In Search of Africa’s Lost Architecture

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In Search of Africa’s Lost Architecture
Respecting our culture, aesthetics and lifestyle
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Culture is enshrined in the heart of Africa. Despite the diversity in customs and traditions among the different ethnicities, Africa has always been knit together by a love of culture. For us, it is more than just a way of life; it is the cord that connects us all, bringing us back to our roots. Pre-colonial Africa depended a great deal upon culture for her survival but with the colonial era came much erosion and subversion of our culture with strange acts and unfamiliar beliefs from the European enforcers. In spite of independence, Africa's culture continues on a decline decade after decade, as colonialism is replaced by modernization, globalization, technological advancements and other forms of 21st century hegemony.


Ironically, this cultural incursion is fanning a growing desire among Africans both at home and in the diaspora for a return to African roots, the need to preserve the African spirit and document our contribution to the emergence of the world in its current form and to taking our place in the forming of the future of the planet. For many, it has become a mission to ensure Africa retains its identity against the wave of technologically-induced global homogeneity. This awareness has spread to the field of architecture and the evolution of Africa’s built environment. Architecture is a very unique component of culture, as much as art, language or music and is the most visual of the cultural elements, being readily visible. Architecture tells a lot about a region, representing the relationship between people and their environment and communicating a unique image of their culture. This stems from the fact that the architecture of the region derives from local materials and employs local customs which have been passed from one generation to another.  Thus with architecture, one could say a building tells more than a hundred stories.

Architecture in Africa tells the story of how man has adapted to his environment - withstanding weather conditions by creating suitable habitations for himself and his livestock, fighting off famine by creating durable storage facilities for food, protecting him from predators and intruders – in order to thrive. Due to its direct representation of its physical environment, African architecture has been the subject of many an archaeological study, looking into ancient structures made of stone and other locally sourced materials that have survived till date, with their wonderful and highly functional designs, styles derived not from mere aesthetics, but from the need the building had to serve. Such structures include the stone-walled kraals from Sotho, and Tswana settlements (in South Africa and Botswana respectively), stone-lined pit circles in Zimbabwe with deep-set kraals for pygmy cattle, rectangular and circular stone farmhouses built in two stories in Tigre in Eritrea and Sudan, as well as square stone houses among the Tuareg in Niger. Furthermore, the varied nature of Africa’s climate, from forests and lush grasslands to desert led to a diversity of building materials, ranging from grass and wood to stone, clay and animal skins. Besides the functional nature of the buildings, the designs were also artful representations of the culture of the people, very much expressed in the surface decorations of the buildings. The shapes and designs showed the ideology and beliefs of the people, with many houses having anthropomorphic properties.

The quest to re-define and document modern African architecture has taken on new life in 2015 with the launch of CPDI Africa, brain-child of Nmadili Okwumabua CEO of Southern Sahara LTD. CPDI stands for Community Planning and Design Initiative.  The Nigerian-American launched the design Competition to inspire research and development of successful African neighbourhoods and communities that are both culturally and environmentally sustainable. Based on the belief that the renaissance of Africa's culturally appropriate built environment should conform with its ancestral antecedents as a collaborative effort between the community members and designated Master-builders, CDPI Africa is encouraging participation from the design community in Africa in collaboration with the Diaspora at large in the competition.

Okwumabua explains: 'Responding to a glaring gap in the global architectural landscape, this competition offers a platform on which - for the first time - designers are challenged to create new architectural languages that reflect the cultures, lifestyle, climate, geography and the economic strength of the African home buyer. Usually, discussions between the architect and the client(s) revolve around conventional ideas of modern building with little or no attention paid to the personality or cultural identity of the client'.

Drawing on the premise that each client on the Continent has a unique personality (which is formed in part by being African or in Africa), the CPDI Africa competition gives the creative Master-builder the license to draw on and explore his own natural architectural identity and instinct, explore this identity in very novel ways and create amazing never-seen-before designs. 'The main thrust of this competition is to develop home-grown, indigenous solutions for the development and evolution of Africa’s social, political and economic institutions. While we may draw some inspiration from other cultures, Africa’s development is the responsibility of Africans and being a visible and overt cultural element, architecture provides a suitable springboard for the exploration of homemade strategies for the different development issues facing the continent' says Okwumabua.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 13 October 2015 19:31
Written by Opeyemi Jide-Ojo

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