Afritecture and Moving Forward for African Architecture

Colonial Building in Goré Island, Senegal - Image courtesy of myworlddiscovered.com
Colonial Building in Goré Island, Senegal - Image courtesy of myworlddiscovered.com

The term Afritecture was introduced by Andres Lepik in his curated exhibit and book by the same name, which looks at contemporary sustainable African architecture, its ethos and its emerging players. It inscribes itself in the current trend of thinking about Africa and its Architecture in a deeper way, which is particularly relevant given the strong interest many European architects are showing in the continent. Because of Africa's colonial past, I think Afritecture is also a very effective term that can help capture the idea of the continent's pluralities, which often exist in an "encasement" of Western sameness. Indeed, the built environment in most African countries, have been affected in similar ways and by similar (or the same) countries, producing commonalities within its various urban fabrics.

Contrary to popular belief, there was such a thing as architecture in Africa before it was colonized. Often, Western colonization in Africa came with a systematic destruction or denigration of the pre-existing architecture and cultures of the place, in an attempt to inculcate a more “civilized” way of life to the indigenous populations. I imagine that back then, this might have met with a certain level of resistance, or at least resentment from the locals.

Façade of a traditional house in Djenne, Mali - Image courtesy of historum.com
Façade of a traditional house in Djenne, Mali - Image courtesy of historum.com

Post-colonization however,  most African countries that launched vast infrastructure and housing projects in their nation-building efforts, seemed more eager to show they had indeed become “civilized”. They sought answers and applied solutions from their former masters. Western ideals, esthetics, spatial organization were (and still are) the symbols of Modernity in these new countries. Unfortunately, this caused them to miss a golden opportunity to create a unique post-colonial identity for themselves. Instead, they continued on the colonial path of considering anything local, as inferior and backward.

Decades later, Africa still seems plagued with an inferiority complex towards the Western world. Many African countries are seeing un-precedented economic growth, with a strong middle class that has higher expectations of their built environment. As it was post-colonization, African cities are embarking on ambitious infrastructure,  public and housing projects to solve many of their chronic problems. What is troubling is that, aside from some notable exceptions, the first instinct so far has been to continue copying solutions from elsewhere, rather than seizing the opportunity to look within.

Konza Tech- City Vision - A Sylicone Valley for Kenya - Image courtesy of randcorporaterealestate.co.za
Konza Tech- City Vision - A Sylicone Valley for Kenya - Image courtesy of randcorporaterealestate.co.za

The first glaring issue with this continuity, is obviously economic: solutions imported from abroad, often mean skills and materials from abroad, leading to more expensive projects and spaces only an elite few can afford. Secondly, the imported typologies and materials are often ill-adapted to the local climates, forcing people to compensate by spending small fortunes in cooling or heating, or by living outside the structures altogether! The third problem is that culturally, often the way African locals use space, what it symbolizes and how it is codified, remains very different from how Europeans or Americans use theirs. As a result, they have to adapt to the structures they build, instead of the structures serving them and their needs. It is this mix of  strong cultural particularities and post-colonial commonalities that make re-thinking how we approach architecture in Africa crucial. In essence, this is why we need an “Afritecture”.  How we go about achieving that is the central theme we will be exploring in this blog.