Friday, 13 July 2012

African Architecture

A traditional house in Uganda
Below is an account of the architecture I documented during my cycling expedition from Cairo to Cape Town.  I found it impossible to condense the text into a summary.  Hopefully I succeeded to enclose the interesting details.

I certainely travelled through Africa in the right direction. I started in Egypt which began with the architecture of early civilisation and ended in South Africa which seems as systematically developed as Europe.  The journey made sense as I stumbled or cycled from madness to order.  The Islamic culture drove the importance of the mosques and markets while South Africa comprised supermarkets and offices.

All capital cities throughout Africa were a representation of development and industrialisation.  If a country had been colonized the city displayed a vast number of architectural styles.  Buildings of high status with the classical concrete columns built in the post colonial periods were plentiful. 
Italy reigned Ethiopia for 5 years but besides that it was one of the only countries in East Africa that had not been colonized, because of this the infrastructure was poor.  Further down past the Ethiopian border the colonial structures stand beside more modern Corbusier style minimalist concrete blocks furthermore steel and glass offices built in more recent years copying the modernism of the Western world. Times were changing; in the city centres Africa is developing.

National Gallery in Lusaka Zambia

The villages are a complete contrast.  The buildings are constructed with any material found; earth, straw, mud, wood... All local materials are used efficiently. Weaved palm leaves were a very popular choice for a wall or roof construction and palm tree trunks were used as bridges over waterways.

Weaved grass facade
Most of the residential buildings were made using traditional techniques which had been adapted over the years.   The people of the village all help one another and teach each other the skills needed.  Everyone in the village the families and the communities all construct their own dwelling.

Clay house using glass bottles to allow light into the space

A restaurant using heather for the facade
A weaved rondavel hut with quiver tree chair stumps

Throughout Africa people use stones or mud blocks to raise the structural timber rafts appropriate to the food storage huts. The blocks prevent insects reaching the food. The air can also flow through the bottom of the hut providing good natural ventilation to dry out the maize food.

Food storage hut

Rondavel Huts

Below the Ethiopian border heading more central East Africa there were small changes in the traditional style housing and building techniques.  The vernacular Rondavel huts were very common, constructed by the people of the village from locally sourced sustainable materials. These dome-like round houses are made from cedar poles, linked with bamboo and reeds for walling.  The roof is thatched with grass or banana leaves.  There has been very simple adaptation with time, people use their initiative and work with nature.  During the colonial period clay walling became common but more recently, these have been replaced with adobe or sun-dried brick walling.  Brick is seen as development as it is a more durable material.  There were of course many alterations depending on the materials available. 

The entrance to a Church in the highlands near Gondar

Traditional housing is a mixture of oval and square plan structures in Rwanda.  The houses were again built with any materials pliable.  Locally sourced wood is a very popular building material. The european style building is readily visible because of aluminium being used on the roofs. This material is cheaper and quicker option but the people of the village noticed it was not good for natural ventilation, the iron absorbed the heat which was uncomfortable for the dwellers.  The thatch (chopped weaved grass from the side of the road) would be used if people had the time and skill.  The cost and time to build a thatch roof was higher not to mention the regular maintenance work which is why the corrugated iron sheet became so popular and is now widely used.


Egypt's most outstanding pieces were built to create architectural wonders to please the gods and secure a comfortable afterlife. This is when Northern Africa was the independent centre of civilisation.

The Pyramids of Giza
Today Cairo is overpopulated, a city of over 15 million people. The apartment blocks are simple tall high rise concrete blocks. All of the roofs are flat as there is no rain to run off. Some apartments appear unfinished as the steel reinforcing rods protrude from the rooftop. They are purposely incomplete so people do not have to pay tax. This is also convenient for growing Muslim families as they can easily extend the building.

Cairo tower blocks

The European exploration of Africa began with the Greeks and Romans in 332BC.  The domination started across certain regions of Africa and continues still to this day.  As more people and more influences mixed the structures and designs, the architecture became as rich as the vast savannah's and nature.

Some buildings didn't last due to the inaccurate uses and materials in which they were constructed.  Others have and will be maintained to last through the test of time because people built them themselves.

In the late 19th century, after the slave trade, the European imperial powers engaged in a major territorial scramble. The European colonisation period left very obvious architecture styles in certain regions. The architectural designs in Cairo were matched with the beauty and modernity of Paris. There are public squares, roundabouts and buildings with elaborate steel decoration on the balconies.

Architectural detail in Cairo

The British colonised Sudan but this was not obvious cycling in the North through the empty Sahara desert from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum. In this region lived the Nubian people. This was the start of my research into vernacular architecture.

As I am very passionate about vernacular architecture there is more information and detail in the next section of my blog.  Vernacular architecture is the use of traditional materials and construction methods that have been adapted through time for specific cultural needs.

The Nubians are an Ethnic group originally from northern Sudan and southern Egypt.  Ancient Nubians were famous for their vast wealth, their trade between Central Africa and the lower Nile valley civilizations including Egypt, their skill and precision with the bow, their 23-letter alphabet, the use of deadly poison on the heads of their arrows, their great military, their advanced civilization and their century-long rule over the united upper and lower Egyptian kingdoms.   

The Nubian buildings have adapted a very unique style of architecture:

• A perimeter wall; used to mark the territory, enclosed as a good barrier for protection and safety.

• One welcoming grand entrance; the bright colours elaborate the door, the door is painted using the natural colours found in the desert

• Decorated features based on a temple; the dome represents Christian morals of the father, son and the holy spirit

• Coloured rendered walls; they decorate their walls white or use the natural colours found in the desert

• Concrete foundations; made using massive stones from the desert filled with sand then a small amount of concrete mix.  The design is therefore the same strength using as little concrete as possible to keep the cost down.

• Two different types of bricks with varying strengths are used to balance cost, time and quality. The stronger and weaker bricks alternate to give the building a combined strength. The stronger bricks are cut from the clay ground of the Nile. The weaker bricks are compacted bricks of sand collected from the desert. The bricks are watered for 7 days after being laid in the morning and evening to improve the strength.

A traditional Nubian house

The standard Sudanese housing built were often one storey earth and mud walls that seemed to disappear into the sand dunes of the desert. The houses had flat roofs as this country hardly ever experienced rain.  There were some more Arabic style developed two storey settlements. These houses were designed to not obstruct anyones privacy. Due to the strict islamic laws the privacy of a house is very important to a person.

Another style of architecture was the housing of the nomads.  The oval shaped domes in the deserts were  easily built each night by nomads who transported their camels to Egypt to be sold for better trade.  I also spotted some very original architecture which I had never seen before.  There were some three storey high mounds of mud protruding inwards shaped like a pyramid. I found out these were not only built as bat habitats but were very important tombs built as a grave for the chief of the village.

Cascading mud tomb
The capital city of Khartoum was very eerie and even the market square was dead past 10 o clock in the evening.  Most of the city centre was overtaken by government ministry buildings.  Walking further into the suburbs there were derelict decayed mansions reminding us of the rich colonial families that once lived there.   


Christianity spread across Europe to Ethiopia and there are many early Churches with some tremendous wood carving decoration.

Christian church in the highlands near Gondar, Ethiopia

I visited a Castle in Gondar which was built in the 16th Century by the portuguese. The colossal medieval style doors and hallways were built with local stone and gigantic timber rafts.

Fasilides Castle Ethiopia
Wooden Settement

Wood was a very popular construction material in areas of high density forest. People made the whole village using wood. Cattle pens, perimeter walls, raised food storage and chicken sheds.  
Steve and I visited a tribal village in 10km from Konso, South Ethiopia.  It was like a maze, everything was covered with wooden fencing.  The built pathways connected the houses and entertainment areas which were all made out of local stone and wood.   There were only three openings into the settlement.  One was for the water collection from the river, the second was for the waste and toilets and the third was the public entrance and exit.  When I heard the stories of the chiefs and tribal fighting I felt like I was back in the era of the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Tribal villages in the outskirts of Konso, Ethiopia
 From Ethiopia downwards the rondavels and rectangular housing designs used in each country were very similar.  The materials were different which came down to what people could get their hands on in that certain region.

There was an obvious change of building style and materials in Rwanda.  Clay tiles were built locally and used on Roofs (if not they used thatch layers of an earth clay mix). 


Zanzibar was a different country and very unique.  The wide selection of colonial architecture has been based on many external influences. This island has a rich mixture of cultures. It was first colonized by Bantu speaking people. Eventually trading developed with Arabia, Persia, India and Asia. Zanzibar has also been ruled by the Portuguese, the English and the Omanis prior to its independence.
Most of the architecture is Arabic, which means the walls are very thick, the houses tall and with square and simple facades. Many of the buildings have a central courtyard going up through all the floors, giving ventilation.
Decoration has been added, usually by Indian craftsmen, in the form of wooden balconies and carved doors and stairways. 

Narrow alleyways of Stone Town Zanzibar


Namibia and South Africa were visibly more wealthy countries.  Some of the architecture and housing standards improved considerably.  There were layers of walling and insulation with different rendering solutions.  There were many green sustainable solutions being used to ensure sustainability.
The British post colonial era left the white people with huge farms and houses.  The blacks often worked for the whites and lived in there own built rectangular shack made of local materials.  I often saw farms with a decayed farmhouse and people living in shacks right beside them as this is what people were familiar with.  This is the type of housing people could build and maintain by themselves.   

Unfortunately due to the slowly changing apartheid and land ownership rights in Namibia and South Africa the whites still dominate the land and wealth. I often cycled past wide spans of squatting settlements. These people had no jobs and no money so it was almost impossible for them to rise back up the ladder to comfortable levels. These areas are a major task for the building industry to tackle.

A shack built with fabric and materials
In Otjivarongo, Namibia I stumbled across a Clay House Project which was set up and partly funded by Europeans to improve the housing in a squatting settlement. I was given a site tour and investigated the factors of people housing project (the local people acting and helping to build their buildings constructed in their own local community). The Clay House Project recognised the importance of teacher training as it gave many local people jobs. Time and effort was made to secure the understanding of the construction materials and process in one location. The people who were trained on this site made the cement roof tiles and clay bricks. Everyone who secured a job with Clay House Project worked well.

Clay House Project Namibia
The Clay House Project built 200 houses in the suburbs of Otjivarongo which was initially a huge squatting settlement. For a sustainable efficient process to work the plan was to spread the training between the communities in this suburban area. Unfortunately this was a difficult process and most of the communities did not concentrate and learn about the understanding of the system. Some houses had to be rebuilt as building standards are very hard to control. Others that were built efficiently had deteriorated as the local people had not understood the need for maintenance.

Standard Clay House
On the positive side once the projects were complete some local people used their initiative and built extensions using slightly different available materials.

South Africa

I spotted a very interesting reuse of a structure in South Africa.  People had turned past marine equipment into a dwelling.

Construction offices in South Africa
In Cape Town I went into the housing association office and learnt about the numerous N2 Gateway projects which were huge spans of squats next to the motorway coming into Cape Town. An engineer designed simple low cost housing which was being built quickly and efficiently. He mentioned the projects had initially been a PHP (people housing project) scheme but even if some contractors were next to the local people and available for mentor the local people made mistakes and this scheme was unsuccessful. These houses were going up to quickly and mistakes were causing time delays. The scheme involving the people was swiftly scrapped.

Having investigated the processes I think it is important to make the time and effort with every person willing to help and join to build their own sustainable community. If the skills are not passed on then the people have not risen from their low status and the future for them will still look bleak.

After learning the negative factors of the Clay House Project and having it repeated in the housing association in South Africa I was pleased to visit a very inspirational office called Vernon & Collis Associates in Cape Town.
The ethics for the office blew me away. Any project focused on the investigation of materials on site or industrial waste in the area. This reuse and recycle material palette would then instigate and collaborate with the thoughts of the client to come up with a sustainable design. Projects used stones, rocks, sand used to build retaining walls, agricultural drains, foundations, driveways and gabion walls. Under felt waste from industrial sites have been used below corrugated iron as roof insulation. This was Process Architecture; materials then design. Zero waste construction, low carbon emissions.

A sustainable design included;

• Minimal technological resources. Any projects were simple designs that generated minimal waste. The design used screws and screwdrivers instead of heavy handed electrical tools. This would not only minimise electrical usage but also ensure the construction process would be easy so anyone could learn to build. The building was made using materials in their original form not only so aesthetically they would be beautiful and natural but also so the material would be easy to recycle.

• Maximum labour skills. The most amazing aspect that had been practiced and failed in other projects was the people skills and training. Each project Vernon Collis & Associates designed made an emphasis on passing on the skills. The construction team put time and effort into making sure they trained up students or unqualified people introducing building workshops for all.

Minimalistic style shops made out of local materials
Please do not forget to research the traditional roots of architecture.  The architecture and construction used by the people and the cultures that has been tested through time.  Some solutions, lessons and techniques that I have researched are really valuable to improve the architecture for the future.  
There is so much beauty in the world lets use it and enhance it into our built environment.

The beautiful form of rock; a perfect wall, a natural creation
Toilet block in the botanical gardens, Cape Town

Monday, 9 January 2012

Out of Africa


Streets of Cairo

Nubian Architecture
Nubian Brick work
Nubian House

Bantu House

Capital City Kigali

Faces of sorrow

Tree House

My mind
There is always a bridge to cross...
Skeleton Structure

Rural Village

In the bush

African Sundown

Waterberg National Park Namibia

Green Desert
Sandy Mountains of Namibia

Dunes of colour
 Mountains of South Africa
Rock Formations

Cape Town

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Vernacular Architecture

Buildings locally developed with the test of time

Maybe there is a reason why Africa is still a non developed continent. Maybe they can sense the trouble of a developed capitalist society.

Vernacular architecture is the construction and building design of settlements that relate to their contexts and available resources. They are customarily owned or community built utilising traditional techniques.

The architecture focuses on meeting the specific needs accommodating the values, economies and ways of living of the cultures that produce them.

Vernacular architecture is constantly adapted and developed overtime as needs and circumstances change.  We can learn from these designs and must include some factors in the architecture of today. 

Church in Ethiopia constructed using local materials

Chicken and food storage huts

Vernacular architecture in Africa is fascinating. Africa has more beauty than I could have ever imagined. The people have lived with the nature; the buildings shape the surroundings; the materials of the surroundings shape the buildings. The architecture has evolved with nature.

The buildings are suited to their context

In the villages people young or old construct their own house themselves. While building, learning and teaching themselves off others people use the technologies that have adapted through time. These are often improved with green solutions to enhance and create beautiful sustainable buildings for the future. The people in the villages have low income yet save and buy solar panels as they understand the importance of using green energy. People see it is essential to care for the land and their environment. Solar panels do work extremely well in the tropical dry climate of East Africa.

I heard a story from an architect in Namibia about the American Indians. They lived and grew in one settlement building and looking after their cattle. One day they just upped and left. The reason for this was that they knew they were becoming too developed. The technology and system had become unsustainable. The land was being damaged.

Our future systems are perfected and heavily advanced which is very good for thermal comfort and ease.  We have maximised development but before overuse in materials and design we need to think of being sustainable for our future generations. Our buildings live and breathe like humans. With all of this technology it is essential to build using only green policies. There needs to be investigations and research on only the local materials and products in the area to secure zero carbon projects reusing and recycling materials efficiently.

With such powerful skills and research we should focus on:

• Finding quality materials sourced locally in a sustainable manner

• Reducing the cost of green solutions

• Spending time to research the use of simple construction techniques which can easily be passed onto the less knowledgeable or inexperienced people