Approaches to Architecture in Africa

The other day, I was talking with some non-architect friends about the kind of architecture I want to do and my desire to explore how we as Africans can (and should) find new expressions for our built environment that are uniquely ours. New ways to move forward, as I put it. They were very intrigued, and wanted to know what I meant exactly, and how one goes about achieving that. I admit, I found it a bit difficult to answer their questions since I am still looking for the clue myself! How do you go about making appropriate architecture in countries such as ours, that have such complex and often conflicting identities? What is contemporary African architecture really, and what  should it aim to accomplish? This can mean so many different things to different architects obviously, and the approaches vary. The first approach has been the common one of looking to what is happening in western countries and either copy that or in the best of cases, adapt it. This is what most of our urban built environment is comprised of, so we all know what that looks like.

Jean Mermoz French school complex at Dakar, Senegal - Image courtesy of TerreNeuve Architects
Jean Mermoz French school complex at Dakar, Senegal - Image courtesy of TerreNeuve Architects

The second approach makes the effort of relating to the local conditions of climate, materials, and sometimes culture to produce an architectural solution. In my opinion, when climate is the main driver, the result is often an architecture that seems to “belong” to its place, as it produces forms and spaces that are comfortable and pleasurable. The forms also often end up incorporating references from a by-gone, pre-colonial era. Rather than being an attempt at copying what came before, I suspect the familiarity is born of trying to solve the same problems, which can lead to very similar answers. For instance, we know that in a desert climate, openings should be smaller, glazing kept to a minimum, ventilation is key, and one has to get creative about allowing light in. So whether today, or 200 years ago, those requirements still hold true, yielding common architectural expressions, that are appropriate for their climate.

Designing for the climate is of course closely related to designing with local materials. Aside from being the environmentally friendly thing to do, it is also the best climate-responsive thing to do. Furthermore, it is the most economically responsible thing to do, making it possible to produce affordable architecture for a greater number of people. These local materials are mostly used in rural areas unfortunately. In many African countries, they are plagued with a deep seated stigma that has relegated them to be used only by the less well-off, who presumably can't afford the fancy western-inspired ones. Steel and concrete constructions have become a symbol of higher status, achievement, economic prosperity, but most importantly, Modernity. Projects that use materials sourced locally in an urban context are few and far-between, doing little to further their adoption in that context.

Yet, other projects focus on producing spaces that respond to the culture and to the way people live their lives or how their environment is codified. Some also attempt to establish that cultural link, by infusing their work with local imagery, arts or craft, basing the inspiration for their building from a local cloth pattern or carved statues for instance.

Secondary School in Dano, Burkina Faso by Francis Kéré - Image courtesy of Kéré Architecture
Secondary School in Dano, Burkina Faso by Francis Kéré - Image courtesy of Kéré Architecture

In recent years, a third, and I think very exciting, approach has been emerging. The architects I would put in that category seem to take the position that a new way forward for African countries argues even more forcibly for an identity that is unique to us in this moment in time. It doesn't try to gloss over our current circumstances or deny our colonial past. These architects are neither romanticizing said past or opposing it; nor are they wistfully looking back to our ancestral roots and trying to copy what was there. Instead, they are looking resolutely to the future, solving problems in the most logical manner they can, innovating, some would say brilliantly, to do so. To say that they are thinking outside the box would be putting it mildly... One obvious example of these types of African architects in my opinion, is Francis Kéré.

Kéré adopts building techniques from different places (local and otherwise) and turns them into something that is unique, and that works culturally, climatically, materially and economically for the place he is designing. But his work goes further than producing a building with this approach. He incorporates local craft, a participatory approach (when appropriate), giving work to locals, using local materials, providing training, thereby increasing local knowledge. For instance, when he produced his first work, the primary school in Gando, the now famous truss roof he designed was assembled by local welders. Welding was already a mastered skill in the area, but he helped the welders apply that knowledge to executing an intricate composition for a new type of roof. Through his works in Africa, Kéré experiments boldly with new forms and techniques, pushing locally available materials to new territories of performance and esthetics. His architecture builds on what exists, and looks for more effective ways of solving problems. It is not sentimental in its expression, but looks resolutely forward to what is possible.

Kunlé Adeyemi is another one of these forward thinkers, but in, perhaps, a different way than Kéré. He came to prominence in the last couple of years with the proposal (and now completion) of his design for a floating, three-story A-frame school built in the Makoko "slum" of Lagos, Nigeria. The motivation for the design was to avoid many of the problems associated with frequently rising water levels in the settlement. He devised a structure that uses readily available, cheap materials with a daring concept. But really, just like Kéré, he didn't set out to find a super innovative idea. He just tried to solve a problem as logically as possible, drawing from his experience and knowledge, and undistracted by concerns over fitting into an existing or imaginary tradition. The result was unique, but almost seems like common sense after the fact. Just like Kéré, his work doesn't seem out of place, in spite of its uniqueness. One thing that differentiates Adeyemi from Kéré however, is his theoretical and research sensibilities, along with his broader focus on how cities are organized and function. He is one of those that sees the need to actively "think" architecture, urbanity, and understanding what it all means, what it could mean for us. This is a rare thing, as architects in Africa often either practice, or are academic thinkers, rarely both.

I singled these two architects out because they create solutions that don't necessarily remind me of anything blatantly western nor pastiche-ly African, but are nevertheless resolutely "of their place"! Their solutions insert themselves perfectly in the the fabric of the place they design for. Their projects in Africa are often humble and simply try to solve the problems they see, without trying hard to be "cool" (but they turn out really cool, anyway...!) Ultimately, they just might be giving us a glimpse of what "modern" can mean in Africa, and how to go about being modern (as in forward thinking, not as in towers of glass and steel) for ourselves.

I know there are a few more out there like them, so please if you have some favorites,  leave their names in the comment box. I would love to write a follow-up post on the subject.

House in Dakar, Senegal - Image courtesy of senebazar.com
House in Dakar, Senegal - Image courtesy of senebazar.com
Interpretation centre, Limpopo, South Africa by Peter Rich Architects - Image courtesy of Detail Daily
Interpretation centre, Limpopo, South Africa by Peter Rich Architects - Image courtesy of Detail Daily
House in Warri, Nigeria
House in Warri, Nigeria
Inside the Gando Library by Francis Kéré
Inside the Gando Library by Francis Kéré
Makoko Concept - image courtesy of NLE, Iwan Baan
Makoko Concept - image courtesy of NLE, Iwan Baan
Makoko Aproach - Image courtesy of NLÉ, Iwan Baan.
Makoko Aproach - Image courtesy of NLÉ, Iwan Baan.