Sir David Adjaye Discusses His Hugh Masekela Memorial Pavilion in Johannesburg

House and Leisure speaks with celebrated architect Sir David Adjaye about his design for the Hugh Masekela Memorial Pavilion in Johannesburg.

Alexi Portokallis

hugh masekela memorial pavilion, westpark cemetary

The life of the late South African musician Hugh Masekela, affectionately known as Bra Hugh by his fans and admirers, has been lovingly commemorated in a fashion befitting the legendary performer. Award-winning, Ghana-based architect Sir David Adjaye – who is responsible for such iconic structures as the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture – recently-unveiled his Hugh Masekela Memorial Pavilion at the Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg, where many of South Africa's celebrated artists and political figures have found their final resting place. 

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The Hugh Masekela Memorial Pavilion sees a series of stone plinths and platforms interconnecting in a poetic combination of colour, texture and form. The pavilion's design, Sir Adjaye explains, echoes traditional African burial practices. He created a space where those paying tribute to Masekela's life are able to commune with his spirit, much like the Lekgotla design that's familiar to so many of Southern Africa's cultures. The Hugh Masekela Memorial Pavilion also continues what Sir Adjaye describes as his 'making memory' approach to the design of these sorts of spaces, 

We caught up with Sir Adjaye to learn more about his approach to the design, and his personal memories of Hugh Masekela.

Sir David Adjaye Discusses the Hugh Masekela Memorial Pavilion

hugh masekela memorial pavilion, westpark cemetary, david adjaye

How did Bra Hugh feature in your life? What influence did he and his music have on you?

Growing up between Tanzania, Ghana and the UK, the anti-apartheid movement and struggle resonated with Africans and migrants across the globe. South Africa’s struggle for liberation featured on the agenda of Africans on and off the continent, as did the civil rights and other movements geared at liberating Africans from the onslaught of oppressive regimes. Bra Hugh’s music, lyrics and sound brought hope and optimism, and reflected his flair for Afrobeat and jazz long before the word 'Afrobeat' was coined.

He embodied Pan-Africanism as a cultural activist and musical genius from the outset, and was unapologetic about the importance of championing and celebrating African heritage and its unique offering throughout the world. Through his distinctive sound, Bra Hugh told of a brighter African future, which is a narrative we are beginning to realise today as Africa’s arts, design, music, film and architectural disciplines raise to prominence in the 21st century.

Tell us about your 'making monuments' approach and how it informed your design of the Hugh Masekela Memorial Pavilion.

My approach to designing monuments and memorials, what I provocatively termed 'making memory' for my exhibition at the Design Museum in London, is born of a desire to show that architecture – like music and art – reflects our collective consciousness. 

This pavilion, or 'lekgotla', designed for Bra Hugh is symbolic of his passion and desire to see us come together to advance African consciousness, to see us leverage our heritage and wisdom as cultural capital to the benefit of our people and communities. Given the richness of Pan-African culture, it is no wonder that today, cultural creative industries lie at the precipice of global shifts taking place across key disciplines: design, fine art, literature, music and architecture.

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hugh masekela memorial pavilion, westpark cemetary, david adjaye
hugh masekela memorial pavilion, westpark cemetary, david adjaye

Which are your favourite Hugh Masekela songs?

‘Market Place’ stands out among others. This song captures the quintessential African scene and landscape. It pays homage to the African woman, her colourful traditional dress and textile, her grace and resourcefulness. This song is the story of Africa’s fortitude, warmth (sunlit skies), beauty and ancient wisdom. This music will live with us all forever.

What are you hoping your Hugh Masekela Memorial Pavilion becomes for the people of South Africa?

The memorial pavilion structure houses a variety of specially selected stone benches, sourced from different parts of the continent where Bra Hugh spent time in while he was in exile. While visitors to the monument can expect a solemn, peaceful, beautiful place to reflect and draw inspiration from Bra Hugh’s life and his love of African heritage and culture, my hope is that the site also reminds South Africans that they belong to a broader community that is the African continent.

The benches from North, East, West and Southern Africa serve to highlight something Bra Hugh believed in throughout his life – our customs and rituals, and love of music, art and design, reflecting our shared identity and strength as a unified people. True Pan-Africanism is about celebrating and leveraging each nation’s distinct strengths, and benefitting the collective by advancing African industries, economies, leadership, environment, heritage and culture, nurturing and preserving our indigenous knowledge systems and African family for future generations.

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