Monday, January 30, 2017

Architecture West Africa

In previous articles (AR September 2009 and AR February 2010), I described the vernacular architecture I experienced while driving down the west coast of Africa. The route was dictated mostly by the availability of roads, avoidance of hostile areas and a small architectural detour into Burkina Faso. I discovered that vernacular architecture is not grouped by national boundaries, but rather by climatic region.
Due to high levels of poverty, the vast majority of West Africans live in shelters made of the cheap, natural materials or vegetation found around them. As native vegetation is an expression of climate, grouping architecture by region links it directly to construction techniques. Building solutions and forms have thus evolved from the availability of materials and in response to climate. And while there may be an infinite number of architectural variations between villages, inhabitants are still limited to using what is available locally.
Six major climate regions span Africa’s length. Driving south to the equator, these go from Mediterranean to desert, Sahelian, savannah (also known as a tropical climate with dry season), humid tropical to equatorial climates. As I passed the equator, these reversed until culminating in the equable Mediterranean climate of South Africa. Heading south, it was possible to predict (with relative accuracy) climate and therefore vegetation, allowing me to suppose the types of building materials, techniques and architectural forms that might be particular to certain regions. Crossing the equator, I wanted to prove that I had been right in grouping African vernacular architecture by climate, expecting to see the sorts of buildings I had already experienced in corresponding climates north of the equator.
I crossed the equator deep in Gabon. Movement through the equatorial rainforest is slow and dangerous, restrictive to both life and architecture. The predominant building technique across all regions involves a timber lattice or cage, which is then covered in a mud plaster that expands as it dries, strengthening the structure. Roofs are typically constructed with reeds or grasses and windows left open, exposing the lattice in order to maintain structural integrity. This unusual technique dominates a climatic region covering literally thousands of miles. I first witnessed it in Sierra Leone, again in Liberia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, the Republic of the Congo and deep in its neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo. This begs a difficult question: were these identical construction techniques developed in isolated pockets or dispersed through trade and travel?

The spread of knowledge across northern Africa has traditionally been impelled by a number of factors. Small empires such as the Mali empire cultivated and spread knowledge; Islam grew and developed; and the nomadic tribes of Berbers and Bedouins travelled and traded over huge distances, bringing goods and ideas from elsewhere. But life in equatorial Africa has always been very different. Communities are small and fragmented - there are over 10,000 tribes in what is now Nigeria alone. Given the difficulties of travel, combined with the danger of animals and tropical disease, how were these construction techniques disseminated? My sense is that, though land travel in the region is difficult, people (and their ideas) moved by rivers and the sea.
As with the equatorial regions, there is a strong correlation between building types of the humid tropical and savannah climates on both sides of the equator. In the Congos I witnessed the same grass-roofed, mud-walled huts typical of Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Togo and Benin. In the drier tropical savannah climate of Angola, these mutated into huts with increased air circulation, enclosed by lightweight walls of reed and timber. However, beyond these regions, the similarities in vernacular architecture diminished. I now understand that things are far more complicated in Africa than they first appear to be. Undoubtedly, climate is a major shaping force, but there is also a significant human influence.
It is also important to acknowledge the differences between northern and southern Africa. To get some sense of this, the journey to the equator took four months, passing through 18 African countries. By contrast, the journey from the equator to Cape Town in South Africa took only one month and passed through six countries. This is mainly due to geography, but it is also to do with infrastructure. Better infrastructure promotes trade and, as in other parts of the world, many African communities develop and thrive along major transport routes.
Access to imported materials negates the need for a more improvised, local vernacular. With the exception of the Democratic Republic of Congo, vernacular architecture is less common south of the equator.
Without doubt the most memorable examples of African vernacular were all sited in some of the poorest countries in the world, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau. Conversely, South Africa, Namibia and Angola have a far higher GDP and GDP per capita, so buildings tend to be more ‘evolved’. Angola has oil money and substantial credit from China to rebuild public infrastructure. Namibia exports minerals and diamonds and its economy is closely linked with South Africa. South Africa has an abundance of natural resources and well-developed financial sectors. Even the Republic of the Congo has oil money and new roads, thanks in part to its president Denis Sassou Nguesso who has had a tarmac road built to speed his journey from the capital Brazzaville to his home village of Edou in the north of the country. Another human factor is population size and distribution. Namibia, for instance, has the second lowest population density in the world, after Mongolia. In more densely populated Angola, however, nearly 60 per cent of the population live in urban environments; similarly in South Africa this figure is over 60 per cent. These factors all have a profound effect on vernacular architecture, traditionally found in rural settings.
To a lesser extent, cultural influences produce variations between north and south. It was noticeable that the Sahel climate and desert regions south of the equator (such as the Namib Desert) are devoid of tent structures associated with the Sahara because there are no Bedouin and Berber tribes in this region.
Thriving trade routes did not exist south of the equator and Islam is not prominent, so there are no casbahs or moulded mud mosques.
But while south of the equator might be without the influence of nomadic tribes, there are many other ethnic groups in their place. In the Republic of the Congo I stayed with an ethnic group called the Bakongo or Kongo people, whose architecture was very different to anything I had seen before. Structures were rectangular, with pitched roofs made from a structural timber frame completed with woven walls and roofs. In some instances they also had slot windows and sliding doors. Construction was undertaken in stages, built in equal modules of varying arrangements; some in a U-shape around a small garden, others in a line. Those dwellings arranged in a line had pitched roofs in different directions that produced a very distinctive assemblage. Inside the houses, beds and other furniture were constructed using the same technique. Doors could be locked, windows closed.
In another Bakongo village I witnessed an individual (the local witch doctor) who had built himself the only two-storey house in a 100-mile radius, to literally ‘elevate’ his status. Mr Delaspe was exceptionally proud of his mixed-use building with its ground-floor surgery and living accommodation above. The entire building was dependant on a tree, the cornerstone of its structural integrity. Every timber member had been tied to it where possible, but despite this, the house still tilted alarmingly. Downstairs, the surgery was subdivided into a treatment room and another full of bottles and jars. These oddly shaped containers were full of liquids and animal parts characteristic of the traditional Kongo religion. Upstairs was accessed via 
a ladder (missing several steps) leading to bedrooms and balconies, one covered and one exposed. It was one of the most incredible handmade structures I have ever seen.
This was not an isolated case of inventiveness. West Africans are masters of creating solutions out of whatever is at hand. On a populated coastal region in Angola I spent some time at a local bar created entirely from rubbish. In all my West African travels, these last two buildings made the most powerful impression. Idiosyncratic in nature, both are a response to and an expression of the surrounding community. As with most vernacular dwellings they are constructed and maintained not by the individual but by the community, whose lives are affected by the presence of built form. So ultimately, what I thought would be a 30,000km architectural journey, turned out to be more about the local people and my perceptions of them.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

De la forme à la connaissance.

On peut aussi le faire avec les différents motifs de nos paniers gabonais.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Bulding safe city

I recall the first time I heard an architect talk about programming a building. I imagined an elaborate process of computational mathematics and structural engineering blended with social psychology. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that programming was little more than a designer saying "this place is for walking between a and b, this place is for sitting, and this place is is for the mixed use of sitting and/or walking." Certainly there is some excellent work out there to understand the relationship between human activity and the predeterminations of physical space. I have a copy of A Pattern Language sitting on my shelf and can't recommend it enough. But so often the process of programming is approached as formulaic as master plans (frequent readers are familiar with my disdain for old fashioned master plans). A quick google search will reveal step-by-step guides to programming, but reading through such procedures, one is simply confronted by the usual "rational strategic planning model" to identify user needs within the framework of budgets, time, and materials. Bottom up and mixed-methods exist as well, but again, how dissimilar is programming from basic decision making? I suspect we use the term programming because it sounds more impressive. But more importantly, there is a desire among architects and urban designers to identify and tap into some cosmic body of knowledge that will explain the structural underpinnings of human behavior. I'm certainly just as guilty as anyone else. And the evidence of this desire is everywhere. We have decades of research on central place theory and investigations into complex adaptive systems along with today's groundbreaking research on the mathematics of cities. But as we mine downward into the underbelly of social order, what do we do with these new understandings? Do we attempt to restructure all of society according to some personal vision like Le Corbusier, or do we simply reinforce these patterns with our design efforts, even if they are imperfect? There are plenty of tools out there to understand the role of space in human activity, but how do we build upon that? In many ways we are beginning already to implement these lessons, such as the efforts by Washington DC police to look at how land use and development trends impact changes in crime. But in this instance, it is about redistributing police officers to points of potential crime. As an urban planner, how can I apply these same tools and concepts on behalf of governments around the world? This issue has been on my mind a great deal lately I have been designing a public green space for construction in the spring and have been thinking a great deal about how the space can be used, and more specifically, abused. Unique architectural features that might stimulate social responsibility or interest can easily become transformed into vantage points for sabotage, crime, and violence. Although security has always been a critical part of city planning, the modern idea of creating a "Defensible Space" has emerged in the 1960s when Oscar Newman was attempting to reduce crime in low-income housing communities in the US. His conclusions such as the use of street lights, defined walkways, and indicators of clear ownership have all been successfully implemented in communities around the world to deter urban crime. Unique Feature or Tactical Vantage Point? But as I work in an areas where militant aggression and terrorism are daily realities, I'm curious how I can do the opposite. Everyday in Kabul I see big massive walls surrounded in razor-wire with reinforced steel doors and windows glazed in blast film. Not to mention that tall buildings have been utilized multiple times now as strategic points of attack by insurgents. Just the other day I was walking past Share-e-Naw Park and I was looking at its tall iron fences, the clusters of foliage, and the undulating terrain. Now the park isn't exactly an offensive vantage point, yet nothing about its design actually would deter or undermine an offensive actor. In fact, many of the elements designed in line with Newman's prescriptions just would just well serve as an asset to a criminal - with limited points of entry and exit, absorbing shadows at the edge of the spot-lit walkway and continually obstructed sight-lines formed by vegetation and corner shops. Perhaps a better solution is to create the Indefensible Space. A space or structure that can only be used for its intended purpose that cannot be destroyed, vandalized, or misused as a means to conduct offensive operations. Such a space or structure could not be formulaic, but site sensitive, and its programming would emerge more from the process of responsive decision making and data collection rather than from within a studio. But the intentional proliferation of such spaces could transform global conflict. We already have cities full of defensive structures, and when programming a public space in a conflict zone, it cannot be assumed that the typical recipe for creating secure structures meets long-term social interests. In fact, I would argue that the more classical interventions are utilized to secure a city, the longer that city will struggle with transitioning between conflict to post-conflict stages and beyond. If you want to undermine the resiliency and economic sustainability of a city in conflict, then build massive walls. But if you want to reinforce social forces to maximize social order, then a different prescription is needed. As for cities like Kabul that are already overwhelmed by defensive architecture, the infusion of indefensible spaces into such a landscape could help lesson the oppression of concrete barriers and checkpoints. The free-flowing indefensible spaces distributed throughout the city could bolster stability and even economic growth. Clearly the counter-intuitive nature of the concept yields many weaknesses. But we already have plenty of tools from which to analyze social spaces and to measure the impact of the built environment. So how do we transform the knowledge gained through all the analytical tools into an effective programmatic and design solution remains an unrefined art. So while my proposal for the indefensible space isn't perfect, it poses an opportunity to explore the analytics while lessoning the potential for negative consequences. The greatest risk is that some unimaginative planner will situate a flat, empty parking lot in the middle of a city and do nothing more. But as for the potential opportunity for design and the art of programming? That remains to be explored.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Libreville: le DNA d'une capitale tropicale.

Riche en couleur, image et dynamique en mouvement. Bâtiments modernes et traditionnels se côtoient.

Libreville:le DNA d'une capitale tropicale

Monday, September 3, 2012

Ajouter une brise, une attitude estival à votre domicile en canalisant un été icon-le panier pique-nique! Raphia apporte une ambiance élégante mais décontractée à n'importe quel intérieur, et Shelterpop a une grande rafle de pièces rafia pour accentuer votre maison Arkansas.
Pendant Light Shade de jute Horchow-main de jute tissée et toujours aussi peu bizarre.
David Stark Zebra Tapis de West Elm-Ce tapis en jute lunatique apportera un peu d'humour dans votre décor.
Raphia plaquées argent Cadres de Pottery Barn-Le contraste élégant, plaque en argent brillant et terreux, raphia naturel rend ces cadres un must-have.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Kawung motif is one of the geometric patterns of Indonesian Batik. One of the most prominent motif used is the overlapping circles. Usually the design contains other elements or other geometric forms. But you can use this simplified version for practice.