Iconic African architecture in 12 buildings

By Ijeoma Ndukwe
BBC News

Image source, Adil dalbai

While Egypt’s pyramids are recognized around the world, much of African architecture remains unknown – something architects Adil Dalbai and Livingstone Mukasa hope to change.

They are part of the team that recently published the Seven-Volume Architectural Guide for Sub-Saharan Africa. Their in-depth study encompasses buildings from earlier eras, from the colonial period – like the recently renovated train station (above) built in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, in 1910 – to more modern masterpieces.

Here are 12 of the most innovative, historic and iconic entrees:

1) Tombs of Kasubi, Uganda – 1882

Image source, Sebastien moriset

Covering acres of farmland in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, the Kasubi Royal Complex is the burial site of the monarchs of the Buganda Kingdom. It was mostly built from wood and other organic materials. The interior is designed to replicate a sacred forest and is topped with 52 circular rings to represent each of the 52 Buganda clans.

Mukasa, who was born in Uganda, first visited the graves when he was 10 years old. “It was mind-blowing,” he told the BBC. “Not just the scale of it, but the entire grandeur of the building.

“[It] was built at the end of the 19th century before the introduction of modern materials, using traditional methods that are centuries old. I felt the building had a presence. When you were inside, it dominated you. “

2) Lideta Market, Ethiopia – 2017

Image source, Gonzalo Guajardo

Contemporary entrance, this shopping center was built in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in lightweight concrete.

The envisioned design includes a perforated facade that controls the flow of natural light and ventilation to the interior.

Additionally, the cutout pattern that decorates the building’s crisp white hull mimics traditional Ethiopian fabric.

3) Hikma Complex, Niger – 2018

Image source, James wang

The Nigerian founder of the Atelier Masōmī architecture studio, Mariam Kamara, restored a former Hausa mosque that had fallen into disrepair, adding community space and a library.

Compressed earth bricks make up the majority of the building with material sourced mostly within 5 km (three miles) of the site in Dandaji Village.

For Dalbai, the project is particularly impressive for its seamless mix of old and new.

“It is clearly a contemporary building deeply rooted in Nigerian tradition,” the German architect told the BBC. “Not only culturally, but also technically because it relies on old traditional building techniques and materials.”

4) Maropeng Visitors Center, South Africa – 2006

Image source, GAPP Architects & Town planners

Known as the Cradle of Humanity World Heritage Site, Maropeng is a state-of-the-art visitor center designed to help people learn about the early development of modern man.

This iconic structure was designed by the South African firms GAPP Architects and MMA Studio.

The building itself resembles a tumulus rising from the earth in a design that seems truly integrated with nature.

5) Pyramids of Meroe, Sudan – 3000 BC

Image source, Valerian Guillot

The oldest entry for the guide are these step pyramids, which date back to 3000 BC, located about 200 km (125 miles) from the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, at Meroë in the Nile Valley.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site was once the capital of the former Kushite Empire and excavations have revealed the remains of palaces, temples and royal baths.

The pyramids at this burial site were built with sandstone blocks, while elaborate reliefs are carved inside their interiors.

6) Basotho Houses, Lesotho – date unknown

Image source, Gary van Wyk

In Lesotho, “litema” is a wall decoration involving elements of engraving, mosaic and relief on the facades of houses. Built with mud bricks and plaster, this house is painted in the traditional colors of red ocher to symbolize the blood of fertility and sacrifice, white to represent purity and peace, and black to refer to ancestors and the promise of rain symbolized by “the black rain of the clouds”.

“Basotho houses have always interested me in how they stand out in the landscape – the use of colors and the use of geometric shapes,” says Mukasa.

“I have always found it interesting that people use their surroundings to transform a rudimentary structure into a work of art.”

7) Kenneth Dike Library, Nigeria – 1954

Image source, Iain Jackson

This library is often cited as one of the flagship works of what is called “tropical modernism”.

It was built at a time when patterned sunscreens had become increasingly popular, drawing inspiration from Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s use of the ‘solar breaker’ – an architectural feature of a building that reduces heat inside a building by deflecting sunlight.

The building was designed by Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, pioneers of the modern movement in England. The library is part of the campus of the University of Ibadan – founded by the British colonial authorities in 1948 – and has become an influential model for climate-sensitive architecture in the sub-region.

8) Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali – 13th century

Image source, Getty Images

A monument to Islam, the Grand Mosque is the largest earthen structure in the world. The mosque is a symbol of the city of Djenné, which flourished as a center of commerce between 800 and 1250.

The building’s smooth sculpted walls are constructed with sun-baked terracotta bricks, earth-based sand and mortar, and a layer of plaster.

Each year, the townspeople collectively plaster the mosque in a one-day event known as the Grand Mosque Plastering.

9) Palace of Emperor Fasilides, Ethiopia – early 17th century

Image source, Heide Ludger

This palace is located in the city of Gondar, in northern Ethiopia, in a fortified complex known as “Fasil Ghebbi” (royal enclosure).

The site includes around twenty palaces, royal buildings, richly decorated churches, monasteries and unique buildings.

The design of these buildings was influenced by the Baroque style brought to Gondar by Jesuit missionaries.

10) Dominican Chapel, Nigeria -1973

Image source, Andrew Moore

Artist Demas Nwoko blends sculptural and modern elements with a Nigerian vernacular architectural style in this reinvented Dominican chapel in Ibadan.

The structure incorporates features such as carved wooden columns and elaborate ironwork on the balustrades and doors.

Mukasa says it marked a radical break from the modernist movement that had cemented itself on the African continent to a medium that was “home-grown and derived from local culture.”

11) Great Mosque, Benin – 1912-1935

Image source, Adil dalbai

This mosque in Benin’s capital, Port-Novo, is a vivid example of Afro-Brazilian architecture built in the style of 17th- and 18th-century churches in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. The bright yellow, brown, green and blue color scheme is reminiscent of historic Bahia architecture.

Along the West African coast, this is one of the many Afro-Brazilian mosques built in the early 20th century by the descendants of freed slaves.

“It shows the many layers that are specific to the architectural heritage of West Africa – the intercontinental connections between Europe, South America and the West African coast in the Bay of Benin at a time when it there were many exchanges, ”says Dalbai.

12) Mapungubwe Interpretation Center, South Africa – 2009

Image source, Peter Rich Architects

Set in a rocky landscape within Mapungubwe National Park, this center won South African architect Peter Rich the 2009 World Building of the Year award at the World Architecture Festival.

The famous design is built with “a long-forgotten vaulting technique that masons from North Africa took to Catalonia and which was used by architects such as Antoni Gaudi,” according to Rich.

Mud bricks were formed using soil from the construction site and only 5% more cement to create a clay mixture.

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