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Time to pay attention to African architecture

Time to pay attention to African architecture

African architecture is one of those subjects which is too often neglected, whether purposefully or not. The continent was our original birthplace and has been the site of some of the most important and fascinating work in history. If good architecture is the physical summation of the age, then Africa has more than its fair share. Unfortunately we never hear about it because African achievements are generally ignored by Western media outlets.

The oldest architecture in the world can be found in Africa, spanning back more than 100,000 years. Stone walls, rock calendars which use the sun to keep time and complicated cave systems dot the continent and speak to our longevity as a species.

More recently, the ancient Egyptians built one of history’s great civilisations which lasted for thousands of years and left us the pyramids, great cities and beautiful temples. Their society was so long lived that the famous Cleopatra actually lived closer to our time than she did to the building of the Great Pyramids.

Moving further forward in time, we can look at Great Zimbabwe which was built between the 11th and 14th centuries. The site covers more than 700 hectares and is winged by walls 10 metres high which were built without the use of mortar. Residents of Great Zimbabwe would also have benefitted from an extensive drainage system that still works today. For comparison, London did not have a proper drainage system until the latter half of the 1800s. This was truly a work of unparalleled and ingenious architecture.

The reason that few have heard of Great Zimbabwe is perhaps instructive when we consider the case of modern architecture. The European ‘explorers’ who visited the ruins in the 1800s were quick to dismiss the achievements of the builders of Great Zimbabwe, instead assuming that it must be a copy of a design made by “civilised” people. European writers assigned the credit for Great Zimbabwe to everyone from the Portuguese to the Arabs to the Chinese.

These attitudes towards Africa and the people who live there have certainly been carried through to the modern age. Even if they are less overt, they persist, and they are the reason why the only modern African architecture you ever hear about is in South Africa which was is the most “Western” state on the continent.

But the fact is that Africa is currently mining a rich seam of creativity and some of the buildings in construction on the continent are sensational.

Contemporary African architecture covers possibly a broader range of developments than anywhere else in the world. Everything from power stations to safari ranches is included, and there are innovators everywhere.

For instance, the work of David Adjaye, a Ghanain-British architect, is very interesting. Adjaye has visited very capital city in Africa to absorb the styles and sensibilities and then transported these across the world. Work such as the Moscow School of Management, the Stephen Lawrence Centre in London and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History in Washington DC have rightfully catapulted him to global fame and shown the value of African inspired architecture.

Another architect making his name across the world is Diébédo Francis Kéré, an architect from Burkina Faso who is the designer of the 2017 Serpentine Pavilion, following in a long line of world famous architects who have taken up that commission. His work is mostly defined by a steel frame construction which is designed to make use of locally available materials, labourers and construction techniques. His work on the rebuilding of the Burkina Faso National Assembly building combines modern construction techniques with a design inspired by older styles. The giant ziggurat promises to be something special and more than a simple parliament building.

Perhaps the most pertinent feature of African architecture is that there is a real sensitivity towards the local environment and the needs of the local people. As the environment becomes more and more of a crucial concern across the world, there are lessons we can learn from African architecture and apply to our own work.

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