LEARNING FROM ARCHITECTURE, II: WHAT ONLY HISTORY
Recommended Reading: Labelle Prussin, "An Introduction to Indigenous
African Architecture," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians
33 (1974):183-194, and 205; and Suzanne Preston Blier, "Houses are
Human: Architectural Self-Images of Africa's Tamberma," JSAH 42 (1983):
371--382. (Both on reserve).
Other sources: Frank Willett, "African Architecture"in African
Art, chap. 4, pp. 115-137; Julius Gl¸ck, "African Architecture,"
in Douglas Fras, ed., The many Faces of Primitive Art: A Critical Anthology,
Englewood Cliffs NJ, 1966.
Lecture abstract: This week's lecture and section meeting are
devoted to issues of method and practice in architectural history. We look
at "ordinary" architecture in Africa, both to learn about one
of the world's oldest and richest architectural traditions--almost the
only one that still survives from the dawn of human history--and to apply
the same methodology that will are using to understand the Frick Fine Arts
African architecture works on a traditional village scale, rather than
following global architectural styles: the representative works chosen
for today may lead us to some root concepts of African style. It is difficult
to look at architecture in Africa and to hope to cover the entire continent:
my personal experience has been with traditional architecture in East Africa,
among the Geriyama, but the literature is massively slanted to West Africa,
especially to the architecture of the Dogon, Ashanti, Hausa, and Yoruba
peoples. This literature is indeed informative, but only regionally. Trying
to use it to discuss all of Africa would be like using Taos Pueblo in New
Mexico as representative of all American housing.
African architecture is a direct evocation of its physical environment,
and takes its style--and it is extremely stylish--not from abstract aesthetic
notions but from the basic need and image the building has to serve. The
climate of Africa is extremely varied, from forests to grasslands to desert.
Thus the available building materials are also varied, from mud to stone
to thatch, and they change region by region (the way American architecture
once changed regionally, until shipment of materials by railroad "nationalized"
American style in the 1850s).
Sub-Saharan Africa produced some large-scale works, such as the Great
Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe, but on the whole we do not find "architects"
in traditional African building: what we find instead are traditional builders,
who combined a certain priestly function as well. One is impressed above
all by the symbolic imagery of traditional African building. Using mud
may have certain technical disadvantages, but it is probably the most expressive
of all materials. It not only lends itself brilliantly to surface decoration,
but the very shapes of the buildings express their functions and their
ideology. The facades of Dogon houses, for example, have many similarities
to their masks. Much village housing is marked by anthropomorphism: the
house not only houses its owner (and maker), it expresses his or her stage
in life, and is closed down at his or her death.
1) Traditional earthen roundhouses, Tamberma (Batammaliba) region of
Togo and Benin: view and cutaway diagram and elevation, with traditional
names for house parts; figs. 1, 5, 12 in Blier.
2) Houses of the Geriyama tribe, Kenya, E. coast of Africa, 20th century
3) Traditional mud architecture, Bozo region of Mali; fig. 1 in Prussin.
4) Traditional wood openwork screen house, Ghana; fig. 4 in Prussin.
5) Traditional earthen roundhouses, Tallensi region of Ghana; fig.
5 in Prussin.
6) Traditional earthen roundhouses, Konkomba region of Ghana; fig.
12 in Prussin.
7) Traditional stone construction, Dogon region of Mali; fig. 8 in
8) Mud mosque, Kawara, Upper Volta (ex-Ivory Coast)
9) Decorated house facades, Zaria, Nigeria: painted facades and mud
relief, including a bicycle
10) Ribbed beehive clay houses, Musgu tribe, northern Cameroon
11) Mud wall and thatched roof house, Congo, Central Africa
12) Wood-ribbed house, Cameroon
13) The Great Zimbabwe (stone fortress), 14th-15th c., Zimbabwe
14) Cave-house in shape of a human face, Bomarzo, Italy, 16th c.
15) Frank Toker in the Geriyama village of Chonyi
Terms: vernacular, anthropomorphic, traditional