The inaugural Africa Architecture Awards took place last week at the building of the moment: Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, the strikingly refurbished grain silo at the V&A Waterfront.

Yet the jury that picked the winners from 21 short-listed entries did not use purely aesthetic criteria to make their final decision, but a system of values and ethics.

The biannual Africa Architecture Awards aim to reward design excellence, but also encourage innovation and create critical debate around issues in the architectural world.

As head of the steering committee Lesley Lokko says, "Could an awards programme that was values-based, rather than criteria-based, provide new and bold forms of expression among African architects?"

Even the sponsors liked the idea of "disrupting things" and doing something differently from other award programmes.

The pan-African awards, sponsored by the 350-year-old French construction group Saint-Gobain, were open to any project executed on the continent, regardless of the architect being African or not.

More than 300 entries from 32 countries were received, from Cape Verde to Angola. The Africa Architecture Awards enjoyed the patronage of influential architect Sir David Adjaye, while Zahira Asmal advised.

The Grand Prix winner (who took away $10,000) also won the Built category: the Umkhumbane Museum, in Cato Manor, Durban, by Choromanski Architects. It is a spherical structure, raised above the landscape like a beacon. Publicly funded, it is responsive to the area’s history of forced removals. It made considerable efforts to involve the local community in its conception and making; residents even helped to lay clay bricks.

It is also where Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini reburied his late mother, domestic worker and Queen Thomozile Jezangani KaNdwandwe Zulu.

The design was in parts practical: a more contained elevated space would be less vulnerable to crime, a reality in the area, architect Rodney Choromanski says.

Besides offering exhibition spaces, the museum would act as a "mother ship" for communal activities stretching out into surrounding spaces, from tours to public gathering spaces.

The speculative category winner (Aissata Balde of the University of Johannesburg) focused on the international issue of migration. The project imagined a "pit-stop" discreetly floating on an ocean off Cape Verde, with a crematorium and fish farm, out of sight of land.

The critical dialogue category was scooped by an annual architectural forum held atLusíada University, Angola; while Ogundare Olawale Israel won the emerging voices category with a project on migrants in the Johannesburg CBD.

We really wanted to elevate not so much the architectural object as an idealised form, or how it resolves issues, as the process of making a piece of architecture
Anna Abengowa

With entries ranging from a holocaust memorial in Rwanda to a bank’s headquarters in Lagos, why these winners? Why now? The awards steering committee and master jury of academics and architects tried to explain their decision-making at a public colloquium held the day after the ceremony.

"Awards are fractious things," practising architect and steering committee member Mphethi Morojele says. "In one way, we’re trying to bring out emerging voices and at the same time you’re inevitably steering people’s aesthetic choices."

In student competitions, one year’s winner would invariably inspire mimics the next year.

"We really wanted to elevate not so much the architectural object as an idealised form, or how it resolves issues, as the process of making a piece of architecture," says US-based jury member Anna Abengowa.

Jury member Tanzeem Razak agrees: "The winning project is not necessarily the most beautiful aesthetic form; there were others that were more visually compelling." But it best matched the values the jury wished to highlight. The Grand Prix winner tipped the scales because of its complex process, how embedded it was in the domestic context and the effect it would have on those who used it. It was publicly funded and the jury was also really taken by the level of community involvement.

Razak says the Umkhumbane Museum should not be reduced to its community values — to do so would just feed another stereotype.

"It was a complex, competent, stimulating project."

It turned "object-making" into something "bigger and wider and more inclusive".

Stereotypes, mimicry and kitsch nationalistic "African"-style adornment were all no-nos for the jury and steering committee. There was a rejection of conservative thinking, and recognition of the role of critical thinking in architecture – one juror said the critical dialogue winner came close to scooping the Grand Prix.

A weakness in the awards process, some jurors noted, was not doing site inspections of the finalists in the built category.

They also found certain issues difficult to reconcile. Architects working in Africa experience different challenges to global architects who fly in to execute specific projects.

Access to resources has enormous implications for innovation. And there architects don’t always have much power in contexts where public projects, for example, have limited funding, and specific aesthetic demands — that are often kitsch and nationalist.

As Edgar Pieterse, juror and director of the African Centre for Cities says, the jury faced "the chasm" between the ambitions and aspirations the awards wished to reward and the limiting political economies designers had to engage with.

Even the "Africa Rising" narrative was questioned by the jury. Abengowe feels the elite benefits from investment in Africa. "Impoverished Africans do not. In fact, they’re becoming poorer. So, who is the myth benefiting? I have to also figure where architecture engages in this debate. Are we complicit in that? Are we challenging it?"

The Africa Architecture Awards are trying to achieve much: be provocative, push new ideas and boundaries, help new architects emerge and suggest possibilities for future building models that go beyond traditional responses.

Colloquium session moderator Sean O’Toole ended the judging discussion with a pithy quote from Julius Malema: "[The EFF wants] to build houses and roads before bicycle lanes. Let’s get our priorities straight. Let the rich be patient while we give the services to the poor."

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