For centuries, complex and intricate adobe structures, have been built in the Sahal region of western Africa, including the countries of Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Ghana, and Burkina Faso. Made of earth mixed with water, these ephemeral buildings display a remarkable diversity of form, human ingenuity, and originality.
In a fascinating book, published in 2003, titled ‘Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa’, and co-authored by British photographer James Morris and Harvard professor Suzanne Preston Blier, a stunning visual array of these structures is displayed.
In his Preface to the book, Morris writes:
“Too often, when people in the West think of African architecture, they perceive nothing more than a mud hut—a primitive vernacular remembered from an old Tarzan movie. Why this ignorance to the richness of West African buildings? Possibly it is because the great dynastic civilizations of the region were already in decline when the European colonizers first exposed these cultures to the West. Being built of mud, many older buildings had already been lost, unlike the stone or brick buildings of other ancient cultures. Or possibly this lack of awareness is because the buildings are just too strange, too foreign to have been easily appreciated by outsiders. Often they more closely resemble huge monolithic sculptures or ceramic pots than “architecture” as we think of it. But in fact these buildings are neither “historic monuments” in the classic sense, nor as culturally remote as they may initially appear. They share many qualities—such as sustainability, sculptural beauty, and community participation in their conception—now valued in Western architectural thinking. Though part of long traditions and ancient cultures, they are at the same time contemporary structures serving a current purpose.
The mud from which these buildings are made is itself a controversial substance that tests our conventional views of architecture. It is one of the most commonly used building materials in the world, and yet in our urban-dominated society it is seen, effectively, as dirt. Buildings subtly alter in appearance each time they are re-rendered, which can be as often as once a year. Yet the maintaining and resurfacing of buildings is part of the rhythm of life; there is an ongoing and active participation in their continuing existence. If they lost their relevance and were neglected, they would collapse. This is not a museum culture…”
In this review of the book from The Guardian Newspaper, journalist Jonathan Glancey writes:
“What these magnificent mosques prove is that mud buildings can be far more sophisticated than many people living in a world of concrete and steel might want to believe. Mud is not just a material for shaping pots, but for temples, palaces and even, as so many west African towns demonstrate, the framing of entire communities. The very fluidity, or viscosity, of the material allows the architects who use it to create dynamic and sensual forms.
Morris’s photographic trips through the region in 1999 and 2000 record a world of architecture that, sadly, is increasingly under threat. Perhaps it is mostly poverty rather than culture and memory that keeps this rich and inventive tradition of building alive…”
This book is a treasure trove of imagery and information to any architecture enthusiast. Critical elements like space, light, and texture are explored in intimate detail, revealing a strong argument for this kind of architecture to be studied, documented, and profiled more wildly. As Morris sums up his preface: “I am still curious why West Africa’s adobe buildings receive so little serious consideration. If architecture is a cultural expression, perhaps it is the culture from which these buildings have evolved, so alien to the European mind, that keeps it in the academic wilderness, hard for the commentators to place.
Sadly, the English version of the book is now out of print. There are, however, used and new copies avaibale from independent oulets via Amazon.com
Photographs and Preface published courtesy of James Morris.
Gando Primary School
Gando, Burkina Faso
Architect: Diébédo Francis Kéré
A recipient of a 2004 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the story behind Diébédo Francis Kéré‘s design for the Primary School in Gando, Burkina Faso is even more fascinating that the building itself. It is a story of philanthropy, the importance of education, local tradition and skills, and one man’s desire to make it all happen.
Architect Francis Kéré is the first person from Gando – a small town about 200 km (125 miles) from the country’s capital Ouagadougou – to study abroad, choosing to pursue an architectural degree in Berlin. Believing that his hometown needed a good school facility, Kéré set up a fund-raising association (Bricks for the Gando School) with friends and eventually received support from the Burkina Faso government organization LOCOMAT to train masons in the technique of compressed earth. In effect the building’s undertaking is a mix of local and international components, the latter helping to fund the project though thankfully not influencing its form; rather local climatic concerns are the greatest form-giver.
The simple plan arranges three classrooms linearly, broken by covered outdoor areas. The classrooms are separated by covered exterior teaching spaces, that link the building to the surrounding landscape. A corrugated metal roof hovers above the load-bearing walls of compressed earth, also used for the ceiling. The roof, wall and ceiling construction all allow for cooling of the interior, an important consideration in Gando. The heavy block work ceilings, walls and beaten earth floors make use of the materials thermal mass in moderating internal temperatures. A wind channel has been formed between the roof and ceiling to expell hot air, drawing in fresh air at low level.Commonly found industrial materials have been carefully used to create a simple yet poetic piece of architecture.
From the Aga Khan website: “All the people involved in the project management were native to the village, and the skills learned here will be applied to further initiatives in the village and elsewhere. The way the community organized itself has set an example for two neighbouring villages, which subsequently built their own schools as a cooperative effort. The local authorities have also recognized the project’s worth: not only have they provided and paid for the teaching staff, but they have also endeavoured to employ the young people trained there in the town’s public projects, using the same techniques.”
The community cohesion and project management has demonstrated to local villages the benefits in using local building techniques and inspired them to complete their own projects. A second phase has recently been completed and provides teachers accommodation. As with the first phase, it has been managed and built by local people