African architecture refers to the design and building styles particular to the African continent. It also points to the number of architectural works that are present on the continent, from the North down to the South, East and West, spanning across the various eras, taking into account the various materials and techniques for achieving them.
The continent being a diverse one, both in peoples and languages, also finds the same variety in building styles and designs. This may be due to the fact that the various African societies, cities and empires, did not maintain serious contact with one another, and only met for things like trade. This has, in turn, produced a continent with various elaborate styles and designs achieved through various means.
Perhaps one very special thing about African architecture is the technology and materials involved in achieving them. The buildings and designs are achieved using a number of materials and tools. Some of which include mud, sticks, stones and rocks, adobe, lime base plaster (particularly in Egypt, during the construction of the pyramids), mudbricks, thatch, bamboo, etc. Most times, the materials involved depended on the location, and if such material was readily available. Such as in the coastal area of West Africa, bamboo was widely used.
In getting to fully understand African architecture and the materials used, one must indeed understand the history of Africa, as it would provide insight or give reasons as to why the adoption of a certain style, or why what exists in one region isn’t found in the other. In other words, African architecture owes a lot to history, just like anywhere else. Although compared to European architecture, Africa has no movement or eras such as Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, Byzantine, and the rest, we still have various forms of designs that occurred over the centuries, which are also, in turn, an integral part of African history.
The materials employed in African architecture are quite Integral in understanding the nature of African architecture, and African history as a whole. The materials are usually influenced by certain things, as stated above. Some of the materials would be discussed below
Perhaps the most common of materials used in African building. This is due to its availability, as it was almost in every region and the fact that it was so easy to work with. Mud, which is nothing more than unfired clay, was the chief choice of building in these parts. Perhaps most common in sub-Saharan Africa where it was used to construct houses in the form of huts that varied in style and design depending on the people. But the method was always the same, as employed by the people of Sudan and the West African area. Mud was made to coil from where it was set in heights of about 1 metre. Then it was left to dry, and more was added on it, till it formed a house. The style of the house was also dependent on the people, with some people, like the Ewe people preferring a cylindrical form, the Asante people had theirs with pole frame at the sides, then a mud unfilling. The Igbo people of present Nigeria preferred theirs in rectangular form, surrounded by a mud wall which serves as a fence. In some parts, like areas in modern-day Togo, the mud was mixed with straw to serve as a binder, a mixture referred to as cob.
One other reason why mud was readily used was because of the comfort it offered. As these regions were often hot, the mud houses remained cool day and night, providing succour for the inhabitants.
Another very popular medium of construction, thatch was just as widespread as mud. It mainly served as material for “roofing”. Thatch is gotten from dried grass which is then woven together and placed on the already completed mud structure as a final covering. Different methods of thatched roofing existed, with some, like certain tribes in Cameroon, opting for a high conical structure, and others preferring just a moderate structure. Thatch served as the roofing materials for most region in Africa, especially the sub-Saharan region, mainly due to its availability and ease of application, and also because of its environmental benefits, in that it served as a form of insulation. In the dry season, when the Earth was hot and heat became the order of the day, the thatched roofing regulated the home and cooled it down, making it bearable. Also during the rainy season or in areas that experienced winters, thatch also helped to warm the house.
Besides being used for roofing, thatch was also used for full construction. This is popular among the Zulu people of South Africa who constructed their beehive like homes referred to as iQukwane. The structure of these buildings was round, with a low opening. They were usually made from thatch throughout, with wooden sticks as support on the inside. Zulu women wove dried grass together with split reeds together to form the thatch to help in the elaborate construction of these buildings.
This is another material very common in African architecture. Although present in almost every part of Africa, it features more in the North due to the absence of timber. The preparation of mudbrick also made it a suitable alternative. Mud was moulded into bricks and left to be dried by the sun or air which set them hard.
Mudbrick was a popular construction material in ancient Egypt. It was used in the construction of temples, and even in the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza. It was used because of its sustainability. The bricks were joined together by lime base plaster, which was readily available in Egypt. The Moroccan Berbers also used it in the building of homes, and later in the building of mosques, with the introduction of Islam in the place. Ancient Nubian architecture also includes the use of mudbrick in the construction of houses, temples, and for their pyramids also. Even when Christianity was introduced in Kingdom, and brought with it the Byzantine style, mudbricks were still the chief medium of construction.
The spread of Islam in Africa also brought with it the increased use of mudbrick, specifically for the construction of mosques. The Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali is the world’s largest mudbrick structure. In places like Somalia and the Kanem-Bornu, mudbrick, also referred to as adobe, was employed in the construction of mosques and teaching centres. In Hausaland, mudbrick was also used in the construction of walls.
Wood was a very prominent feature in African architecture and still continues to feature today. The extent of its use in a region depends on its availability in such area as areas with fewer trees rarely used wood in construction. The types of wood also used also depend on the types of trees in the region. So bamboo, raffia, mahogany, baobab, are among the sources of wood in Africa.
Areas like the mangrove, coastal region of West Africa had, and still have, houses made on stilts. Prominent among this area is the Niger Delta region in Nigeria, home to the Isokos, Urhobos and Itsekiris. Because of the nature of the area, providing very little land, which was used for farming, and some part being swampy, the people of that area resorted to building their houses on the water. To achieve this, they made the foundation of the houses in water with long, thin, string poles, then they proceeded to build on it, still with wood. They also built a road like a network from house to house for ease of movement, although the surest way to get around was with a canoe on the water. The people of Ganvié in Benin also constructed their stilts with mangrove poles. The Duala people of Cameroon also employed the use of bamboo in constructing, although they plastered it with mud. The Bamileke people were more elaborate with their bamboo construction and made a pyramid like roofs on raised verandahs. Bamboo was also used to create demarcations inside houses.
Stones feature in North Africa, particularly ancient Egypt. In fact, Early Egyptian Architecture was based on stones and the oldest structure in Egypt is a stepped stone pyramid dating to around 2560BC. Later, the Egyptians began to use limestones for the construction of the pyramids. Each stone could weigh up to about 2.5 tons and the method in which it was transported to the quarry is still under debate, but it is commonly agreed that wooden wheels were used to drag the stones. These stones were hewn out of rocks or sometimes they had to be extracted from deposits up to 160ft below ground. The temples also had great works of stones, and the columns were carved entirely out of stones.
Pyramids of Giza
Another area that makes extensive use of stone is Great Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe was an area that thrived, between the 11th and 15th century, occupied by the Shona people. In fact, the word “Zimbabwe” is Shone for “Stone houses”. The area today is filled with ruins of stone construction. Chief among them is the Great Enclosure – a high wall and tower built with stones, which is the largest ancient sub-Saharan monument.
Besides the use of stones, African architecture included the use of rocks. Indeed the earliest settlements in Africa were in caves or made into rocks. And, eventually, people still kept building on rocks and building out of it. The kingdom of Nubia and Axum feature structure craved completely out of a rock, especially early churches in Axum. Rock-hewn churches were also in Ethiopia, the most famous being the 11 monolithic churches of Lalibela ( the name of a King who it is thought the churches were attributed to). In the Dogon valley in Mali, the Teni people build their homes on the cliffside, possibly for security reasons. These homes were made of rock, and features mudbricks with a flat roof.
Church of Lalibela, Ethiopia
African architecture also features a lot of other materials, including animal hide, which was used to construct tents among the Nomadic people of Sudan and the Tuareg. Straw was also used, but it was mostly mixed with other materials, such as mud, for reinforcement. At some point, iron was used, but that was after contact with the outside world, particularly the Arabs, who introduced it to Hausa Land. African architecture presents a unique flavour of culture, environment, religion, geographical terrain and availability of materials to create a picture of uniqueness that each region possesses.