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Africa Vernacular Architecture

Documenting vernacular architecture for preservation.

Jon Twingi

on 27 January 2014

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Transcript of Africa Vernacular Architecture

Documentation for Preservation
Creating a data base for the preservation of African Vernacular Architecture.
1. Has a beauty.
2. Exists and is sustainable.
3. Part of a country's culture.
Vernacular Architecture
Genius Loci
"The Spirit of a Place"
Every place has a certain feel, a distinctive atmosphere.
New York skyline
Greek Island housing
Japanese temple
Every place has unique characteristics.
Greek Island housing
Every country in the world is unique.
Architecture in Africa is as diverse as the climate and topography.
Climate Zones
The type of soil greatly effects the characteristics for bricks and rammed earth.
Roof Material
Other Materials
Mud and pole
Vernacular Architecture has been evident in Africa for hundreds of years.
Building techniques have been passed from generation to generation.
A culture has the need and the skills to construct a habitable structure.
This knowledge is taught to the next generation and it multiplies.
Construction skills as well as the structures themselves grew and spread with population migrations.
With these migrations came the need for adaptation to specific locations and available materials.
People will build what they believe in.
Construction adaptation came from viewing a technique that worked... then accepting and finally copying for one's self.
But then... Colonization brought in a substantial cultural shift which turned things around.
Western cities came into being.
Western materials, western building techniques, and more importantly, western organization were introduced.
Cities became the center for power and wealth, creating opportunities which indigenous people migrated to.
With western architecture becoming a status symbol a division developed between western and the more traditional ways.
... cultural shifts occurred.
The prevalent belief developed that western materials were superior and desired compared to traditional ones.
symbol of wealth
the past
sub standard
not correct
Once again... people will build what they believe in
Because of beliefs.. the use of vernacular materials and techniques began to decline.
As people experienced city life, their perceptions changed. They came to believe that western materials are superior.
When people returned to their villages they brought their belief in western materials and techniques, and if economically feasible, would construct in this fashion.
The desire and the knowledge of vernacular architecture is being forgotten. People "disbelieve" in vernacular practices.
It is important to the preservation of a part of a countries culture that this trend away from the vernacular must be reversed.
Chilonge House, Zambia
Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, Zimbabwe
Vernacular architecture is sustainable .
Safari lodges
are one exception that really embraces the vernacular.... and are stunningly beautiful.
Yes... they are built for tourism Yes.. they use some modern materials such as concrete and steel connections... but the majority are built using vernacular materials and techniques. The important point is that they are constructed correctly.
Safari lodges in Africa
It's ironic these structures are built for visitors on the premise that this is how Africa "should look". And the look is
which an important component of African vernacular is the concept of
Define "sustainable"?
An architecture that uses materials which are indigenous to an area and are also renewable.
Availability of materials is solely dependent on climate zones.
The main factor for soil composition is clay content.
Thatch is found in tropical areas.
Palm leaves are located in humid tropical and equatorial areas.
Types of sustainable materials
And with this division...
These are the current "truths" that people believe.
Sustainability is the balance and mix of social, economic and environmental factors.
Social mores
Architecture defines a society... from high rises in cities to the most basic shelter in remote villages.
Architecture provides shelter.
This knowledge of vernacular construction techniques is an art and is in danger of becoming lost and forgotten as these techniques are being abandoned.
Once the knowledge is lost.... it is gone forever!!
There is a need...
This project is not intended to change mindsets.
Or to change policies.
My goal is simply to document existing vernacular architecture.
Before it disappears.
At the least, what is needed is pictures.
There is information out there. All one has to do is research on the world wide web.
But... you might be surprised how little information is truly available.
It is said that "a picture is worth a thousand words".
A picture can also preserve a piece of culture.
type in "vernacular architecture".. or "traditional architecture"... there are usually 3 categories for a specific country.
1. A web site that has pictures but little to no explanation.
2. A web site that is usually a thesis paper but contains no images.
3. A web site selling someone's research book.
A data base of African Vernacular Architecture
Which is:
1. Comprehensive
3. Available free on the internet
Now we have:
.... a need to document African vernacular architecture
.... for preservation
now for the

2. Analyzed & Organized
Is common in most countries and is harvested after the first frost which kills off the leaves.
Since the source is close to the construction site, it makes it is more sustainable then other materials, which are produced elsewhere and transported.
Thatch has incredibly high insulation values.
These walls also have high compressive strength.
Clay content is one of the major components regarding "good" soil.
Has minimum environmental effects... it's basically "on-site".
Adobe walls, or blocks have very high thermal mass properties. The walls will absorb heat in the day, keeping the structure cool then releases the heat at night
Gum tree poles are also available in many countries and is farmed on a 10 year grow cycle.
They can grow up to 13 meters.
They are able to support heavy loads.
They are treated with creosote... which is not great environmentally speaking, but it prevents rotting.
In Africa, bamboo is not used as extensively as is in Asia.
Used where it grows, which makes it a very sustainable material.
An extremely fast growth cycle.
Due to the cellular structure it very strong.
Due to climatic factors and a cultural connection to the land, Africans spend a lot of time outdoors.
Trees are used as shade and shelter.
Tall grass and bushes define a space, especially a homestead.
When a breeze passes through foliage, evapotranspiration occurs (the evaporation of water from leaves).
There are many factors which create and define a specific culture.
Do a search...
It has been done:
with my research for Zambian Vernacular Architecture
I had a unique opportunity....
I was a volunteer teaching architecture at the University.
After for living in a mud hut for the previous two years... I had an understanding and an appreciation for vernacular architecture.
This was also the time of the explosion of the internet and I decided that instead of doing research for a book.. that would be available to the few... it would be better to do as a web site for the education of the entire world.
Bamboo is a rapidly growing material, found in tropical areas and has great building properties.
Mud from soils and poles from trees are readily available materials in most countries.
My research was organized into 4 trips to the four major geo-cultural areas.
How To:
Use of nature
What type of materials are being used?
What is the size (length/ width) of these materials?
Construction materials include thatch, bricks, mud, poles, and other materials
What is the shape of the main dwelling structure?
Round, square, rectangular, L-plan or other?
The overall size of the structure
Is there a verandah attached... is it covered?
There are other structures besides the main dwelling.
There is a huge connection between the people and the land.
Many daily functions occur outside, in the compound.
How is the homestead laid out... between public and private spaces?
How is nature itself used to define space?
Are there any obvious influences from outside the vernacular culture?
Any attempt to add beauty to a structure is considered decoration?
Paintings are very common on the side of structures.
Other countries
Community buildings
In a family's homestead, there are functional structures such as latrines or graineries as well as areas for outdoor cooking and social spaces.
A village may also have:
These parameters can be applied to every country.
Universities with Schools of Architecture
Professional Architecture groups
Member of UNESCO
Missionary groups
Volunteer Organizations
Peace Corps
Irish Aid
An existing data base
and that is what I did.
The project worked because there was a partnership.
The process produces parameters that can be applied to a "place".
These areas share common:
The parameters can be applied to every village.
a researcher
with proper work permits.
established a working relationship with an University
The University provided:
"home base"
access to a computer
also procures funding
funding provided:
stipends for a fellow staff member (translator), driver and researcher. This would be for food and lodging.
fuel for the trips.
film and the development of (no longer needed)
... the collection
... the analysis
... the organization
... the presentation
.... for preservation.
412 kilometers
724 kilometers
531 kilometers
467 kilometers
If one wants to research African Vernacular Architecture,,,,,
.... the information must be there.
Data must be "placed in the cloud"
But... data needs to be collected
The data needs to be analyzed
The data needs to be organized
Finally... the data must be presented
My decision was to document Zambian Vernacular Architecture.....
but what to look for document??
A researcher, obtains a grant or grants, to provide funding for the entire project. This, would be the most expensive option.
"home base"
The University provided use of the Departments vehicle and also which could best be described as a "home base", a bed and access to a computer.
A small grant paid fuel for the trips, stipends for the researcher, the fellow researcher and the driver. This stipend was for food and lodging on the trips.
This is how it worked:
Not only is there a need to document and preserve African vernacular architecture, but it must be promoted as well.
I look forward to hear from you with comments, questions, suggestions or someone you think could move this project forward.
These initial parameters of collection is a good start.
What to collect and document:
This is due to:
Vernacular architecture in many African countries has been slowly disappearing over generations.
Traditionally, a culture would build with what materials are readily available and not travel far to gather these building materials.
The following are the most basic building materials:
"The thing always happens that you really believe in; and the belief in a thing makes it happen."
Easily perceived
Easily loved
Easily repeated
Frank Lloyd Wright
Are the materials resourced locally?
Is there any reason behind the decorations?
It is both an art and more importantly, a part of a countries culture.
My project will explain:
is important about vernacular architecture.
it is essential to document existing conditions.
this project can be accomplished.
If people build what they believe in, they will not build what is decline and in danger of being lost.
Vernacular materials are sustainable and have great material properties. The problem is that vernacular has come to be believed as sub-standard... and that is just a myth that must be corrected.
This project is not only seeking possible grant funding but also to develop partnerships with organizations. These organizations could be with in-country groups such as governments, Architecture organizations, NGO's or even volunteer organizations that have people in villages.
In this day and age of social media partnerships can develop as never seen before.
the data was collected...
and presented
I leave you with my favorite Bemba saying....
"Wende bwino mune"...
Travel well my friend.
One possible option:
This was one way that the project could work....

but there are other ways.
With a possible partnership items like "homebase" and transportation could be provided for.
Full transcript