Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
It includes centuries-old buildings made with mud and entire cities built on stilts.
How do traditional homes in Gambia differ from those in Cameroon? What materials are popular in Sub-Saharan Africa compared to the continent’s northern regions?
Those were the sorts of questions the architect Jon Sojkowski hoped to answer as he prepared to teach architectural design at Copperbelt University in Kitwe, Zambia, as part of the Peace Corps program. What he discovered was a serious dearth of available information on traditional African housing design—either in books or online. To be fair, it was 1997 and the internet was nowhere near what it is today, but Sojkowski says documentation and research on the topic can be hard to find online even now.
So he decided to fill in the gap. In 2014, Sojkowski created the first online database of African vernacular architecture, using photos he’d taken during his research trips to Zambia, Malawi, and Swaziland, as well as photos from Flickr and photographer submissions. So far, his database includes photos for 48 countries, and he’s asking more people to submit photos.
African cities count among some of the world’s fastest-growing urban centers, so much of the continent’s existing design research centered around urban landscapes. But Sojkowski argues that traditional architecture should be part of the conversation as well.
“Architecture is as much part of culture as music, language, and sport,” he says. Just as temples tell the history of Japan and island housing helps define Greece, Africa’s vernacular architecture is a huge part of the continent’s unique diversity.
On the southern coast of Benin in West Africa, for example, there’s an entire city built on stilts. From churches to banks to even hospitals, the tradition of building bamboo huts above the ocean dates back hundreds of years.
Mali, also in West Africa, has entire cities made of mud, some more intricate than others. Sun-dried mud has been used to build mosques, archways, and homes, a technique that’s been passed down from generation to generation since the 14th century.
Sojkowski worries that these building types, made with materials that are abundant in Africa and sustainable, will soon be lost to history because of a misconception that they are inefficient, outdated and only used by the poor. At one point during his research, he met a man who told him he wanted a Western-style metal roof. “I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because then I would be somebody,’” Sojkowski recalls.
Such people can end up spending too much of their savings on materials that aren’t efficient, says David Rifkind, an architectural historian at Florida International University, who isn’t involved in the project. “Traditional techniques like thatching have been developed over centuries and can keep the heat out during the day and the warmth in at night, whereas metal roofs make [the home] into the baking oven during the day.”
But he says despite such misconceptions and the fact that much of Africa’s younger population is moving into urban areas, traditional architecture won’t disappear anytime soon: “Not everybody is moving, and there will still be half a billion people living in the countryside, primarily in traditional dwellings.”
Sojkowski agrees, saying that for now, he just wants his database to create awareness about this unique part of Africa’s culture. “I think that once people see the beauty and practicality of the architecture, they will appreciate it,” he says. “And once something is appreciated there is a value placed on an object.”