The Afro-Modernist: Architecture, Identity & Sexuality
What is an African Building?
Modernism is a philosophical movement that arose with far-reaching influence transforming society in general from the early 20th century. It manifested in architecture, art, and design as the rejection of the ‘old orders’, which celebrated ornamentation. It sits as the most relevant movement of modern times.
My design aesthetic comes from Modernism. My work is based on the principles of clean lines, purity of materials in their natural form, plainer surfaces and a strict rationale use of space. The architecture practices I honed my skill in, also influence this ‘school of thought’ and my work to date.
So why title this column: The Afro-Modernist: Identity, Architecture & Sexuality?
Architecture is immensely important to me; I’m an architect, this is my craft.
Identity in particular because this is an opportunity for me to fully explore and rationalise what I consider as my ‘African identity’. I hope that through the process of this article, I will be able to fully articulate my understanding of this term. Currently, I don’t believe there is a physical form that fully represents this identity. I think we all have an idea of what it means to be ‘African’ but if asked to represent it physically, it becomes a blur. It is also not consistent, because we are a large continent with many different cultural constructs, though the world has bumped us together. Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, a Congolese philosopher hinted on the cause of this yoking together in his book The Invention of Africa that it is “an intervention of first, colonialism and then oppositional movements”.
What does it really mean to be African In relation to space, lifestyle, family structure and so on? Are we that different from the rest of the world? Or are we the same? I am hoping to use this platform to explore this, as well as issues concerning gender. Sexuality is an acknowledgment of my space within my industry as a woman and the challenges that I face on a daily basis in delivering my job.
First, what is an African building? If we look at vernacular architecture in Lagos, the buildings of the Brazilian quarters in Lagos Island are considered to fit this typology. Historically, this was an imported style of ornamentation by ‘returnee slaves’ who as masons replicated this building style here. So is it African? If we look at ‘rural vernacular’, as opposed to ‘urban vernacular’, one would say the village mud hut with the thatched roof and the village way of life are indigenously African. A community raises a child, mothers come together to wash clothes and everyone goes to the farm; labour intensive activities are carried out together. I recall stories from my mother about when she was a child going to the farm with her elderly aunt during the school holidays. That lifestyle involved going to the farm at 5:00 am, laborious preparation of food and clothing, the men hunting in the bush for meat. It was a simple repetitive life of survival. We were made up of a series of villages/settlements scattered around and these eventually merged to make up kingdoms.
This lifestyle was very different to how we live now in cities but encompasses the identity of Africa.
The colonials came and prescribed to us that our ways were “backward”, “not God-like”, “get rid of your gods, get rid of your religious beliefs!”. Western education and Christian religious knowledge were made to replace many of our cultural and educational styles. There was a fracture in our collective way of life and this break came with a complete reorientation of how we perceived ourselves and how we occupied space. Looking at ‘identity’ and the ‘evolution of culture’, some other cultures had a more linear development because they were not colonised, for example, Ethiopia and Japan. However, our style of building adapted because the way we lived changed. We did not have furniture in the modern sense because there was no need for it. We had wood stumps and a culture where the elder sits at the highest point as noted at village meetings. Our culture was different, so our needs were different, but as our culture evolved with intense external influence, our needs changed, and we adapted to colonial ways of life. ‘The island effect’ of evolution in developing our buildings did not happen. This is also known as ‘Foster’s Rule of Evolution’, which is an eco-geographical rule in evolutionary biology, stating that members of a species get smaller or bigger depending on the resources available in the environment. In relation to cultural evolution, our development is dependent on internal and external influences.
So can a building be African?
There is no singular identity in building that represents this ‘idea’ of an African building. We have been fortunate that some indigenous language has consistently been passed down though it is not uncommon to find English words well established in the local language. Dress and other aspects of culture have also been carried down, but indigenous religious belief in popular culture has been banished. It was once commonplace when individuals had challenges to consult an oracle, which was not seen to be negative, but now, it is seen as fringe culture. Several of our cultural systems and beliefs have been swapped with Western society ideas.
As I relate this argument to architecture, because we lack that ‘island evolution’, there is not a collective identity that represents to us and the idea of Africa. If we’d had the luxury of not being colonised, without the current influence, it would have been interesting to see what could have manifested. There are several African-Amercian history scholars who state that history has been written to suppress the reality of the contributions of Africa and Africans to the world’s development. Special mention is the ancient city of Timbuktu, that was known for trade and Islamic intellectualism. Other empires and contributions that were progressive have been suppressed as we are now seen as the “dark continent” Africa as the last frontier. Ron Eglash an American professor of science and technology studies has written and spoken extensively on the African fractals, geometries, and algorithms and how these manifest in our cultures. These are present in our village structures, sculptures, hairstyles, and weavings. Tunde Owolabi of Ethnik regularly works with Asó-Oke artisans and advises that the highly-skilled weavers create the pattern ‘O n sha Ona’, which is based on algorithms and iterations of algorithms to create patterns. Unfortunately, this skill is gradually waning as more fashionable Asó-Oke no longer requires this delicate attention to detail and patterning.
So back again to this idea of space and the physicality of an African building. Is there any architecture on the continent that depicts his idea of Africaness, specifically in West Africa? Can one argue for the case of Demas Nwoko in Nigeria, who is an artist/sculptor/architect, and is credited for several buildings? His most famous is the Dominican Mission in Ibadan which is celebrated within academic circles for his inventive use of local/ traditional materials fusing Westernised modern techniques and recognisable African motifs. I would say this may be African but it speaks closer of an Africa borrowing from the ‘old order’ of ornamentation and in a modern context, is not Afro-modernism.
Dominican Chapel, photography by Andre Moore, architravel.com
Alternatively, we look at the work of Diébédo Francis Kéré, who in my opinion, has been able to take this idea of African identity as purely aesthetic and translate it consistently into a modernist form. Works he has produced show a consistent redirection of an aesthetic that is beautiful and poetic. Kéré appears almost a lone soldier, who has been able to represent what that ‘island evolution’ would have looked like. His project, the Gando Primary School in Burkina Faso, used locally available clay and corrugated roofing sheets. His knowledge of the environment ensures the building interior is cool. He was also maintenance-conscious in designing what the local community can sustain relatively easily. This combination of local knowledge networks, modern technology, and sustainability initiatives to ensure the project is a continued success. Aesthetically, it sits appropriately in its environment and draws lineage to the vernacular African architecture but with Modernists sensibilities.
Gando Primary School, Photography by Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk, static.dezeen.com
Who between Nwoko and Kéré translates this idea of “Africaness” in a pure Modernist form?
Kéré has received a lot of international acclaims recently for the typology of his work. We are yet to see how this translate into further commissions, but the world has sat up and noticed our continent, particularly West Africa, and the work being produced. He is the 17th architect to be commissioned to produce the 2017 Pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery, London that opened in June. Inspired by the tree that serves as a central meeting point for life in his hometown of Gando, Francis Kéré designed a responsive Pavilion that seeks to connect its visitors to nature – and each other. The Pavilion also embraced British climate, creating a structure that engages with the ever-changing London weather in creative ways.
Serpentine Pavillon, photography by Jim Stephenson, dezeen.com
Compared to previous commissions, this marked a distinct alternate direction, which is a testament to its influences. I was so happy that I got the opportunity to visit the space. In comparison, I have not been to any of Nwoko’s buildings but there is quite a lot written about his work, mostly because Professor John Godwin OBE worked with him and celebrated his work.
I reiterate, what then is considered to be that African identity in our buildings and Afro-modernism? The United Nations states that 70% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by 2050. Where we had a clear identity in rural vernacular architecture, what do we consider as our urban identity? Is it the work of the colonial modernists or the post-colonial movement that consciously straddles the line to tie back to what never happened? If only we could have had an ‘Island evolution’…
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