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Portico Fall 2021: Nana Bonsu Adja-Sai, M.Arch/M.U.D. ’11, Knows That As Ghana Grows, So Does Its Need for Great Architects

Urban revitalization is essential, and Nana Bonsu Adja-Sai, M.Arch/M.U.D. ’11, knows that architects like him can find solutions.
Monday, November 1, 2021

Students come from across the world to attend the University of Michigan. In the case of Nana Bonsu Adja-Sai, M.Arch/M.U.D. ’11, the university came across the world to him.

His first exposure to U-M’s architecture program was courtesy of Professor Jim Chaffers’ Ghana-focused studio. Adja-Sai was studying architecture at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi when Chaffers brought his students to the campus; eventually, Adja-Sai participated in an exchange program that brought him to Ann Arbor. 

The opportunity to meet and collaborate with M.Arch students whose campus was half a world away “was fantastic,” Adja-Sai says. “They were like colleagues; many of us were in equivalent years of our programs. I loved how we all bounced ideas off of each other.”

They also were integral to Adja-Sai’s enrollment at Michigan by encouraging him to apply, helping him with his personal statement, and critiquing his portfolio. 

“I had the help and support of Michigan students before I was even enrolled there,” Adja-Sai says. “There was a mutual sense of coaching and friendship that stayed with me throughout my time in Ann Arbor.”

Adja-Sai calls the University of Michigan “a wonderful soup with so many people doing exciting things,” and he ate heartily from that soup bowl during his studies. The cultural differences — like trying to understand the concept of “big box stores” for his studio focused on how to reimagine them — were perplexing but also enriching. At the same time, Taubman College expanded his interests beyond his initial pursuit of his master’s in architecture: he enrolled in the urban design program after arriving in Ann Arbor and learning about the work led by Professor Roy Strickland and others. 

Growing up in Accra and Kumasi, Ghana’s largest cities — as well as spending several years with his grandmother in the village of Sekyedumase — Adja-Sai had long been interested in the complex issues facing urban areas. Through jointly studying architecture and urban design at Taubman College, “I was able to deeply explore how every individual building interacts with the environment and the neighborhood around it, how I need to think about more than just designing iconic buildings that stand alone.”

He adds, “I don’t think you can be a great architect if you don’t understand and respect what’s around you.”

Government of Ghana Affordable Housing Project Aerial View
One of Adja-Sai's biggest projects was Ghana's largest affordable housing development, at Borteyman-Nungua in Accra.

As Adja-Sai returned home to Ghana to practice, that idea was especially important. Recently, Ghana has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Accra, the capital city, has been experiencing rapid growth, fueled by migrants from rural areas and other nationals seeking opportunities. The country is just 64 years old, and in the initial rush to develop, long-range planning and urban design fell to the wayside. In addition, the original infrastructure of modern-day Accra is being overstretched by the often unchecked sprawl. 

“Like other big cities in Africa, Accra is the frontier of transit and of urban housing, and that’s where urban design comes in,” Adja-Sai says. “We don’t want businesses to leave the city core because of the strains on infrastructure and the lack of housing. Urban revitalization is essential, and as architects we can find solutions.”

The newly minted architecture and urban design graduate joined Modula Grup because he was impressed by the firm’s sizeable portfolio of projects — including government contracts that he saw as opportunities to participate in Accra’s sustainable growth. In addition, he knew that working with Ernest Banning, a Fellow of the Ghana Institute of Architects who founded Modula Grup in 1979, would be a phenomenal growth opportunity.

“He’s a proven professional,” Adja-Sai says of Banning. “And I wanted to know how the business of architecture is run, from the initial idea to managing the construction. He has lived through so many different governmental regimes and managed such a large volume of work, 
I knew he was someone I could learn from.”

During Adja-Sai’s nearly nine years at Modula Grup, he was involved in a lot of residential building projects, as well as banks and corporate buildings. “We don’t really specialize,” he says. “It’s good to have a mix of projects in a growing economy like Ghana’s.”

One of Adja-Sai’s biggest projects was the Government of Ghana/Social Security and National Insurance Trust Affordable Housing Project at Borteyman-Nungua in Accra — the nation’s largest such development. He worked on design but also managed about 125 contractors for the project, which consists of 106 buildings totaling about 1,400 residential units. He calls being the senior architect on the project “a privilege,” one that also proved to be that perfect learning opportunity he had envisioned when he joined Modula Grup — by the time the project was underway, he had risen through the ranks to become the managing architect of the firm’s Accra office. 

Since Banning exposed his associates to every aspect of the business, managing the office meant a little bit of everything, Adja-Sai says: “Sometimes I greeted clients at the front desk. I’d chair meetings and write minutes. I’d make sure contracts were prepared and administered properly, and I’d also be a driver if our dispatch service let us down. In soccer, I’d be known as the utility player, put where the boss needed me at any point in time.”

Earlier this year, Adja-Sai felt ready to take what he had learned at Modula Grup and forge his own path by starting his own firm. The news didn’t come as a surprise and had Banning’s support. “When I joined Modula Grup, I made it clear that I wanted to learn so that I could be able to do what Mr. Banning has done and even more,” says Adja-Sai, who notes that he will continue to consult and collaborate with his former firm. “I told him that now it’s time to take what I have been given and give back as the leader of my own practice.”

Adja-Sai named his firm Cinctamore, meaning “surrounded by love.” It’s a nod to the blanket of support that he says has permeated his personal and professional life — from his colleague-friends in Chaffers’ Ghana studio to Banning’s mentorship at Modula Grup to his mother, Christiana Akosua Nyarko, and his wife, Claudia Adja-Sai, a pediatrician whom he met in Ann Arbor while she was participating in U-M Medical School’s Global REACH Exchange Program. His support network also includes Richard and Peggy Lami and George Shutack, whom he calls his U.S. family. “I owe a great deal of my success to the belief and love they have had in me over the years,” he says of the Shutack and the Lamis, whom he first met during his undergraduate exchange program. “They spent enormous resources to enable me explore ‘Architecture Made in America’ and to have a Michigan education.”
 
The teamwork mentality that he learned at Michigan, which he describes as “a love and respect that brings out the best in all of us,” mirrors his feelings toward the globally known Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye. Rather than seeing the starchitect Adjaye as casting a long shadow over architects doing day-to-day work in Ghana, “I see him as projecting a light ahead of everyone else,” Adja-Sai says. “The challenge is for the rest of us to carry forward what he has shown to be possible, and that is the heart of an urban design mindset: it’s not about one person; it’s about all of us working together for the greater good.” 

Amy Spooner

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