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From thatched huts to Wakanda, a massive new architectural guide explores Sub-Saharan Africa

Philipp Meuser wanted to find a comprehensive look at the architecture of West Africa. When it didn’t exist, he and Adil Dalbai designed their own.

From thatched huts to Wakanda, a massive new architectural guide explores Sub-Saharan Africa
Mosque of Dioulasso-Bâ in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, a fine example of Sudano-Sahelian architecture made of earth and wooden beams. [Photo: © Philipp Meuser/courtesy Dom Publishers]
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In 2014, Philipp Meuser was looking for information about architecture in Africa. His Berlin-based architecture firm, Meuser Architekten, was designing two German embassies, in Mali and Ghana, and he wanted to get a better sense of the history and variety of architecture in West Africa. But aside from a few academic research projects and one-off building profiles, he and his team weren’t having much luck. “There was no comprehensive overview,” Meuser says. “This was the motivation in the beginning to start doing an architectural guide.”

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Seven years later, Meuser and his colleague Adil Dalbai have edited a sweeping architectural guide for the entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa for Dom Publishers, featuring more than 800 buildings from 49 countries. Illustrated by more than 5,000 images, the seven-volume guide fills more than 3,400 pages, and features essays and building profiles from an international group of more than 300 authors, including original essays from noted African architects like David Adjaye and Francis Kéré.

[Photo: courtesy Dom Publishers]

Covering a wide range of architectural styles—from the indigenous and colonial to the modernist and 21st century—the guide is a significant attempt to fill the gap Meuser and his team faced back in 2014. Dalbai and guide collaborator Livingstone Mukasa were recently awarded a grant from the Graham Foundation to expand this work into an online network to share more knowledge and information about African architecture.

But creating a guide to nearly an entire continent—now home to more than 1 billion people—is hardly a straightforward task. Here, Meuser and Dalbai discuss how they tried to encompass Sub-Saharan Africa’s architecture without oversimplifying it.

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[Photo: Marcus Finder/courtesy Dom Publishers]

Fast Company: The scope of this project is a bit daunting. How did you go about tackling such a wide and diverse subject?

Adil Dalbai: We have architects involved, authors, journalists, photographers, all kinds of different professional backgrounds, and all of them brought with them their own views, their own take on the topics [and] countries they wrote about, so it’s totaled into this polyphonous work of many. We also invited participation from renowned scholars, professors from various universities from Africa, the African diaspora, and also from countries across the global south to give their input on how architecture in Africa can be perceived, what are the narratives that exist, which ones are changing, and how can we overcome the clichés and stereotypical tropes.

How did you go about selecting buildings?

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Philipp Meuser: We do have hospitals, schools, and other social infrastructure, but for us it was also important to point out and to focus on everyday architecture. You’ll find the icons, but we also wanted to show normal architecture, how it is in reality.

AD: One of our aims was to bridge [what’s shown in] glossy architecture magazines where you have a luxury project with nice photos or some resorts and hotels, and then “slum porn,” as it’s sometimes called. We tried to show the whole range. And we do that by means of not only describing buildings, but also giving a lot of context information, which is crucial to understand how these buildings are embedded socially, spatially, geographically, historically, and politically.

Xavier Vilalta, Lideta Mercato shopping center, 2017. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. [Photo: Dom Publishers]

Colonialism is a recurring theme in many African countries. It’s also evident in the built environment, with architectural styles that have been shaped by outside influences, and not always in positive ways. How did you address this in the guide?

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AD: In some countries, the colonial architectural legacy is very disputed, very controversial, and we tried to reflect this in the text. Because in some places colonial times are not so long ago, and there was a lot of struggle. In other countries, the colonial architecture is very much incorporated into the contemporary national identity, in a way. It’s adapted and accepted as part of the current built reality. Of course in some places it is still relevant to challenge these sometimes uncritical modes of perpetuating this architectural heritage. But you can find all kinds of different ways this heritage is dealt with. And in some countries, although a minority, there are even initiatives to preserve and restore this heritage, of course with the historical context of when and how it was built.

The Reunification Monument (Armand Salomon, 1974) in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé. [Photo: © Adil Dalbai/courtesy Dom Publishers]

PM: There were some urban agglomerations in Africa before the Europeans, before the Indians, before the Arabs arrived. And these urban agglomerations were different from what we understand as urban culture. These were more marketplaces, and bigger villages. And in my understanding, I would say that the Sub-Saharan African city typology today is very much related to the agglomeration of villages. Of course in the 21st  century you have denser city centers, and Africa has a high rate of urbanization. Within the next 30 years, more than 400 million people will move to cities or be born in cities, so that means there’s going to be a complete change in those cities, and the question is: How will those cities be developed? Are they following an Asian strategy or a European strategy or an American strategy, or will they find their own strategy?

AD: Most of the people in Europe or the U.S. that I showed the draft chapters to, many who have never been to Africa or had no special interest in Africa before, they were surprised to see the diversity, the variety. There is this whole spectrum, from the round houses to actual high rise, glass and steel, modernist, hyperfuturistic buildings. There are a lot of African cities with these skylines. Not exactly Wakanda, but very close to it.

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Yaoundé City Hall on Place de l’Indépendance, Yaoundé (Armand Salomon, 1982). [Photo: © Adil Dalbai/courtesy Dom Publishers]

There’s naturally a huge variety of building types and styles in the 49 countries included in the guide. Were there any similarities or common themes?

PM: You also see this relationship between decorating the body and decorating the space . . . between climate, material, and construction methods. Of course, you see these round huts, with the cone-thatched roof. You see that everywhere. But if you go deeper into the details, you see that they are all different. From village to village, they have different decorations, different sizes, different orders of the houses within the village. This is something that you can also see in the modern slum areas, places that do not have urban infrastructure. You see similar patterns.

Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar (Beijing Institute of Architecture, 2018). [Photo: © Adil Dalbai/courtesy Dom Publishers]

AD: It’s very difficult in a vast region and 49 countries to find very specific commonalities. But what we see, especially with the African authors in the book, is this common feeling that right now is a time when there are a lot of things happening all over the African continent. Even though in some places the economic situation is bad and some places are riddled by war and internal conflict and crisis, most of the places in Africa have a lot of drive, a lot of energy, a lot of new young architects, because there are a lot of new architecture schools and the first cohorts are graduating. The drive among the young African architects to find new solutions and their own solutions in relation to climate and material and construction, this is certainly something that can be found all over the continent.