• ArchiDATUM Dates: Issa Diabaté on a Political Architecture and Social Orders of Architecture

At ArchiDATUM, we think that architects are the opinion shapers of the future world in which we will live in and here we bring you Issa Diabaté, Principal Partner at Koffi and Diabaté Architectes and his eye-catching gusto for the compulsive disorders in every architect, the role of African architects in our developing countries and civic environments of architecture. Here he speaks more about his education, his practice and what has set him apart as an architect in Africa. 


A.    Who is your favorite Architect?

Having a favorite architect is a notion foreign to me.  I do admire a number of architects, each for their inherent qualities.  For instance, Mies van der Rohe, for his minimal rigor; Glenn Murcutt, for his notion of scale; Peter Zumthor, for his economy of gestures… What I find most interesting is the specific way in which each architect solves a common problem.

B. Which is your favorite building?

I don’t have any for the very same reason I do not have a favorite architect.  I often say that the best architecture is non-architecture…  The best building is the one that does everything other buildings do, with the bonus feature of being able to disappear to “let the play run”…  Just like the best theatres.

C. What was your childhood dream career?

Being a plane pilot until I turned 12.  Then my inclination to draw took over and I started drawing boats, then houses…  That is when my father decided to send me to an architect friend of his.  Which led to my very first internship at age 13.


A. In your own opinion what is African Architecture?

African architecture is architecture made from Africa to provide solutions to local African issues…  It has very little to do with style!

B. What is the greatest lesson from Yale?

To always keep my mind open to new influences.  What I liked most at school was the possibility we had to learn from our professors, obviously, but also, in a different and most enriching way, from fellow students. The school was able to create a natural alchemy within the student body.

C. How is Architectural education in the West as compared to our own and are there lessons there?

Well, architecture in the West often operates from a formal environment.  There are codes to respect and consequences when you don’t.  In our environment, we are still struggling to establish some sort of formality.  That is because most of the built work produced here is informal and not generated by professional architects.  Our biggest challenge here is to bring back the act of building to the realm of the professional architect.  To do that, architecture must become more political. It must become a social responsibility; something that is taught and fostered from a young age, beginning in school.

D. What would you say is your role as an architect in the African modern society and in what direction does your firm hope to influence the coming generation of Young Architects?

Our role here is to become opinion leaders when it comes to the built environment.  We must engage more and more in dialogue with the local authorities to share with them our understanding and our vision on what needs to be done for our cities.  Cities, more so than buildings, need help here.  Our governments are having great difficulties dealing with the massive growth of urban populations in Sub Saharan Africa.  We must envision architecture and design, with our own specificities. That will help us provide novel answers to this particular situation.

E. How is the design process at Koffi & Diabate and what is the role of software in this modern practice?

Guillaume and I often design in response to issues linked to our direct environment.  It is often informed by the social fabric as much as the technology and economics at play.  The idea starts with a manually drawn sketch and quickly transforms into a 3-D model that we “torture” until we approach - but never reach - total satisfaction.  We favour extensive use of 3-D objects as they allow to virtually test what in fine will get built.

F. Having worked in both Côte d’Ivoire and France, explain one major similarity and one major difference in out of Africa offices and in Africa offices.

Well, architects usually have the same “compulsive disorders” that they tend to learn and perpetrate in school.  We keep late hours and architecture is usually our number one passion. The differences have more to do with those responsibilities – inherent to our respective environments – that we must carry as architects, not only for the future of our cities but also for the future of the profession. As an office, at Koffi & Diabaté, we recently made the jump from being architects to being “Architects as Developers”.  The main reasons for that are:- That it allows us to become our own client, thus giving us more freedom in the design process and the project choices, which in turn fosters change through emulation – it is always easier to sell something that is built rather than convincing someone to subscribe to your ideas.\r\n- That it allows us to work on bigger scales, and in the process, work around the informal fashion in which our cities tend to grow now – the bigger the scale, the more influence you can have on the city.

G. Your firm has been involved in an urban landscaping project centered on the development of an eco-friendly city where notions of sustainable development are fully integrated in building design, in the coastal city of Assinie-Mafia (Ivory Coast). Please explain to us further this concept and also the major frustrations faced in realizing such.

Our work in Assinie-Mafia started with a residential design and building project.  There, we realized the potential to test new design concepts, as the environment offered something of a “blank canvas”. Due to the small scale of the village, we were able to obtain quick responses from local authorities, therefore testing our strategy to do work despite heavy government bureaucracy.  In order to fully integrate the local community, we each built our weekend houses there, therefore guaranteeing a regular presence on site.  That further nurtured the relationship with the traditional authorities – local chiefs – who are now quite open to the development projects that we initiate there. The idea is to start a project with our own money (like sidewalks or public gardens) and then make the neighbors subscribe to our design vision.  When they experience the difference, they have a much better understanding of where we are going, thus making it much easier for them to support our initiatives.  As architects, an interesting and positive aspect of this project has been the fact that we had to train ourselves to communicate in a different fashion – visiting the traditional authorities, spending much time exchanging civilities before getting to the point, taking the proper time to know each other.  On the other hand, such actions do take time as they are solely financed by our own pockets (and those of our neighbors), but in a way, that is what makes our action totally independent.

H. Your firm also adopts a sustainable approach to design. How do clients approach this mindset and what are the cost implications of sustainability?

More and more clients are concerned with sustainability. I believe it is safe to say that the African architecture of tomorrow will be sustainable… For the very reason that it is much cheaper to build sustainable in a tropical climate than it would be in a cold climate.  At Koffi & Diabaté, we tend to focus on passive solutions that we draw from the traditional architecture of our surroundings. Who better than our forefathers know how to deal with the local climate? We make extensive use of cross ventilation and position our openings with regards to dominant winds and sun exposure. We tend to not rely on sophisticated technology to achieve sustainability. Clients are traditionally more concerned with cost than sustainability. When you make it passive, they only see the positive aspects of opting for sustainability, especially when it cuts on energy consumption while lowering construction costs.

J. Your firm's character of projects border mostly on contemporary style of architecture. Why this line and what is the role of traditional African architecture in a modern Africa?

At Koffi & Diabaté, we believe that we must live with the current times. That is the main reason why we do contemporary architecture.  We believe in creating an architecture that responds to the local issues. For some reason, contemporary and traditional are perceived as opposites. Not in our office. We build with the methods and materials that are widely available in the cities we work in, namely because it makes economical sense.  I must say – without any value of judgment – that it is easier to build with concrete in most parts of the world than with any other “traditional” materials such as earth bricks or rammed earth. In our practice, we have found it to be a luxury to work with those materials as they are not part of an industrial chain of production therefore being more time and budget consuming.  What a paradox! For us, African architecture qualifies the architecture that is produced in Africa, for Africans and their African concerns.  Strangely enough, a building will look contemporary while integrating principles of cross ventilation learned from traditional buildings but executed with widely available materials… This is exactly what made Japanese architecture so popular in the rest of the world: stick to the concept – minimal philosophy – rather than the style – roof or tatami.  In essence, the concept rises from the tradition and the interpretation from the contemporary.

K. What is the level of African architecture as compared to the global landscape and what are we doing right; what are we doing wrong?

What I will express is not in terms of levels but rather in terms of exposure.  I will not take the risk of categorizing works and determining their level of quality based on their place of origin.  I do regret the fact though that a lot of architecture has been and is still being produced on the continent, very few architects know of the history of architecture in Africa.  A lot was produced in pre and post colonial times.  Some by locals and some by foreign architects.  Giving exposure to that architecture will teach architects practicing on the continent simple solutions to solve simple problems.  I have this unpleasant sense that nowadays, we tend to produce architecture for the sake of architecture and no longer to respond to the society and its “holistic” needs.

L. Which things outside the field of architecture inform your work?

Travelling. The best way to satisfy my curiosity and to make sure I am always exposed to something new.


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