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 Building.
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.
Representative buildings:
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 Prussin.
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