Exploring traditional African architecture and urban design

in Cultural + Heritage by

The traditional, or indigenous, forms of West African design, architecture and planning can on first glance appear low-tech and plebeian: we imagine mud-brick houses and thatched roofs commonplace to rural communities, untarred roads, dilapidated structures, the lack of “improved” technologies like electricity, plumbing and piped water systems, and an agriculture-based economy. But on deeper introspection, we see that in many cases, these forms of architecture/design/planning served a very functional, holistic purpose — something too often lacking from contemporary West African cities and the way city officials and developers plan and design them.

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A typical Igbo village square is a centrally located open space, used for public gatherings, discussions festivals. It also serves as a major connecting point to all points of the settlement. Copyright Simon Ottenberg (1952), sourced from ForumBiodiversity discussion “Igbo buildings (traditional),” 2011.

A prominent example of traditional architecture and urban design of from the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria. The settlement layouts, building structures and aesthetics represented the physical manifestation of a spiritual worldview, a balance with nature and respect for community membership and centrality. While some of these aspects seem to have been discounted over time, in fact, contemporary pushes toward greenbuilding, the idea of a livable city space and a refocus on agriculture get at the balance and social cohesion that was already historically and traditionally at the center of these settlements.
Today, contemporaries of architecture, urban design and planning lend focus to the concepts of green building, a livable city and environmental sustainability in particular. These are values and concepts that one could (and should) argue were also quite central to indigenous building, design and settlement organization in many parts of the continent sans outside influence (particularly Western influence). The challenge is, few seem to notice or acknowledge this connection.

Design Ideals Among Nigeria’s Igbo
This recent masters thesis on Igbo architecture and identity with a focus on contemporary Enugu (capital of Enugu State, in southeast Nigeria) provides historical and cultural background on this phenomenon. In the Igbo tradition, the construction and architecture of houses incorporated a balance with nature (e.g., sourcing local materials for the building of mud bricks and thatch roofs), and an emphasis on the supremacy of spirituality, community and family life (by incorporating family gathering and worship spaces, as well as sacred spaced allocated for deities in the household). Settlements typically had community spaces at the center, and these spaces were the sites for public gatherings, discussions and meetings, as well as other community interactions. Today, we call such areas “public spaces,” and these areas were hugely important to the idea of bringing people from different parts of the area together. Homes were also places of creativity; women typically adorned the walls with painted designs – demonstrating an appreciation for artistic expression.

Such architecture and settlement design brought together an intersection between environmental architecture and design with spirituality and community centeredness. It also ensured a minimal environmental footprint. Admittedly, these were were low-cost, simple technology methods, but households still effectively adapted their living structures to the tropical climate, especially the heat. For example, the use of mud bricks and thatched roofs were not without their challenges, particularly in terms of longevity and sustainability. But the uses of these materials was incorporated into a more short-term framework for how such buildings could and should last, likely tied to their usage.

Western Influences, Local Changes and Impacts
What changed? British colonial influence, an increasing overall Westward orientation and the massive conversion to Christianity (and corresponding turning away from traditional practices of animism and others seen as “backward”) have shaped long-lasting impacts on architecture and urban space.

The entrance of Western influence through the political, social and economic consolidation by the British not only strongly influenced architectural and urban design methods in places in Igboland like Enugu and Owerri, in particular. The emphasis on building settlements into urban centers, putting economic activity and industrialization at the center of urban life, served to dislocate traditional values of community centrality and an agricultural focus.

Rather than an open community space at the center of town or a settlement, African cities have developed central business districts modeled after Western ones. There’s been a dramatic shift from agricultural production as a way for self-sufficiency toward now importing these same crops from abroad. Economic activity and money-generating opportunities have replaced people and social interaction as the center of community life.

City planning policies designated grid-style patterns and urban density specifications. The massive conversion toward Christianity reduced the communal respect for the deities, and as a result, the emphasis on an allocation of physical space for them in the home environment. That said, it’s interesting to note that it is in rural communities where you can still see people using some traditional methods of development.

The Western emphasis on the use of cement and iron were adopted in places like Enugu and were accepted as demonstrations of wealth and prestige; they also seen as stronger and more durable materials for building (rather than building and advancing existing local knowledge to improve local technologies). Keep in mind that materials such as cement and iron climate are not only inappropriate (these materials “trap” heat inside buildings, unlike mud or adobe brick buildings that keep the interior cool); but due to tropical conditions, iron roofs nearly always rust over time. And who says a building should last forever? A quick question: While it can be awe-inspiring to see the ancient architecture of past civilizations or ages, why is it the mark of civilized society that what we build now should be in place 200 or 300 from now (consider not its relevance for that period)?

Anyway, in this and other regards, there have been lasting impacts; most popular and successful Nigerian architects continue design cement building structures and in turn plan for immense air-conditioning usage, a large expense.

Moving Forward: Back to Basics
Contemporary discussions on greenbuilding, planning for livable cities, and even promoting investment in agriculture as a means to support African development to me represent a return to (and also a new take on) past traditions and most especially, balance.
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The focus of green building is on reducing a building’s environmental impact throughout the life cycle of the structure (from siting the location of the building, designing it, through construction, operation, maintenance, and in some cases, demolition). To me, thinking of a buildings as having a life-cycle, even planning for their potential demolition is one of the most important aspects of green building. After all, the point is to reduce the environmental impact as much as possible. Why not plan for a time when a building or house may no longer be needed? (I also wrote briefly about this issue of building longevity and changing uses in Douala, Cameroon and Accra, Ghana.)

UN-HABITAT has been a major proponent of promoting greenbuilding throughout Africa, including promoting a green building rating system that would promote increased private sector involvement in environmentally friendly and sustainable design of buildings and cities. Major headway in this regard has been achieved in South Africa, and also in Kenya and Ghana. In Accra, the Ghana Green Building Council was launched in 2011 by architects who saw a need for sustainable, environmentally friendly and energy-efficient (translation, “low-energy”) design. In Nigeria, there has been much talk about green architecture, building and sustainable design, but energy and infrastructure challengesin particular keep this idea from becoming a reality, at least for now.

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The idea of a livable city focuses on a city’s resilience, authenticity and inclusiveness, such as demonstrated from this one-page infographic from the Philips Center for Health and Well-Being. The idea is to design and plan for the city so that it is a livable space for all (think high quality of life), as a result of common access to such things are public parks, social services, jobs, schools, etc. Social cohesion is hugely important to the positive dynamic in a livable city, as well as promoting opportunities for creativity and innovation.

Finally, investing in agriculture has been put forth as a solution to fighting poverty and a development goal for African countries, especially in recent years. One of the positive potential impacts of developing agricultural is that it is an industry that relies on strong rural-urban linkages, tying together rural areas (where the food is produced) to urban areas (distribution, selling and mass consumption). Increased agricultural-focused investment and support could have the potential to boost and support the local rural community, by allowing the livelihood that they rely on to be more profitable. It also would reduce African countries’ reliance on foreign imports.

Architecture in Africa is varied, and it would be impossible to completely return back to the styles and methods that communities traditionally employed to develop and organize their space. But by looking a bit deeper at what we were doing, we can definitely identify ways to improve our present urban and rural spaces — by thinking more holistically, environmentally, and even spiritually, just like our ancestors did before.