Iconic, green, and bold; what Africa's most eye-catching university buildings and libraries reveal

The quirky, the majestic and the inspiring buildings that make up many of Africa's campuses.

AFRICA’S formal higher education institutions have been around for 2,350 years and they have endured a lot  - some were disrupted or totally destroyed by wars over slave trades, the coming of European powers and the structural adjustment programmes of the 1970s and 80s, and yet went on to experience incredible booms in student numbers over recent years. 

For many of these institutions this history and identity is reflected in their designs and architecture of their buildings which have become iconic nationally, and even internationally.  As the first Africa Universities Summit gets underway in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 30, we take an architectural tour of some of the stoic universities.

Early buildings

Some of the world’s earliest higher education learning centres were found in Africa, with many of them linked to religious institutions. One example is the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, founded in 970AD. The University built up around the mosque which was the original learning centre, whose students studied the Qur’an and Islamic law, along with logic, grammar, rhetoric, and how to calculate the lunar phases of the moon. 

(Photo/David Stanley)

Founded in 1829, the University of Cape Town is home to one of the country’s most iconic old university buildings: Jameson Hall. Built between 1928 - 1930, this majestic building is renowned for it’s stunning view with the Table Mountain in the background, it is the depiction of grandeur and often used as the location for graduation and other ceremonial events. 

(Photo/Ian Barbour.)

When someone thinks of Uganda’s Makerere University, this main building is the one that will always come to mind first. Makerere was initially established in 1922 as a technical college, opening it’s doors to just 14 day students who began studying carpentry, building and mechanics. The school eventually expanded in 1937 and the college started developing into an institution of higher education, offering post-school certificate courses.

(Photo/Andrew Moore).


Libraries tend to be a structure and institution within a university that garner a lot of investment from public and private sources for their pivotal role in education, making their buildings some of the most unique and iconic on campus.

The Balme Library - regarded as one of the best libraries in West Africa - is another very old and unique building that was established in 1948 and is located on the main campus of the University of Ghana. It was named after David Mowbray Balme the first Principal of the University of Ghana. Remodelled in 2011, it contains over 100,000 books, 500 microfilms, CDs and tapes. 

(Photo/Arne Hoel/World Bank).

Another iconic library is the unusual and retro building at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. Originally a medical school, the University of Dakar is the result of a long evolution in the Senegalese academic system. It was officially inaugurated in 1959 and owes its current name, which dates from 1987, to the historian and anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop. 

With all the money ploughed into these vital university buildings, libraries have also become the place to demonstrate progression and modernisation within a university system. 

One library that epitomises this is the Agostinho Neto University Campus in Luanda, inaugurated on 14 November. The library building, which is considered to be the University’s showcase, is made up of 4 floors above ground and a huge 15,000 m2 basement. 

(Photo/Universidade Agostinho Neto, Facebook).

Another African university library that’s pushing the cutting edge of architecture is the Kenyatta University Library in Kenya. This deliberately named “Post Modern Library” was opened in 2011 and is keen to push it’s new digitised and has modern facilities over 5 floors with free Wifi throughout. 

(Photo/Kenyatta University Library Facebook).

Unique designs 

Unique buildings and designs also give universities the ability to garner huge national and international visibility. 

One example of this is Nkrumah Hall’s mushrooming dome structure at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The building, which also gives a respectful nod to the pan-Africanist and former Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah, is so unique that the government of Tanzania made it a national heritage site in April 2015. 

(Photo/University of Dar es Salaam, Nkrumah Hall, FB).

One University has buildings whose eco-friendly designs have earned it a place in the iconic ratings. Ghana’s Ashesi University designed it’s campus with environmental sensitivity; the roofs harvest rainwater, a bio-digester recycles waste for biogas used for cooking and all campus buildings are designed to make the most use of natural sunlight.

(Photo/George Conard, Flickr).

One building that cannot be missed when looking at the most unique of the iconic African university buildings is the University of Pretoria’s “ship”. Originally established in 1908, when the University of Pretoria started experiencing a boom in student numbers in the late 30’s and early 40’s, it necessitated the construction of new buildings. One of which was this administration building, built in 1943, colloquially known as the ship. 

(Photo/Mike Prinns).

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