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Thursday, May 24, 2007

What makes a place?

Question - "Imagine the entire population of the earth just disappears, and there're absolutely no people left on earth. If an alien spaceship lands somewhere on earth, how will they know where on earth they are? How will they know they're in Venice, Barcelona, Rome, Egypt, Washington DC, or Kenya? In other words, how do our buildings inform others about our place on this planet?"

This is the question that drives me to define what is African Architecture and Urbanism, and my attempt to anwer this question is what has driven me to initiate this blog. The answer to my question may appear quite simple, but I merely ask that we take the time to examine the places we live and/ or have visited, and what can we take away from these places.

In my humble opinion, the answer is not as simple as determining the difference between St. Peter's Cathedral and the US Capitol Building. It's much more than that. I believe the answer lies in two basic architectural principles - proportion and detail.

Looking closely at buildings in different parts of the world, what seems to set them apart are the proportions of the massing, the proportions of the openings, and the choice in details. For architects who know what a "figure-ground" diagram is, look at figure ground diagrams of prominent buildings in different parts of the world. What begins to show through are distinct proportions of the openings. Greek openings seem slender and taller, Roman proportions are slightly wider, Spanish openings are wider still, American openings are wider and taller. These seem vague until graphic presentations are done to show what I mean, and this is something I intend to pursue.

Details of buildings are perhaps what defines the place. There are a number of details which come to mind when thinking of specific places. Athens and the low sloped roofs with accreterion on pediments. Venice with slender columns and moorish arches. Rome with the refinements of the classical orders and rounded arches. The US and colonial architecture to prairie style.

I believe all of these may seem like common knowledge, but the problem is that when it comes to African Architecture, we arrive at a total loss. The reason is quite simple, a lack of proper documentation and globalization. Allow me to explain: In thinking of African Architecture, one immediately thinks of Egypt and the Pyramids, and that is about where it ends. Being from Ghana, the first buildings we have documented are the castles built by the Portuguese in the late 15th century when they arrived on our shores. So now, when I need a precedent in order to design a new building in Ghana, what am I to look at?

The resolution to defining what is African Architecture and Urbanism begins with research. We need to find out what our ancestors were building, and how they lived in communion, before we can begin to design better places to live in our African Cities. Our architects in Africa, with no precedent to look at, simply look to poor western examples of architecture, and the result is, everything is beginning to look like everything. Why go to Rome if you can see the same thing much closer to home and for much cheaper. The reasons we go to Rome, Athens, Barcelona, Syndey, Washington DC, is because these places are different from where we live. Thus, there's no reason for African cities to copy these places. We need to decide what is African and build on that precedent.

These are my current thoughts, and I'm anxious to hear what others have to say. As we progress with the discussion, my intention will be to pose new questions which address this same issue of definining Africa, and the goal will be to finally begin discussions of how to resolve the mess we seem to have created for ouselves in our African cities.


Lyoness said...

As a layperson (not an architect or urbanist) studying Architectural History, I looked through the Library of Congress archives to find any available information on the subject; I was pleasantly surprised to see this many results. I am curious to know if anyone has read any of these or if they know the authors?

Kithinji Mwirigi said...

Hey Nana,

Great blogsite!

I concur with your thought regarding our need to agree on/research on what is "African" with respect to architecture, and as architects of African decent or architects with a passion for African architecture, use that information as precedent for designing buildings that can truly claim an authentic African identity and character, and subsequently so shape the identity and character of the continent's (Africa) places, towns and cities.

That said, and considering the westernization of most African cities from an urban design/urban planning standpoint, it appears like the same research and research application modus operandi with respect to African urbanism, is not a realistic approach. Our African ancestors must have had certain orders or spatial planning principles which guided the urban design of their village (or other) communities. This, moreover, was during an era very far removed from the much-much-later-to-come, and revolutionary era of the locomotive and automobile (the latter in turn having generally transformed urban planning rather significantly, to what it for the most part is today). Assuming that we are to respect the notion of using African ancestoral historic precedents in the case of urban planning, just as we hope to do in the case of architecture proper, how do we go about reconciling these two eras - the ancient and relatively simple one from our ancestors' time, and the current one we live in, with all its complexities from the technological, social, environmental, and other transformations? In other words, are the urban planning principles from the era of our African ancestors transferable?

Morris said...

Nice blogsite. Another layer person here. Per Iyoness comment - I was also surprised at the Library of Congress archives. By the way - are electronic copies of those books available? What other information exists? It would seem that one would need to work with both archeologists and anrthopologists as part of their research since I suspect little documentation of past african cities (like the great West African cities of the past) exists.

nandoh said...

It's great that the Library of Congress has excellent resources for our needs. However, to clarify my point about a lack of material, I mean in the comprehensive materials that we're exposed to in schools, there's rarely ever anything with regard to African Architectural History. There are two excellent books on the "History of Architecture" by Sir Banister Fletcher and Spiro Kostof. Both books are written in chronological order and try to document structures of historical significance. The earliest structure both books begin with are ancient burial sites dating back to about 2500BC... (I'm writing this from memory, so if anyone has access to these books, please feel free to correct my huge assumption).

The point I'm trying to make is, by looking at these books, we begin to think that people did not really begin to build anything of major significance prior to 2500BC, when there're numerous archeological sites on the African continent suggesting intricate building methods as early as 10,000BC. The point is, either these sites are not being included in these books because not enough has been documented about these sites to merit being mentioned in a book, or the authors just simply did not know about them... which I find highly unlikely.

Thus I return to my original thesis for this blog, research!research!research! That's what we need to do. If these sites and others have been documented and exist somewhere in the Library of Congress, we need to add to that research and bring it to mainstream history of architecture books.

Anonymous said...

I think you comments towards African architecture, however inlight of this, African architecture is much more than just about propotion. Infact if anything African architecture is all about climate, cultural beliefs,cultural habits and much much more.

Why do I say this. Well there is a tribe in Cameroon that build using the Astrological layouts of each year and the ritual in which the planning is made by the chief priest.
In short, African architecture is very rich its sad that its not being exploited to derive a contemporary form.
Inlight Of this a new wave of modern African architecture is taking place in South Africa.In zimbabwe a an architect known as Pearce has developed a self cooling mall based on African methodology to climate control.
In south Africa an architect known as Peter Rich has looked into the Tswana way of developing space and he has incoperated it to form something unique. Infact he is one of the few South African architects to have recieved an Internatioal award in contemporary African architecture.
A must have read for those who want to know more is a book called African Architecture By Susan Denyor (not sure bout the spelling of the last name).It was publised in the 1940's

Great blogsite