Sustainable cities – Lessons from Africa
In my quest to find the answers to the question: “How has Africa influenced Britain’s architecture/built environment?”, I found my writing torn in two different directions.
To illustrate, I recently discovered the use of ‘Iroko wood’ in architectural design in the UK. The ìrókò, as it is called in the Yoruba language, is a large hardwood tree found in tropical Africa, most especially in West Africa where it can live for up to 500 years  and is spiritually revered in most parts. It is also known in the west as Nigerian or African Teak, where it is marketed for its fantastic physical properties in construction.
However, is it right that we’re sourcing and transporting wood from tropical Africa to Britain for use in design and construction, particularly when there’s an abundance of available indigenous species in the UK and Europe? Instead of directly importing and appropriating African techniques, ideas or materials and rebranding them as new and innovative, would it not be better to learn from Africa’s vernacular traditions to promote ways in which we can collaboratively work together globally to solve issues of climatic change which affect us all?
My first port of call is to understand what African architecture is. Africa is vast and, as a continent, is so diverse geographically, climatically, culturally, and economically that these factors heavily influence its architecture. However, I think because of this environmental and cultural vastness, traditional African architecture is a way of design that responds to the cultural, religious, and climatic environment of the continent.
Nevertheless, due to post-colonial influences, new technologies, economic growth and globalization, more modern architecture is being favoured, replacing local architecture. Most times these modern structures may indeed reflect prosperity in the region, but for a lot of places, due to a lack of local knowledge and adoption of western cultures that clash with the traditional and climatic conditions of the region, have proved unsustainable.
I believe that, in order to create really sustainable designs that respond to the environment, we should learn from those vernacular traditions in design that respond to the people and region. At the same time, we need to have a global perspective, cultivate collaboration and learn from each other.
I was fortunate to be directed to one of Mariam Kamara’s Spring Lecture 2021 MIT series titled, ‘How We Narrate Our Today, Determine How We Imagine the Future of Architecture’. In this lecture series, she discusses two of her projects in Niger: Niamey 2000, a housing development that was designed in response to the current housing crisis occurring in the capital, Niamey; and HIKMA, a religious and secular complex for the village of Dandaji; which was done in collaboration with Studio Chahar.
Mariam Kamara’s design methodology suggests that past vernacular architecture and designs which are of similar climatic and geographical conditions should take precedence. A lot of consideration is taken into indoor and outdoor relationships so there is less dependence on mechanical solutions, for example with issues of shading or rainwater harvesting. This methodology creates architecture which is not only sustainable, but also environmentally responsive, anticipating future challenges in a low-cost and affordable way. She states the importance of working with local materials, local masonries, and contemporary engineers to push the boundary of what is possible, creating a new interpretation that is ‘part of a culture and a stylistic evolution’ as opposed to an ‘arbitrary’ design that isn’t fit for purpose. This in turn leads to local collaborations and the progression of local techniques and technologies of local forms.
Local engagement is a key component in creating sustainable designs, especially when working in local communities. Tosin Oshinowo of CmDesign Atelier, credits this early engagement with end users to one of her recently completed projects; a collaboration with the Nigerian government and the United Nations, to house displaced communities from Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria, where the use of colour brought about nostalgia for a displaced group of people. This collaborative method not only produces a richer design but also a wider toolbox that is still rooted in local knowledge. It creates dialogue and collaborative research around the design and technology of the building as well as modern social resolutions.
Looking at how some present-day African architects, such as Diébédo Francis Kéré, Mariam Kamara and Tosin Oshinowo, design for these spaces makes a case for sustainable building and relevant teachings in architecture that respond to the location, climate, religious and cultural factors, simultaneously promoting and advancing local techniques. To view architecture through a completely western lens would be to deprive ourselves of answers to present questions on sustainability and our response to climate change.
The Foster + Partners designed Masdar City in Saudi Arabia is modelled after city planning in North Africa, which is itself inspired by Arabic city design. They designed a modern and sustainable city on the concept of building short streets, high walls, and internal courtyards. This model of design responds to the desert-like climate of these cities, whilst the internal spaces are conceived to protect the people and their way of life – a design model that shows a possible way of designing a sustainable city that responds to the environment.
In West Africa, Ghanaians are known for their different vernacular methods of construction and techniques which respond to the different environmental factors whilst aesthetically imbuing their designs with their culture such as the designs of the Kassena people. In rural Kenya, the Maasai build according to their nomadic and pastoral way of life, which allows these structures to be quickly and easily built and dismantled.
There are many more ideas and techniques in the continent which hold answers on how we can create a responsive, sustainable built environment. However, if our focus is to solely look at technology to solve present environmental issues, or to merely import materials and techniques from entirely different contexts and expect them to fit, we will continue to deliver short-term solutions and, at worst, wholly unsustainable buildings. The most successful and sustainable African architecture has drawn upon local resources and skills, responded to specific topographical, environmental and climatic context and is fully embedded within the culture of its region. In my view, these are the most important lessons that the UK can take from African architecture.