Every year, in the hot, dry town of Djenné in Central Mali, something special takes place – La Fête de Crépissage. Roughly translated to the “Day of Plastering”, this day sees the entire community of Djenné collaborate to reinforce the mud walls of the Great Mosque of Djenné – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the African continent’s most distinctive architectural landmarks.
Leaving aside its sustainable materiality -- the adobe walls keeping the mosque cool even on the hottest of days -- this annual gathering of Djenné’s residents to shape a key part of their town’s identity tells a deeper story. One that exemplifies the fact that, when we talk about the application of local materials and appropriate use of the vernacular in architecture, we also need to be talking about local communities. Local communities who should be active participants in shaping the environment around them, and not passive voices relegated to the background.
This conversation is an especially relevant one to the case of the African continent. The legacies of colonialism – of the stripping of identity, are still at play today. The extremely varied architectural morphologies of African societies were largely ignored by colonial governments, thus stifling the development of indigenous architectural styles. The independence movement of many African states in the 1950s and 60s brought about the freedom of formerly colonised countries, but the postcolonial architectural character of many of these states was still shaped by mainly Western architects. While debates may rage on the identity of these architects, the main issue, like Design Researcher Mathias Agbo Jr. states, is that of an architectural education on the continent that in many countries still puts little emphasis on indigenous African architectural styles – which brings us again to local materials.
It cannot be enough, when talking about the use of local materials in an African architectural context, to have a one-dimensional conversation – to simply view the integration of vernacular architecture as the be-all-end-all to a sustainable project. The work of Kéré Architecture is highly relevant in this case. Although its Gando Primary School project in Burkina Faso is a harmonious integration of local clay-building techniques and the imported corrugated iron roofs, the success of the project can arguably be more attributed to its heavy involvement of the local community. With the plans being drawn by Francis Kéré, (born in the village of Gando himself) the community involvement saw children, for example, gathering stones for the school foundation – the community an integral part of the building process.
Architect and academic Lesley Lokko has written on what she describes as the “paradigm of development-aid-charity” dominating the architectural responses in the continent. She cites the fact that, of the 42 entries submitted for the 2016 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, only four were commissioned by Africans themselves – with 98% of the projects submitted undertaken by NGOs, external patronage playing a huge part in the design expertise, and the overall design direction that a project takes.
Over in the African technology space, we see local startup founders struggle to get the investor funds they need to truly get their projects off the ground, as they are overlooked in an environment that seems to be biased against them. In the African architectural landscape, parallels can be drawn with the frequency of Architectural Voluntourism on the continent, raising the debate on how this form of assistance can end up doing more harm than good. Local communities are sometimes unable to have an equal hand in the design decisions taken in their communities.
It is undeniably a tricky conversation to navigate but it is vital, when examining projects that deploy the vernacular in the African continent, to look a bit deeper, to look at the teams behind the running of the projects, and to assess if local communities can then undertake further projects on their own. MASS Design Group’s African Design Centre is a model that will hopefully be adopted more in the future, empowering a generation of local designers through a fellowship that complements an architectural education. Perhaps a more long-term solution in preserving African vernacular architecture and successfully integrating it with modern building methods is a more substantial investment in local architecture schools, whose students can then implement what they learn in their communities a short trip away - instead of a trip across continents for a one-off project.
The use of local materials cannot be viewed as the sole marker of a sustainable project. The empowerment of local communities is of equal importance. The use of local materials by the local expertise of a community with an agency is a lot better than the simple extraction of their labor.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Local Materials. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.