The relationship between art and architecture remains strong. For me, they are the same. Moreover, the value and credit of creative professionals, particularly from the African diaspora is often underplayed, undervalued and misrepresented. The term ‘Western Architecture’ conjures up images ranging from Greek Temples to Post Modern high rises for many. However, African architecture tends to be viewed through a very narrow prism; a stereotypical hut is usually what comes to mind. Moreover, African architecture is rarely observed with reference to antiquity or to exemplary contemporary architecture. Unfortunately some African architecture is seen by some as predominantly non-African influenced and executed by external cultures . For example, Ancient Egyptian architecture despite history and this region’s origins as part of a larger Ethiopian nation of pyramid builders comes to mind. It’s fascinating to see the surprise look on some people’s faces on being informed of other pyramids in Africa. We can explore and debate the way in which history is written as we know there can be bias in its recording. Moving forward, it is very important for me to highlight the efforts of Architect Livingstone Mukasa, currently documenting innovative, functional and sustainable designs emerging across the African continent. Livingstone kindly answered a few questions I posed to him regarding the Afritecture initiative:
Why did you start Afritecture.org ?
Afritecture as an idea is quite old. I have always been toying around with the concept of showcasing examples of successful architectural projects that had a strong African vernacular. The website itself was launched in 2009. The term Afritecture, implying Africa in architecture – rather than African architecture, came to mind almost immediately when I decided a web resource would be the best way to house these projects.
How long have you been collating resources of design and master planning projects from the continent?
The cataloging began while an undergraduate in architecture school. I was thinking of ways to impart on my projects certain stylistic elements from my background. I found much of the celebrated work we had to study bland and not representative of the world from which I came from, or the ways many people I knew lived and built their environments. This was 20 years ago and I am still at it.
Africa’s social, political and economic development continues to have a rather distorted image in the media. How far do you feel you can support a more positive and progressive picture of what Africa is really like?
Architecture is the most visible art form. Everywhere you go, you experience it. And over the centuries Africa has contributed immensely to the architectural world, even as recently as the modernist era. It is this recent influence that remains largely unknown, or under reported.
From the late 1800s, thousands of African sculptures began arriving in European museums in the aftermath of exploratory expeditions and colonial plunder. The aesthetics of these traditional sculptures soon became a powerful and well-documented influence among avant-garde artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. At the time, these artists didn’t understand the meaning and functional nature of these sculptures, but they instantly recognised the spiritual aspect of the composition and quickly adapted these qualities to their own efforts to move beyond the naturalism that had defined Western art since the Renaissance. So art that was previously labeled and regarded as primitive anchored the modern art movement.
This influence soon transcended into architecture. Trailblazing European architects like Le Corbusier, one of the founders of modern architecture, and De Stijl pioneer Theo Van Doesburg used well-organised geometric and cubical forms from African art and West African spacial organisation in much of their notable works giving rise to the International Style – then considered unconventional, unprecedented and innovative.
Yes, [western] media has its preferences when it comes to reporting not only on the continent but also on communities of African descent wherever they may be. But anyone curious about something knows not to seek information from a single source. So it is incumbent on all of us with stories to tell to develop and maintain multiple sources of information that can, collectively, change the prevailing narrative.
For further information please visit Afritecture.org