African Architecture
artikelfotoAfrika
Introduction: African Architecture
15 May 2007 - ArchiAfrika Foundation
Underground church in Lalibela, Ethiopie

It is not easy to come up with a definition of African architecture. Therefore it is easiest to establish its true identity by everything which the other is not. In other words, by buildings we cannot encounter elsewhere.
 
Therefore, for those who have been looking into the continent a little more, other images appear in mind then solely the houses where days are spent while grinding corn and searching for shelter from the burning sun. They start dreaming about Great Zimbabwe, the mysterious mosques of Djenne and the Dogon in Mali, the underground churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia and of course the pyramids in Egypt. However, we would still fall short if we would call only this African architecture.

Architecture is always subject to change and continues to develop itself, even in the turbulent African history. The colonists for example have had a major impact on the African built environment too. Most African cities did not even exist until after the arrival of the colonial powers and therefore they have inherited an indelible Western mark. In former French cities the influence of Haussmann is often clearly recognizable. Take the Champs Elysees of Dakar: the Avenue George Pompidou which crosses the city centre and leads directly to the majestic Independence Square which lays proudly in the middle, like an African Arc de Triomph.

In the period after independence however, the new African government emphasized the African identity within architecture to strengthen the feeling of a regained autonomy. Even the non-African architects who were hired to contribute to the construction of the brand-new African cities, connected with the African body of thoughts. Kenzo Tange, from Japan, designed Abuja, keeping in mind local structures and characteristics. Project Planning Associates from Toronto, Canada, designed a master plan for Dodoma, the new capital of Tanzania, which was strongly based upon the ideology of Ujamaa by President Nyerere. Unfortunately this plan has never been completely executed due to an economic strain.

But the recent independence also brought forward an other movement: African architects were designing buildings representing a new dynamic nation, which would show the world that it was ready to stand on its own and was going to make a difference. They embraced the ruling ideas on modernity and did not fall back on traditional African architecture. They even tried to break with traditions, along the thoughts of the Modern Movement in the West. The Central Library in Dar es Salaam by Anthony Almeida dates from this period; an ingenious and powerful design which is perfectly imbedded in the city and its local circumstances, but it is based on the principals of Modernism and offers complete functionality. The African architects did however have to take into account the specific African climate and society. Therefore the buildings did indeed gain a proper identity and characteristics, which can certainly be distinguished as African.

The ‘Africanism’ of some of the examples mentioned above is beyond doubt. However, it is only possible to give a clarifying image of the identity of African architecture, if it becomes clear what aspects connect all these examples. It is often said that the building material defines the Africanity. It is undisputable that this is indeed a binding factor: the Dogon, the inhabitants of Djenne in Mali, the Ndebele in South Africa and the Masai in Tanzania and Kenya all use mud as their main construction material. But all over the world construction is tied to local circumstances and the principal building material is locally gained. This is for example also the case in the Netherlands, where bricks are made of river clay. Beside the local material, the composition of the African society with its extended families also demands a specific structure for its buildings and the way they are connected among each other. An example of this is the African courtyard, an open space in the middle of a house surrounded by various rooms. This courtyard can be found in very different and outlying places in Africa and could thus also be perceived as typically African. This brings us back to the statement that traditional architecture is typically African.

But if the only true African architecture is the architecture which was not influenced by the western world, then how do we continue? Are the modern buildings in Dakar by Pierre Atepa Goudiaby no longer African? Or what about the fantastic designs by Oluwole Olumuyiwa from Nigeria, who, educated by amongst others Van den Broek and Bakema from Rotterdam, developed highly modern buildings and plans, without any connection to that what we use to call traditional architecture. Does an architect like David Adyaje, who was born in Tanzania from Ghanaian parents, but was educated in England and worked amongst others with David Chipperfield and Eduardo Souto De Moura Architects, still produce African architecture? Is the mosque in Frejus, built by a homesick Senegalese legionnaire during World War II African architecture? We presume that the Eastgate Building in Harare, built in 1996 by Mick Pearce is a beautiful piece of contemporary African architecture. But when Pearce, surely from Zimbabwean nationality, is building in Melbourne, Australia, is he then still building African architecture?

What is African architecture? Formulating a fitting answer to that question is not easy, but that doesn’t matter. More important is the fact that people are starting to realize that African architecture can be found in many different forms. All these forms contribute to the complete but various and extremely interesting image of what African architecture could be.
 
Anne-Katrien Denissen
 



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