- Post 19 November 2005
- Last Updated on 23 April 2008
- By Ebi Bozimo
Prompted by an on-going discussion on the Main Square of The Nigerian Village Square (NVS) titled 'American Shopping Center Opens In Lagos', I seek to explore the image of African, or more specifically, Nigerian architecture.
On that thread, it appeared the initial poster sought, with that title, to intrigue readers with the allure he associates with the facility - the 'hype'. Many responses later, I came to believe the main issue he sought to communicate was that a commercial retail facility exhibiting a certain appearance - often termed big box in the United States - is inherently American. Others, including me, argued that mere appearance does not an American facility make; neither is an elevated vibrancy, volume and variety of commercial transactions uniquely American.
In any event, it begs the question: What traits are associated with an 'American' Hypermart? Why is it 'American' as opposed to 'western'? Or 'Nigerian'? The question of whether or not I should celebrate its debut in Lagos could be the topic of another conversation. The corollary underlying question is 'what is associated with African (or Nigerian) architecture?
The following is the beginning of what will be primarily a visual excursion into African architectural antecedents in which I seek to explore the built form, it's effect on the entire built environment and expressions of the cultural identity of it's creators.
Architecture, termed the ultimate expression of all arts, is best appreciated visually. I therefore crave the indulgence of the website proprietors to permit me attach a few images to this article to, perhaps, stimulate discourse. In every event, I have attempted to credit pictures to their source. Any omissions or faults are mine alone.
A cursory google search on November 17, 2005 titled 'African Architecture' yields the usual suspects: huts, both rudimentary and ornate, a few dwellings and some Egyptian pyramids. A similar search for 'hut' or 'hut building' yielded little or nothing to do with buildings, African or otherwise on the first page!
While it appears there is no dearth of study on the subject, little seems to have emerged or been recorded or retained about architecture from Africa, south of the Sahara, suggesting therefore that all the people in those regions (including the precursors to 130 million Nigerians today), spent their entire lives beneath the benevolent canopy of the clear blue sky. Alternately, they could have lived and slept in trees or caves. Small wonder today that one regularly and routinely has to respond calmly and creatively to questions alluding to the perceived absence from Africa of "houses like, y'know, the ones we have here".
A google definition of hut (google/define: hut) revealed:
temporary military shelter
hovel: small crude shelter used as a dwelling
Webster's definition yielded:
1 : an often small and temporary dwelling of simple construction : SHACK
2 : a simple shelter from the elements
In each definition instance above, a hut is associated necessarily with transience, simplicity or crudity. There is little to indicate that a hut could aspire any goals higher than basic shelter.
Does this mean that while African architecture is automatically associated with huts, huts themselves are not associated with African architecture, or Africa? If huts are African architecture and Africans themselves aren't even associated with said huts, is it fair to say Africans and Africa have no widely perceived and appreciated architectural identity? Why not?
The attached images show many different 'flavors' of huts obtained from the web. Interestingly enough, most of them were from different locations the world over with no discernible preponderance of African sources. I have a list of links at the end of the article for further investigation.
Suffice it to say Africans utilized structures and dwellings to carry out their various activities before the advent of colonialism. The effect and impact of colonialism on our self-perception and the nature and quality of spaces we create is undeniable. I would argue however that many of the buildings, forms and shapes some of us most readily associate with other cultures today are derived from our indigenous forms. Simply put, the history of Africa did not begin with the advent of colonialism on the continent.
I must admit to a personally aversion for the word 'indigenous' because of it's loose and generic association with the term 'primitive', but I use it in this context to refer to the forms, buildings and spaces that emerged as a result of efforts of Africans past to respond to the exigencies, realities and requirements of their times.
Today, the African architectural identity is most readily associated with and summarized by the small, square or round HUT. If that is what the African architectural identity is perceived to center upon, it is imperative going forward, to take ownership of both the term and the form.
HUT: Defining And Describing.
I will henceforth define the HUT as a Housing UniT catering to the defined and diverse functional and social needs of its creators.
I dispute the disdain inherent in the descriptions of the HUT and aver that it is the PERFECT building for many reasons, including the following.
- (a) The HUT Is Perfect Because It Is AFFORDABLE. Huts have abounded in most environments worldwide; they are readily affordable for the basic individual. They do meet the basic needs for shelter shared by all humanity in an effective, simple format.
- (b) The HUT Is Perfect Because It Is SUSTAINABLE. The materials often used in creating the HUT are sourced from it's immediate environs and are the result of natural processes like deposits of earth, water from nearby streams, and branches, leaves and/or thatch from nearby trees. In addition, the materials used permit the building to 'breathe' and therefore the interior environment created is very comfortable in spite of prevailing weather conditions.
- (c) The HUT Is Perfect Because It Is READILY DECORATED.
Communities express and propagate their world view and values with a
combination of oral, written and graphic traditions. A wealth of
knowledge can be obtained about people by studying their symbols and
aesthetic forms. Some of the huts pictured here and elsewhere are very
beautifully adorned and merit separate study under different headings.
(d) The HUT Is Perfect Because It Is CULTURALLY RELEVANT. Huts are often produced as a result of communal activity, which is the hallmark of the normal, rational African lifestyle. The community rallies around, often in a festive setting, to assist members of their community to build their dwellings as they commence adult life. These dwellings may stand-alone or be inter-connected with other buildings to form larger compounds. The construction process in which the men provide some of the 'heavy lifting' and the women provide some food and exterior decoration promotes social interaction and a strengthening of community bonds.
The foregoing is not to imply that huts have no drawbacks; they may not lend themselves to some functions, construction methods or aesthetics. In addition, in their most basic form they may require considerable time devoted to maintenance. It is however possible to marry the fundamental reasons for the hut's perfection to updated expressions of its form.
HUT: The Form.
The hut is typically rectilinear or circular and often found arranged in clusters to create compounds of associated buildings. Since the hut is considered African, and life originated in Africa, the first 'designers' were necessarily therefore African. Everything that followed therefore had African antecedents. It would be safe to assert then that every rectilinear building originated from the 'lowly' African hut and that every 'modern' building is thus African in origin. One could assert further that every circular building or collection of buildings arranged in a deliberate and interconnected manner also had African origins, making the modern 'plaza' an updated expression of an African solution.
As I see it, the problem is that all too often, Africa and architects of African origin are associated with the BEGINNINGS of the hut but never with various creative interpretations and possible forms of its evolution and expression. I will therefore seek to examine the evolution of the simple hut.
DISCLAIMER: In the following sketches, no intention implied or otherwise is made to suggest their suitability for use in any application whatsoever. They are included merely as visual aids to this discussion of the hut's evolution.
The Evolution Of The Basic Hut:
The hut is depicted in its rectilinear, simple form. This version often has the hip end roof all round to aid in shedding water. The form is recognizable and construction is simple. As the images show, huts are sometimes decoratively finished on the outside.
In the next iteration of the hut, the floor area is expanded to meet the requirements of the owner/occupant. This has the effect of creating distinct front and back yards and thus expanding the amount and functionality of available spaces. The roof form may be modified to add more interest.
As complexity increases and depending on the climate, culture, context and aesthetic inclinations of the owners, different roof forms may be introduced and utilized including flat and shed roofs, gable ends and pyramidal roof forms.
In the final iteration, a portion of the 'hut' is built on two levels and the roofing form, slope and spans are more ambitious. Suddenly the 'common' hut doesn't look so common anymore and it is possible to see how more complex forms of construction can emerge from it!
While this simple presentation seeks to illustrate the hut as the inspiration for many building forms that we associate with other people today, the question still remains unanswered: What IS African architecture? I intend to examine that in a subsequent write up.
For additional illumination, I list below some websites depicting and purporting to depict African architecture: