Much of the indigenous traditions and architecture of Africa have been long shrouded in mystery. The richness of myriad cultures originating from the diverse African communities is astounding, to say the least. Many consider the act of building sacred and perform elaborate rituals as part of the process. Yet others treat their walls as canvases to depict stories, immortalizing their beliefs and ways of life. Simple materials are used in ingenious ways that today’s urban architects are yet to discover. The harsh climes of the continent have paved the way for innovative climate-responsive strategies.
1.Painted earth architecture of the Kassena people
The Kassena tribe is a part of the larger Gurunsi ethnic group which populates the region across southern Burkina Faso and northern Ghana. A driving force behind the architecture of the Kassena is the need to protect themselves from enemies. Each extended family lives in homes built into the compound of their cluster. Several such clusters make up a village.
As a result of defense and climate response, the entrances to the Kassena homes are quite small. The small windows present in these earthen walls are few and far between, keeping the interiors cool throughout the day. The main construction material is a mixture of clay, cow dung, and straw.
In a tradition spanning over five centuries, generations of Kassena women have been painting intricate geometric murals on the walls of their structures. The paints are made of local minerals—white chalk, black basalt, and red laterite. The walls are polished with smooth stones and coated with a varnish made from the local nere fruit to preserve the paintings. They are repainted periodically—after the harvest, before the monsoon. The geometric murals show sacred crocodiles, snakes, and other symbols of spiritualism.
2. The Batammariba: An architecture of defense and spiritualism
The Batammariba are agricultural people who believe they are caretakers of the land, not its owners. Spread across north-eastern Togo and north-western Benin, this indigenous group has developed an intriguing vernacular full of spiritual symbolism.
The traditional two-storeyed houses, tata sombas, are a central part of the culture. The word ‘Batammariba’ translates to ‘real builders of the earth’, and they take great care in the construction of their living spaces. Families live in individual compounds surrounded by vast farmlands. Thick walls of earth, straw and cow dung with small high-set windows protect from the harsh dry weather and the seasonal dusty harmattan wind. A varnish made of the nere fruit renders the walls waterproof. Some homes display conical roofs while others have flat terraces.
The family home represents a deep connection with the spiritual practices of the Batammariba. The roof represents the sky, the first storey is the earth, and the lowest floor is the underworld. Though some tribespeople now prefer to live in modern homes, they build a small tata somba next to the dwelling in homage to their beliefs. These are treated almost like humans – the dwellings are born and die with the occupants and much like people, the buildings have a lifecycle from construction to demolition and a cyclic rebirth.
3. Djenne: The Sahelian legacy of Mali
The Sudano-Sahelian grasslands of West Africa have evolved a unique response to climate, culture, and context. With a history stretching as far back as 250 BC, the Sahel region boasts of a regal architecture with simple roots.
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Djenne in Mali is a classic example of this vernacular style. The entire town has buildings of sun-baked mud blocks called ferey, coated with plaster. The town displays an architecture that departs from simplistic rural populations—suggesting a complex society of farmers, craftsmen, and traders with a religious and administrative upper class.
The Great Mosque is a textbook example of the design vocabulary of the town. The largest clay building on earth, this mosque has an imposing facade with three minarets. Bundles of ronier palm called Toron project two feet from the facade, and serve the dual purposes of reinforcing the mud walls, as well as acting as inbuilt scaffolding for the annual repairs that are a part of the town’s tradition. Ceramic pipes extend from the roofline and ensure that rainwater falling on the roof does not damage the walls.
The iconic architecture of the town has drawn the attention of various organizations and governments. The annual repair and renovation efforts have been a pet project of many, and the much-needed investment is used to modernize the town within the limits of UNESCO guidelines for the comfort of the residents.
4. Intricate and evocative: The Ashanti vernacular
The Ashanti or Asante people established a flourishing empire in modern-day Ghana with Kumasi as their capital, in the late 18th century. Their influence and power extended far into the continent and is seen in the widespread settlements across Western Africa.
The traditional Asante architectural style departs from that of the rest of West Africa in that it uses a structural framework, making the buildings suitable to an urban populace. Typical dwelling units consist of four rooms around a courtyard, for different purposes such as sleeping, cooking, singing, and sacred rituals. The shrines are reverently preserved and used to this day to commune with deities and spirits of ancestors.
The timber and bamboo framework is filled with clay to make sturdy walls and the sloping roofs are thatched for superior insulation. The walls are carved with intricate symbols celebrating the Asante pantheon, called Adinkra. This architectural style was already on the decline in the 1900s due to the British invasion, when the advent of ‘modern’ buildings, a strong cocoa and gold trade further reduced the number of people who still chose to build this way. Some villages of the Asante have been preserved, and efforts are being made to revive the vernacular and reclaim traditions of old.
5. Moorish masterpieces – Esoteric oases in the deserts of Morocco
Widely popular in the modern global context, Moroccan or Moorish vernacular architecture is a blend of elements spanning much of Morocco and parts of Algeria and Tunisia. The style rose to prominence during the Islamic rule in the 7th century, and fused influences from North African Berber culture, pre-Islamic Spain, and the Islamic Middle East to create a truly unique design language.
The Berbers of Morocco adopted Islamic motifs to their regional style to create lofty rammed earth forts adorned with intricate geometries, in a technique known as pise. The raw material is earth mixed with straw or lime for adhesion, making the walls more resistant and durable. In addition to this time-consuming method, the Moroccans also use brick and stone masonry for civic and religious structures. These are then finished with sculpted stucco and tilework known as zellij.
Wood is extensively used for intricately detailed canopies, ceilings, and balconies. Typical decorative elements include arabesques, geometric motifs, calligraphy, and muqarnas, a form of ornamental vaulting. Bronze and copper are used to ornament and protect wooden doors in mosques, madrasas, and other buildings of cultural import.
Some typical elements of the Moroccan vernacular are horseshoe arches, mashrabiya screens, the omnipresent fountain, and domes with breathtaking tilework on the soffit. The ceramics used in these buildings are produced in Morocco, which is known for the iconic teal glaze and the level of detail in each hand-crafted patterned tile.
Though several African architectural movements have taken the spotlight on the global stage, much of the vernacular architecture is yet to receive its due. In an age of flashy modernist statements and urban monuments, the quiet, unassuming African vernacular endures, as a testament to the perseverance and tenacity of its people.
Abun-Nasr, Jamil (1987). A history of the Maghrib in the Islamic period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Salmon, Xavier (2018). MarocAlmoravideetAlmohade: Architecture et décors au temps des conquérants, 1055-1269. Paris: LienArt.
Hattstein, Markus and Delius, Peter (eds.) Islam: Art and Architecture.
Raftani, Kamal; Radoine, Hassan (2008). “The Architecture of the Hammams of Fez, Morocco”. IJAR- International Journal of Architectural Research.