Launched by the Goethe Institut, Habiter Dakar (Living in Dakar) is a virtual exhibition tackling Housing in the Senegalese capital. The study was led by Nzinga Mboup and Caroline Geffriaud, both Architects based in Dakar. They noticed that the current housing offer in the city was particularly far off the needs of its inhabitants, whether on the cultural, societal or environmental level.
The architects analyzed the progression through which the Senegalese capital's Urban Landscape and Housing development had passed, starting from the traditional compound living type to today’s international housing models which seem to be disconnected from the daily reality of most of the city’s inhabitants. The study is concentrated on Housing which is an essential part of the formation and evolution of Dakar and suggests important theoretical and concrete reflections for the future development of the African metropolis.
The main Housing considerations were explored through six distinct themes:
- Importance of Physical Comfort
- The Place of Communal Living in Public Spaces
- Use of Exterior Private Spaces
- Differences in Housing Vocabulary
- Showcase Spaces
- Modularity, Extension and Mutation of the Pre-constructed
In the constrained urban context of Dakar, these questions were set as tools to explore a practical housing policy and better quality of life for inhabitants.
As a pivotal starting point, Mboup and Geffriaud went over the historical background of Dakar’s Housing. Setting the pre-colonial living layout as the original model, they looked into the Lebu compounds example. The tribe gathered members of the extended family which would cohabitate in a compound-like area, built around the central courtyard. The organization of the space included multiple private quarters - mainly used for sleeping - and would be surrounded with exterior functional spaces for animals, food preparation etc. This initial typology came to be known as Penc.
During colonization times, a new plan was imported and implemented at the expense of Lebu villages which were forced to move. However, the colonial urban landscape had proven to be incompatible with the lifestyle of African populations. In fact, the grid plan was radically opposed to then existing organic compound formations and highlighted the distinctions between the African rural lifestyle and the Urban European one.
Colonial Architecture is quite relevant while looking at Housing progression in Dakar and its Physiological comfort norms. It reflected how settlers had to develop housing typologies that were adapted to the climate by combining local materials, all while maintaining living norms equivalent to the European cities of then. Yet bigger planning changes came after the second world war.
After the independence in 1960, the Senegalese state focused on Housing as a central project for the city’s development. Mass plans evolved and led to the creation of new streets and residential areas for the rising social classes of Dakar. National agencies (SICAP & SNHLM) were set-up to erect residential projects in these new neighborhoods. The result was a variety of housing types for the middle class dwellers. New aesthetics and modernist inclinations were imported from international models of Architecture. This was accompanied by the adoption of foreign social ideals as well, such as the nuclear family and single individuals that required private homes. Another novelty was the use of concrete instead of locally sourced and climate adapted construction materials. However, the national building efforts had begun to decline in the 80s clearing the way for private investment Housing developments.
All of the previous historical interventions led to three distinguished typologies of Housing still seen in Dakar today of which, the Compound, the Individual House / Pavilion, and the Apartment Buildings. Each presents their own characteristics but they all struggle to respond to the most pressing need of inhabitants which is sustainable expansion. Understanding these models is essential, as they are testimonies of an anticipatory vision that was not fully accomplished, perhaps due to a hasty introduction onto an unfitting setting and culture.
After exploring the Dakar's architectural history, Mboup and Geffriaud went on to analyze the characteristics that might explain the city's current housing situation and its potential suggested ramifications.
Physiological Comfort in Dakar’s Housing.
While looking at lodging in the city, physiological comfort is rarely a consideration. Thermal, visual, acoustic, and other senses related factors are often disregarded in favor of standardized plans that might obstruct natural light and ventilation. These setups trade the inhabitant’s comfort for an aesthetic that responds to a unanimous ideal of a modern city.
This dilemma opens the floor for multiple questions about the passive and attainable architectural techniques that could alleviate the discomfort caused by the use of the standardized plans and materials in existing builds. In such cases, a re-introduction of Bio-Sourced materials and other complementary design ideas might constitute a way forward.
Another suggested means of change is to multiply and provide exposure to Bio-Climatic construction projects, as these buildings could pave the way toward a more sustainable sector.
Communal Living Spaces in Public Setting
In Dakar, public spaces are becoming degraded, offering very little room for communal gathering. One of the highlighted reasons in the exhibition was the occupation of sidewalks with a multitude of private household and commercial activities (ex. outdoor cooking, extended shop display …). The once traditional communal activities became marginalized in the absence of open space. This realization pushed the architects to question, in the absence of local authorities to mitigate the Housing takeover of the public areas, why can’t the inhabitants organize themselves to create their own spaces for communal activities?
Use of Exterior Private Spaces
Following up on the described historical models, practical exterior spaces in contemporary Houses had gone from 70% to less than 10% in the new setups, suggesting that it has become more of an accessory than a functional area as it once was. On the other hand, interiors have been enlarged with an average of 14 to 18m2 added area. The latter can be a cause for complications while assigning space for traditional common outdoor household practices. As expressed before, such domestic tasks tend to be extended to the streets, often causing discomfort to the surrounding inhabitants.
As a suggested path, collective living in Dakar could be better off in vertical compound-types. They would have slightly reduced interior areas once more, to the benefit of larger exterior zones which can be private or shared between the cohabitants.
The Vocabulary of Housing
Another interesting theme explored in the Study is the glossary of Housing. In this case the architects explain how the contemporary Architectural vocabulary, be it universal, omits a lot of verbalized local notions related to spatial use and attributions. With only 37% of the Senegalese population being bilingual, this means only a few are able to apply it, often constraining the rest of the citizens to live in models which are un-adapted to their usual.
Since language is linked to culture, an important step forward in the development of a Senegalese Architecture is to implement Wolof wording in the contemporary construction vocabulary.
It is not a matter of creating a totally new Vocabulary to replace French words but to analyze and describe the traditional functions which are associated with these universal words.
The fifth theme comes as a visual exposé of the so-called representative spaces. As in many other cultures, Senegalese Houses still reflect newly adopted functions, usually appreciated by younger individuals and members of the middle class. Living rooms, “ American Kitchens”, dining rooms or even soaking tubs are usually spaces of distinction which might serve to showcase a modern living space and suggest a certain social standing. In some cases, exhibitionist functions might take too much space, causing discomfort to large families.
In order to reflect these representative spaces, Nzinga and Caroline invited photographer Malick Welli to represent these rooms that are rarely used.
Modularity, Extension and Mutation of the Pre-constructed
The architects finally looked at the means of expansion for the future of Dakar. To them, the modularity of the space and the way in which it can develop to take in the growth of the family unit has to be integrated in a functional housing policy. In the Hyper-densified city of Dakar, enlargement of the pre-built houses are still more worthwhile than new constructions. “Incremental” reflection is an important idea while looking to enlarge the built environment with good quality construction. Habiter Dakar offers many potential models, while integrating essential elements for a sustainable and ever-growing housing project.
Anticipating future growth and taking preparatory actions to facilitate eventual vertical construction is a big step towards providing comfortable living and maintaining open areas on the Ground level. These actions could secure functional vegetation, revered as sacred in certain communities.
The exhibition concludes by suggesting an Incremental Future as a final recommendation (Incrementalism as a way of applying smaller adapted changes). It is no longer a matter of providing housing models and units but of facilitating the basic foundation and administrative measures for Dakar inhabitants to build their houses, not as a finished product but as a potential project for domestic growth.
Applied to Architecture, Incrementalism would, in an informal urban context, provide a formal stature to the inhabitants who do not have the resources to provide a proper development.
Note: Photos and diagrams translation can be found in the images description. Check out the full exhibition and findings on the Habiter Dakar Facebook account.
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