reconstruction of Gabon’s parliament (both ongoing talks).

In their article “Non-Lagos: The Chinese Impact on Urbanisation in Africa”, Roggeveen and Hulshof term the phenomenon of gifting of high-profile buildings to foreign nations “stadium diplomacy”, due to the previous trend of China donating football stadiums to African countries as a catalyst to enhance binational relations.

Dar es Salaam University Library, Tanzania

USDM library building at the university campus in Dar es Salaam © Jones Ndekia

In the quiet northwestern corner of the rapidly expanding Tanzanian coastal city of Dar es Salaam, USDM university students have already settled into their new $40.5 million library building. Completed in 2018, the new 193,750-square-foot library was a collaboration between funders China Aid, contractors Jiangsu Jiangdu and the Tanzanian government. The development includes the library building itself, a Confucius Institute (CI) for the university, landscaped tropical gardens and improved pedestrian access routes across the campus. During the day, the library comes alive with activity and must be close to accommodating its designed capacity of 2,100 students.

The layout of the library directs foot traffic through a central “gateway” in the building which shades the entry points into the different areas and has also become a focal point for ceremonial events at the university. On the left-hand side are six louvered wings housing books and computer equipment, while on the right is the curved conference center and library archives.

Graduation ceremony at the USDM library building © Kasunga Faustine

To all facades other than the conference center, there is white-painted steel shuttering which shades the floorspace close to the windows from direct sunlight. The large internal area of the library relies upon mechanical cooling due to the use of curtain glazing behind the louvers. On the western side of the building, shuttering is spaced at wider intervals, presumably to allow for views out to the garden. Across the facade of the conference center, engraved into the concrete, reads this well-known quote on higher education from Julius Nyerere, the first president to lead Tanzania as an independent state.

While the library is, to-date, the largest that China has built in Africa, the accompanying Confucius Institute follows a growing trend for similar buildings across the continent. Before 2005, there were no Confucius Institutes (organizations which promote Chinese language and cultural exchange) in Africa, however last year the Chinese network CGTN reported that the overall number of CI’s across the continent had risen to 70, emblematic of increasing Sino-African political, cultural and economic crossover. Across the facade of the CI building reads the 3 Character Classic in Mandarin, a Confucian text adapted for the teaching of young children.

peakit Films: England When China Met Africa © Mark and Nick Francis 2010

For many African governments, under immense time pressure from their growing economies and citizen’s demand for infrastructure and development, the only viable option may often be to turn to foreign investment opportunities and construction capacity. The ability of Chinese SOCs and private enterprises to bridge this gap make them an appealing choice. Yet, as these contractors gain a greater share of the continent’s construction market, they inevitably stifle the development of homegrown capability to take on large-scale construction work. As illustrated in the case study projects, while sometimes referencing local architecture movements such as hypermodernism or vernacular forms, Chinese contractors tend to prefer to hire in-house designers rather than collaborate with African architects. This emergence of Chinese-funded, designed and built projects — an example of transnational architecture in practice — is in the process of transforming Africa’s skylines and will link the two cultures for many decades to come.

At a time when Chinese contractors have become the driving force of some African countries’ construction industries, such as in Ethiopia and Zambia, and make their first inroads into historically insular economies, such as in the Congo region, it would be interesting to see more examples of African architects taking a lead role in the design and procurement of high-profile construction projects. The combination of homegrown design thinking, innovations in climatic design, and African construction materials and technologies reimagined for contemporary uses could offer huge advantages for projects.

Another commonality which can be drawn between the case studies is the tendency to rely upon imported materials and architectural concepts, which may not always be well suited for hot arid, or hot tropical climates. While a project’s construction costs may be subsidized, or gifted, by Chinese funders, significant operational energy costs may leave clients with high maintenance bills in the future. Folkers hints at a backlash from African architects to the “indiscriminate use of glass and steel in contemporary (African) buildings (as) these materials are unsuitable, expensive, not climate-friendly and very wasteful of energy”.

A balanced project management strategy and funding structure between African and Chinese collaborators will work harder to ensure buildings are delivered to closer match the requirements of the African citizens they serve, and ensure local agency over the urbanism they create. Folkers notes, “the polarization between the temptations of hypermodernism and actual local needs comes to characterize the debate about architectural requirements in Africa in the years ahead”. The 2020s have the potential to be a dynamic and innovative era in African architecture and design, and the spectrum of approaches imagined today will write the rules for the next phase of African urbanization.