West African architects integrating architecture, nature and community

According to Osae-Addo, the African continent needs to recognize, cultivate and appreciate its own heritage.

Written by Marianne Lentz

From an architectural perspective, the small space appeared insignificant – completely open with no walls or doors. The thatch roof created shade and protection from the heat. Sometimes the kids would play under the roof – something that completely changed the functionality and ascribed a different meaning to the space.

Flash forward to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Arts in Humlebæk, north of Copenhagen, for the opening in 2015 of the large-scale exhibition ‘Africa’ – the third and last in a series about architecture, culture and identity in regions across the globe. One installation that stands out is a wooden structure made from debarked willow branches and logs. It is the work of Francis Kéré, and it takes its cues from the traditional meeting place in Gando where the Berlin-based architect spent his childhood years. In rural Africa, he explains, it’s all about the tree.

“The tree is the most popular gathering space in rural Africa. During the daytime heat, it gives shade. It’s a space to discuss your day, talk about the future, to sit, play, sleep. It’s a multipurpose space,” Kéré says. He compares the Louisiana installation with the great, baobab tree, ever-present in his village.

Kéré contributed to the exhibition alongside architects Kunlé Adayemi from Nigeria and Joe Osae-Addo from Ghana, both of whom, like Kéré, expressed a great interest in exploring the ability of architecture to embody cultural narratives, traditions and aspirations.

Today Kéré lives and works in Berlin, and daily life in Gando may seem far away. But the natural materials and simple structure of the elders’ seating place resonate in his work as an architect, be it a harbour development in China or a national park in Mali. Known for his use of natural and sustainable materials, Kéré’s work has shown how the principles of participatory design, community empowerment and self-build can produce an architecture totally integrated in nature and society.

While still a student in Berlin, Kéré raised funds to build a school in his village in Burkina Faso. Having suffered in the heat of the concrete building that functioned as a school when he was a child, he knew that he needed to build with natural materials.

“When I was in school, it was like sitting in a bakery rather than a place to learn,” he recalls.

Instead, he used clay and designed a natural ventilation system, with openings by the floor and in the ceiling to suck out the hot air. He engaged the entire village in the building process and made sure that the villagers understood how to maintain the building.

With his work, he wants to emphasise the importance of quality and community engagement.

“If you create a box without windows and call it school, people will get educated. But if you go further and create a structure that can inspire, then you are bringing an entire country forward,” he says.

And with ever more pressing challenges of overcrowded cities, climate change, lack of education and skills development, architecture has the potential to create more than merely buildings and jobs, but to facilitate inspiration, solutions and sustainability.

“More than makers of buildings, we are cultural entrepreneurs. We look at cultural fabric and like alchemists shape it into habitable spaces we can interact with,” says Joe Osae-Addo, Accra-based architect and chairman of the Archiafrica Foundation, a design-based community of architects, artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers. Through their work, they seek to chronicle what they call the ‘African Condition’, searching for creative responses to modern socio-economic challenges on the continent.

According to Osae-Addo, the African continent needs to recognize, cultivate and appreciate its own heritage: its own history, tradition and cultural trademarks. “The time has come where we should be telling our stories. And as architects, more than anything, we are storytellers.”

With representatives from other creative fields, he travels to cities like Cape Town, Accra, Durban, and New York to discuss the need for an accelerated re-awakening of the African people, “A realisation of our value and a desire to grow past our colonial – and post-colonial – identity into an ‘other’ identity, appreciative of the African culture and practice,” as he puts it.

What, then, is the inherently African when it comes to architecture? To Osae-Addo, the answer lies in the relationship with nature.

“To me it’s the inter-social spaces, the outdoor spaces – that’s the architecture of Africa, and not the edifice itself. The edifice is a backdrop. We need to create environments where we can sit outside most of the time, because our climate is quite forgiving, it’s fantastic all year round.”

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