• Architecture of African Origin: Beyond the Distant Ethnic Onslaught

It is said that we cannot move forward unless we know where we are coming from, unless we set the spirit of an age and know what we stood for and what we stand for now. As such, history of architecture is a pivotal element in any architecturecurriculum across the world universities.

We marvel at the absolute and consummate works of the great architects of the prehistoric times in classical architecture, neo-world architecture and modern architecture with their intricacies of clean lines, forms, materials and astute study of the forms and their relationship to the human.

Yet we hear very little of Architecture of African Origin (AOAO) within these syllabi. There is little emphasis on Sahelian Architecture, Aksumite, Ashanti, Zulu, Timbuktu, Swahili, Arabic and the rest of great architecture that was and still is being practiced in Africa.

We look back at our own indigenous architecture and marvel at the manifestation of nature, optimism, lifestyle and available technology that belies the evolution of African architecture. And we glance upon such styles as Swahili architecture and Sudano-Sahelian architecture origins of design and lament at the growing sense of apprehension towards segregating this forms and voices of African architecture from the knowledge and practice of architecture within the African continent.

 

So much of what we learn and presume to be unsullied designs, are a direct borrowing from the Western sense of design, an expression of their own styles, contextualism and intentions towards their local creed. Most of the aspects we articulate our architecture upon within Africa is hired from without the continent with little regard to context.

We look at Asmara in Eritrea, governed by the same set of Italian architectural invasion. Historically speaking Asmara is a beautifully city with easily the highest concentration of Modernist Architecture in a given area. However the Italian Architects of the time had little regard to the natives’ culture and architecture. Asmara was an experimental city and everyone planted their futuristic ideas.

We will remember Asmara for the greatness of the modern designs but not in its context. It is a clear case of an established cultural history lacking within this city. Whilst Asmara may be argued to have stood out due to its historical significance, all across Africa cities are coming up at an evangelizing revolution of popular culture and sooner than later, we will be looking at cities bereft of emphasis upon African cultures and traditions. Architects are coming up with design for the masses, ones considered trendy with little regard to the African continent and its diverse culture. Few modern buildings like the KICC Building in Kenya stand out as indelible marks in the African continent but most are just statistics of modern movement buildings.

Postmodernism strongly propagates the borrowing from classical orders and learning from precedence. We look at foreign architects adopting palatable styles from their predecessors. Shouldn’t our architecture get meanings of expression from the adobe architecture of Mali with its deep chroma and sustainable palate, or the Magnificence of rock and deep seated sculptural phenomenon in the Lalibela architecture of Ethiopia, or the embodiment of high ancient accommodation of specificity within the works of the Swahili?

 

Shouldn’t we strive towards the mortarless stone work of the Great Zimbabwe or the stellar stone curved churches of Aksumite Architecture; isn’t it pristine to dwell on the earth bricks and adobe plasters of the Sahelian Architecture?

Shouldn’t we at least postulate about this romantic idea of a mid-modern African architecture that spreads a diverse array of styles from across the continent? Ultimately, Architecture of African Origin has stood the test of time and proved resilient. Hopefully it will withstand the ethnic onslaught of foreign ideas and survive another generation.

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