With the seven-volume “Architectural Guide Sub-Sahara Africa”, Philipp Meuser and Adil Dalbai have succeeded in creating a compendium that not only presents a panorama of Africa’s diverse architectures, but also helps to correct distorted images of the continent.
By Thomas Wagner.
The oldest European building in sub-Saharan Africa is Elmira Castle, 160 kilometres west of Ghana’s capital Accra. Colonial buildings from different eras may seem familiar to the Eurocentric eye. But who outside Africa knows anything about the ornate clay buildings in the savannah? Or about how, in the midst of a building boom and the spread of the “Africa Rising” narrative, the Ghanaian architecture industry has developed, and the role played by rapid economic growth and an emerging middle class? Are we familiar with the anthropomorphic buildings in Togo, the government buildings of Kenzo Tange in Nigeria? The Al-Nilein mosque in Sudan? What do we know about the architecture of the Nubians or the pyramids of Meroë? The list could go on and on.
In the best spirit of the Enlightenment
The image of the African continent in many European countries is notoriously deficient, not to say distorted, incomplete, often characterised by ignorance. This does not only apply to the post-colonial political and economic conditions, about which sweeping judgements are often made. Only a few are familiar with the diverse cultures and buildings of Africa. One region that is repeatedly associated with negative headlines in this country and reported on in images of war, terror, flight, poverty, hunger and upheaval are the states of the sub-Sahara. For this reason alone, it is a great stroke of luck that the portrait of very different countries and cities, which is so often painted in dark colours, now has a lot of facets and colours added to it in the field of architecture. With the “Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa”, Philipp Meuser and Adil Dalbai have not only succeeded in compiling a magnificent overview of the architecture of the sub-Saharan African region. The fascinating, astonishingly detailed compendium that the two architects have compiled over years of work is, in the best Enlightenment tradition, designed to break down prejudices and impart knowledge – about African cultures, old and new building traditions, materials and methods, but also about political representation and economic development.
850 buildings from 49 countries
The scope of the work alone is impressive: In seven, differently coloured volumes, 850 buildings in 49 countries are presented on a total of 3,400 pages together with more than 350 African and European authors and information is provided about countries, building methods and current developments. An introductory volume, in which several dozen authors present their analyses of architectural and building history, demographic challenges, disruptions and urban transformation processes, questions of identity, global and local perspectives, is followed by six volumes arranged by region and country. Each country is different, and a richly illustrated chapter is dedicated to each. Whereby one should always be aware anew: A billion people live in the areas that comprise the entire African continent south of the Sahara. When we speak of “sub-Saharan” Africa, we are talking about three quarters of the continent’s area – from Mauritania to Sudan, from Eritrea to South Africa, from Guinea to Mozambique and Tanzania.
What could that be, African architecture?
Adil Dalbai, Livingstone Mukasa and Philipp Meuser, to pick just one example from the first volume, assert in their essay “Towards a Theory of African Architecture” that the use of the term “African” in architectural descriptions is “sometimes absurd”. Often, “African” is used as a “marker for a highly artificial, highly artistic pastiche of clichéd elements”. There is also a tendency to emphasise “pre-industrial and culturally undifferentiated ideas of Africa as always primitive and unchanging”.
Between tradition and modernity
In order to do even approximate justice to the geographical and climatic differences and the cultural diversity of this vast space, the architectural guide is divided into six geographical sections. Within these regions, indigenous buildings as well as exceptional buildings of different typologies are presented from each country. The spectrum ranges from impressive mud mosques in Mali to incunabula of colonial modernism in Eritrea to spectacular but largely unknown state buildings of independent Africa and innovative contemporary projects. The richness of the African building heritage of all architectural epochs is documented, and one learns that architecture in post-colonial Africa plays an important role in the dialogue between tradition and modernity in the search for self-confidence and identity. The fact that infrastructure projects such as railway connections and airports, but also large buildings such as sports arenas, the financing of which is often paid for by raw material deliveries and mining rights, promote the emergence of neo-colonialist structures is shown, for example, by retort cities like Kilamba in Angola, 30 kilometres south of Luanda, which were created through Chinese investment. The situation is different with social buildings, schools and housing projects. They prove that the continent is increasingly developing its own architectural languages that respond to new challenges and changing climatic conditions with the power of African cultures.
Potentials, resources, strategies
As far as can be judged from a random reading, the monumental guide combines two only seemingly contradictory approaches: on the one hand, urban structures and individual buildings from local mud architecture to ensembles of “Tropical Modernism” are presented. On the other hand, fundamental questions of architecture are discussed – by no means only in the introductory volume – and a careful attempt is made to clarify theoretically what could be meant by “African” architecture. What is the role of the physical built environment on the one hand, and of its ritual, spiritual and non-material aspects on the other? What potentials, resources and problem-solving strategies does this rich building culture hold?
Traditional buildings in Africa may be rooted in their archaic protective function against the weather, cold and wild animals and represent an independent architectural history. In the many-voiced discussion of which elements and heritages are mixed in the diversity of African architecture and how its strengths can be theoretically prepared, it is about more than the role regional and local differences, climatic diversity and heterogeneity play in the development of an “African” theory of architecture. It is about what all this can contribute to a global understanding of architecture in the 21st century. Not only because many architectural layers mix here. Not only because mega-cities like Kinshasa or Lagos are coming into focus. Not only because the urban population of sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to almost double in the next 30 years and more than 400 million people will move to the cities. But because the architectures and cultures of this vibrant, diverse and fascinating continent have a lot to contribute to the necessary remeasurement of the world of living in a built environment.
Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa
published by Philipp Meuser und Adil Dalbai
7 vol. boxed set, 3,412 p.
DOM publishers, Berlin 2021
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