• Architecture Of African Origin (AOAO): Isn’t this Simply A Members Club?

Architecture of African Originwhat is meant by this term? Literally speaking, it alludes to architecture that originated/originates from/in Africa. But a semantic surgery would opine otherwise. Fundamentally, Who are the “originators”? Is it, strictly speaking, the “African indigenous peoples”? Which then draws another vital question; who are these African indigenous peoples in the context of architecture?

Do the Arabs & Indians of the 13th Century qualify as “indigenous” originators of African architecture along the East African Coast? (seeing that Swahili architecture has been accepted here as an example of AOAO) Why? Yet it has more Arabic/Indian/Persian influences than that of coastal Bantus (in fact in some cases it is almost as if the Omani/Indian houses were transplanted as were- 100% replicas). The same questions can be asked of the Sahelian Architecture and it’s very early Arab influences.

And, if they do qualify as originators, then why draw a line between their architecture and the European architecture in Asmara? Nairobi? Harare? Did their architecture not “originate” in Africa too – built from scratch- in the same manner but with influences from their home nations? Is it because this colonial architecture is from a more recent past -only yesterday? Then is being an indigenous originator defined by certain timelines? Would it be fair for a mother to accept the first child and deny the second because he was born later?

And what of those who came with the Europeans? The Indians, the Sikhs, the dukawalla-styled shops that have influenced our town centres so much, The Sikh temples, schools & hospitals? Indian houses? Do these qualify?

Yet if we were to make things simpler for this arguments sake, by disqualifying these “foreigners” we would find ourselves in an even more difficult situation. How much of the pre-colonial architecture of the indigenous peoples do we know? How can we talk of pursuing an architecture representing an “African culture” as if it were this romantic, static ideal? Yet culture is so dynamic that it constitutes all the forces that are at play in our being – including those from our past such as European/ colonial influences – that we refuse to accept, as if they were not a part of our daily lives- unless we are strictly and very specifically referring to traditional (pre-colonial) culture which we know little of, and the much that we do know, is it sufficient to enable us create a new architecture based purely on that past traditional culture?

An even bigger issue is the phrase “African architecture” which is a creation of authors such as Denyer who would seek to convince us that there is such a thing. That the architecture of a continent as vast in size, as diverse in ethnicity and culture, as varied in climate, topography and geography as Africa, can be summed in a single phrase “African Architecture” simply because the peoples thereof happen to be on the same land mass. How absurd the thought that Victorian Style architecture would sit side by side with Baroque architecture! Aren’t they both in Europe? We as Africans must not accept the premise of an African architecture until we exhaustively interrogate it and define it ourselves. But that ship may have sailed already, seeing that the African Heritage House is a Sahelian architecture, Islam influenced, adobe styled Desert house that sits in the savannah plains of a far away land- but since it’s still in Africa, it cant be “foreign” to the context? It is African architecture after all.

And even if we were do away with the matter of originators and argue that AOAO refers intrinsically to an architecture that is representative of the peoples culture, ideologies & identity, this would mean that a foreign architect could design a building on African soil and as long as it met this criteria, we would accept is an AOAO. So we accept KICC building which was done by a non-African (Norwegian) as a building of African Origin? This too would be a point of debate on what African Origin means.

Architecture of African Origin therefore comes out as an exclusive terminology. A members club of sorts. Who’s invited to the AOAO party? Who’s not? And why didn’t they make the list? We must not pick out that which we feel gravitated towards or which we relate to or even that which we feel represents us as the bases for an AOAO. This definition must not be esoteric. It must be factual, scientific and profound. We must set out the criteria of what determines AOAO clearly and carefully.

But this would require us to step back, step aside, start peeling back the layers of how we came to this place, go back as far as we possibly can, then in the same manner build back the layers all the way to the now, then to the beyond. If at all we seek an architecturethat represents us and that is borne of us then we must create it, set it, define it and determine it ourselves – as Africans.


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