A Remarkably Comprehensive New Guide to the Architecture of Sub-Saharan Africa
Compared to that of the West and East, awareness and knowledge of the architecture of sub-Saharan Africa—Africa south of the Sahara Desert—is scant. A new book intends to mitigate this oversight, and it’s a significant accomplishment. Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa (DOM publishers, 2021), edited by Philipp Meuser, Adil Dalbai, and Livingstone Mukasa, was more than six years in the making. The seven-volume guide presents architecture in the continent’s 49 sub-Saharan nation states, includes contributions by nearly 340 authors, 5,000 photos, more than 850 buildings, and 49 articles expressly devoted to theorizing African architecture in its social, economic, historical, and cultural context. I interviewed two of the editors—Adil Dalbai, an architectural researcher and practitioner specializing in sub-Saharan Africa, and Livingstone Mukasa, a native Ugandan architect interested in the intersections of architectural history and cultural anthropology—about the challenges of creating the guide, some of its revelations about the architecture of Africa, and its potential impact.
MJC: Michael J. Crosbie
AD: Adil Dalbai
LM: Livingstone Mukasa
What prompted this publication? What was its genesis?
The origin of the project was back in 2014, when we were working on some architecture projects in Western Africa, and we quickly noticed that there was a lack of literature that gave an overview or introduction to the architecture of sub-Saharan Africa. We initially selected highlights from various African countries to publish only one volume, but then realized we needed to look at each of the countries individually. The number of volumes started growing, and in the end the final publication comprises seven volumes.
What was the biggest challenge in creating this publication?
Coordinating the work of more than 300 authors and over 650 contributors, and harmonizing their contributions was definitely challenging. The authors had various backgrounds—architects, scholars of different disciplines, students, photographers, activists. Another challenge was to find these experts, to build this network of contributors. That took many years. We are now building on that, with the help of a grant from the Graham Foundation, to create an online platform, the Africa Architecture Network, which will allow it to continue to grow.
Another challenge was the variance in institutional, political, and socioeconomic conditions across sub-Saharan Africa. For example, some counties have limited institutional strengths, with consequently no archives to refer to. In other countries, authors had various challenges and, in some cases, hardships to overcome to make their contributions. In some cases, photographers were arrested or detained, which made visual documentation far more challenging as well.
You point out that when you began this publication you found a significant dearth of information about African architecture. What do you attribute this lack to?
There was a lack of documentation from two perspectives. Within Africa, architectural publishing, with few exceptions, is in its infancy or nearly nonexistent. This is partly attributable to the severe shortage of architectural capacity compared to the West and the East. There’s also a lack of robust efforts to make architecture an area of public interest. From the perspective outside Africa, critical coverage of the continent is marginal at best for many reasons. We see this across all disciplines—architecture’s no exception. The false premise is that there’s no demand for knowledge of Africa’s architecture.
Does such a thing as African architecture exist?
My answer would be no, not without contextualizing it. Does Asian architecture exist as such, or European architecture? It depends on how we define “Africa” to begin with, and how we define “architecture.” We devoted most of the first volume to this question, approaching its definition through 49 essays that offer theories of African architecture. They show that any definition of African architecture depends not just on questions of style, but on the time frame and modes of architectural production. If you consider that, there are many commonalities between African countries, which allow us to speak of an “African Architecture.”
Africa has never been a collective nor homogenous whole. The continent has always been connected to and engaged with the outside world. These exchanges have influenced everything, from language to art and architecture. If an African architecture did exist, it certainly wouldn’t have a singular language. There are many Africas, each one architecturally multilingual.
Did you arrive at the organization of this publication, to present the work by individual country, early in the process?
Yes, quite quickly. To find the authors, we reached out to architectural organizations in each of the African nation-states. Historically, the boundaries of these nations were drawn quite randomly and violently by colonial powers, but the architecture within those nation-states have their own distinctions and identities. To group the countries within the individual volumes, we followed the United Nations’ regional divisions of Africa.
So the content on the architecture of the 49 individual countries is the result of working with local architects, scholars, writers?
From the start a concerted effort was made to depart from the common approach to presenting a window into these countries from a Western gaze or frame of reference. It was important to give agency to authors to write through their own gaze, to provide local context, nuance, and perspectives often absent in architectural media. The understanding of architecture varies according to how one was trained or interacts with architecture. A lot of writing about architecture in the West is produced by people trained in the West, so they have a certain approach to how they perceive architecture—its function, aesthetics, relevance. We found that people view and experience architecture vastly, so this emphasis on local interaction would produce a more intriguing and insightful survey, capable of helping audiences understand the current practices of African architects as well as architecture’s role in decolonization, neocolonialism, globalism, and their manifestations across the continent at both local and regional scales.
There’s an illuminating outline of project types for the entire series: the number of each kind of project presented. “Urbanism” is the smallest category, with the fewest projects documented. It’s ironic in the continent where urbanism is growing the fastest, no?
Since we chose the format of an architectural guide, the publication primarily presents buildings and projects. The tendency is that urban design doesn’t easily fit into such a prescribed definition, so there are fewer urban design projects as a typology. But growing urbanization is one of the biggest challenges the African continent faces. The background essays that consider the larger context of African architecture examine urbanization in different locations, as well as some 70 city profiles that delve deeper into urbanism.
Europe urbanized over centuries. Africa—with the exception of precolonial urban settlements—is urbanizing over decades. This makes urbanism, as a typology, a more recent arrival on the built landscape. The individual buildings featured in this project, however, span over a millennium. All historical eras are covered through their documentation.
What does this publication reveal about preservation of the continent’s existing architectural heritage and vernacular architecture?
When you think of African heritage—culture, music, food, the arts—rarely does architecture make it as a critical area. Yet it’s within architecture that much of that heritage comes together and manifests itself. Architecture’s position as an important component of tangible heritage is largely underrated, and this publication sheds light on that. Preservation is a very slow process in the West, and it’s even more compounded in Africa: lack of resources, regulatory frameworks, institutional capacities. This project revealed just how wide those gaps are and impressed upon us the need for documentation. It is largely because of this deficiency that Africa constitutes just 9% of the global UNESCO World Heritage sites. We think this publication can contribute to this documentation deficiency.
There’s a wonderful mixture of articles in the volumes, such as those that focus on architectural publications in different counties. Tell us about the importance of such publications to the architecture of sub-Saharan Africa.
We wanted to present architecture in its broadest sense, which includes the people behind it. We also wanted to appeal to students and younger practitioners to see what others are doing. It can stimulate the growing architectural discourse and architectural criticism in these countries.
We also wanted people to be aware of other information resources that are elevating architectural discourse across the continent. Including some of the architecture publications helps raise their profile and brings the conversations about architecture in these publications beyond the local and to a larger audience.
There are some wonderful interviews of young architects and of architectural elders. They give the publication a “personable” flavor. What’s the importance of that?
Most anthologies assemble professional peers, and they present a unified voice or insights that are in parallel with each other. Here, given the complexities present within the architecture of Africa, we wanted to present a diverse community of voices, perspectives, reflections—across generations and disciplines. This approach led to an assortment of articles and essays that were both complementary and contradictory.
With the completion of this ambitious publication, what most surprised you about what you learned, what was revealed to you about architecture in Africa?
Just how little the people on the continent, including architects, know about the buildings that they interact with, much less the architecture in neighboring states. This project created bridges across these divides, and for people to learn more about each other through architecture. As architects, we have a very distinct way of looking at the built environment through a lens that is influenced by our education, which focuses on Western principles and precedents. This project revealed not only what we build, but why we build and how we build. And how African architecture can be influential outside of the continent.
Much of the curricula in African architecture schools is still based on Western models and colonial history. There’s a lot in this publication that can contribute to changing that. To help bring about some change to this we’re donating copies of the guide to schools of architecture throughout the continent in partnership with Architecture Is Free Foundation, and DOM publishers.
Featured image: Swawou School for Girls in Kenema, Sierra Leone, Orkidstudio, 2016. Photo by Peter Dibdin, courtesy of Orkidstudio.