During the UK Black History month of October, I’m privileged once again to introduce another guest blog by fellow creative Livingstone Mukusa on his current project celebrating African architects and architecture.
People, locale, environment. These components of a landscape are interrelated, and in the hands of a sensitive practitioner, are approached collectively when considering design intervention. In Sub Saharan Africa, however, this is the exception, rather than the rule.
Colonialism introduced to Sub Saharan Africa new means of construction and building aesthetics. Dominated by industrialized, mass produced materials, this new architectural language spread, permeating rapidly through previously distinct architectural landscapes to creating a region replete with architectural expressions reduced to basic physical attributes that are divorced from their environments, and social meaning of those who inhabit them.
Traditionally, African architecture, much like its art, has always been a verb rather than a noun. It was a language of ritual rather than objectification, a language of climactic response, a language of resource availability.
Patterns, tessellations, fractal designs, and numerous other elements were generally not for the embellishment and decoration that ordinarily meets today’s eye, but carried with them specific meaning and purpose. While the Western tradition of compartmentalized knowledge, combined with the modernist concept of the exploration of each medium in isolation, led to a virtually complete separation of art and architecture. The integration of art or craft and architecture, on the other hand, was and remains an essential part indigenous African cultures— a result of the experience of unity between art and life.
Today, architecture throughout Sub Saharan Africa, and its Diaspora is more of a testament to expressions and materiality borrowed from elsewhere. Occasionally, a nod or two is given to the locality and culture, forms and techniques that speak of the place and the people. Where does this place the idea of an African Architecture? In our attempts to frame, within a modern day context, what African architecture is, how can we bridge the huge chasm of a dichotomy between African architecture of old and new African architectural expressions? What frames African architecture? Should it even be framed?
Sub-Saharan Africa is incredibly diverse in landscape, climate zones, ethnicities, cultures, and economies. And the answers to these questions are as complex, contradictory even, as this diversity. But these are questions worth examining. To this end, I am seeking an assortment of UK and Europe based architects, artists, activists and scholars to lend their thoughts for an upcoming publication.
Livingstone Mukasa, founder of Afritecture, a blog focused on the contextual engagement, and exploration of the African vernacular in modern architecture. He can be reached with Twitter: @livmuk, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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:
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 well over ten years I’ve been working with architectural practices heavily involved in the delivery of public buildings. Equally, I’ve worked alongside visual artists working on community projects. Although I’ve witnessed a few collaborations between the professions, I do wonder why there hasn’t been more importance placed on developing such partnerships, particularly in designing schools and hospitals. One obvious answer is the need to reduce building costs. Limiting or completely removing arts budgets is common. This I guess is an economic answer but how different is art to architecture when they serve the same purpose in the public realm? Some of you may have heard me discuss this at length but I invited my guest blogger Livingstone Mukasa, Founder and CEO of Archibility, an online portal for the sourcing and outsourcing of architectural and design services, to provide an additional perspective on the importance of integrating art within the built environment.
Integrating art within the built environment.
Mankind’s instinctual desire to decorate habitants has been with us for as long as the need to have shelter. This creative process has, from time immemorial, given meaning to built spaces. Architecture, sculpture, and painting once belonged together. Indeed, they were admirably intertwined at various points in history—in the ancient cultures of East and West, and in the European Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. It is only during relatively recent times in human civilization that the separation of art and architecture has taken place.
When the architectural discipline began to align itself with the fields of science and technology, determined by functionality and rationalism, poetic, spiritual and humanising qualities were discarded as unnecessary. The modernist movement generally rejected everything that did not meet the demands of structural necessity or material functionalism. The idea that the building itself, through its shapes, relationship between solids and voids, became the art work, necessitating the elimination of any artistic expression applied to or incorporated into the building.
This lack of art in architecture contributed to the visual poverty and impersonality experienced in most 20th century cities around the world. The modernist trend helped create visual deficiencies of the environment in which we live. Particularly regrettable was the uninspiring appearances of school buildings, a misfortune still present today. Interest in art should be encouraged at an early age and a visually stimulating environment is of crucial importance in a place that serves the early development of personality and value systems.
Another contributor to the demise was economics. Buildings became real estate that often trades hands for money, as are paintings and sculptures. The rules of standardization began to apply, leaving little room for expressionism. Today, it is rare to find architecture, art, and sculpture united in any but the most tentative way.
The inability of mainstream modernist architecture to establish a more humanised environment gave rise to the postmodern movement. The eclecticism of this movement attempted to counter the alienating abstractness of modernist architecture — among others — by means of reintegrating imagery, ornament, colour and various visual art and craft practices into the architectural design.
An Awakening Emerges
But what started out as a powerful critique of the shortcomings of Modernism, quickly lapsed to the level of a fashionable style, more concerned with the production of a striking image that would enhance the building’s commercial value, than with the creation of artistic beauty and the celebration of poetic, subliminal qualities. These qualities — universally admired in the most magnificent structures of the past — have clearly become marginal pursuits in mainstream architectural production of the present.
Today, many urban environments are perceived to be alienating and even hostile, while most public buildings project an authoritative, inaccessible, or at times dehumanising image. Contemporary architecture benefits immensely from artistic content. The use of art helps create a humanising, scale-giving and psychologically benevolent factor. Also, the vast majority of people never see original paintings and sculpture in an art galleries or museums. This provides substantial reason to equip public buildings with art.
Given the architectural discipline’s established alignment with the `hard’ rather than the `soft’ sciences, and the absence of serious research and verifiable data about the effects of art on the users of buildings, the necessity of art is often given little consideration among clients, local authorities and even architects. The separation of art and architecture in mainstream architectural practice and training is moreover conspicuously out of touch with the recent shift towards more interdisciplinary teaching and research in most other academic fields. Art is no longer taught and not generally presumed to be an integral part of architecture — neither among architects, nor among the general public. Most often architects blame either the cost factor for the absence of art in their buildings, or the negative attitude of an unsympathetic client. Artistic adornment is perceived to be expensive and inessential.
A wide range of artistic embellishment, however, cannot only be achieved at very low cost, but its execution can also easily be performed by virtually untrained craftsmen. Costs for such projects are thus hardly excessive; they could be motivated for on the basis of job creation and skill’s development and built into the project budget for community engagement and training.
The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Centre
One outstanding example of this integration is The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Because hospitals are often accessed only during times of crisis, the design of the building and the integration of artworks specially created for the Bloomberg Children’s Center is integral to the mission of the institution, which seeks to bring comfort and healing to both the pediatric patient and their loved ones. The Bloomberg Children’s Center serve as a blueprint for other facilities interested in adopting a similar approach. Working together, the team from Johns Hopkins, the architecture firm of Perkins + Will, landscape architects from Olin, along with consulting architect Allen Kolkowitz, and art curator Nancy Rosen, worked together with over 70 artists to create a state-of-the-art medical facility and featuring more than 500 custom works of art. The project was a tremendous opportunity for this diverse professional to work collectively using their broad vocabulary to create something unique. The architects had to learn to allow the artists a certain freedom and integrity to express their art in the architectural space. And the artists had to learn how to incorporate elements into the architectural core that integrate rather than explode out. Working together, they all became parts of a complex chorus.
The Ever-Changing Language of the Colour Alphabet
The collaboration is clearly visible, even miles away. Covering almost the entire exterior of the building in a seamless bond is a massive and intricate multi-colored work of art by Spencer Finch. Each panel of the shadowbox-like work is made out of two layers of glass through which shines one of Finch’s color alphabet—a carefully distilled palette of 26 shades—with blue as the dominant color—inspired by Claude Monet’s Impressionist landscape paintings and Finch’s visits to Monet’s studio outside Paris. The result is a shimmering exterior that captures the light of the sky, allowing the building to change in sync with the environment, establishing it as a natural and inviting presence. While the glass and color accentuate the curves and dimples of the building, its transparency beckons the community.
The art and design of the Bloomberg Children’s Center also has practical functions. Spencer Finch’s palette for the building exterior is composed primarily of a range of blue tones. The presence of the colour blue is used throughout the interiors—in all of the elevator lobbies, along the patient floors, even on the walkway of the bridge that leads into the building, immediately letting visitors know that they are in the children’s section of the hospital or on a path towards it. There is a unique work of art in every one of the twelve elevator lobbies, each inspired by a different book. This idea of linking reading and healing continues throughout the building’s reception and waiting areas and along its main circulation routes. As patients and visitors navigate through the building, they will discover unique works of art that become memorable landmarks that help with way finding. Setting the Stage with Playful Sculptures The airy bi-level lobby and its four-story atrium reinforce the feeling of accessibility and openness that permeates the building. When considering how artworks could enliven these entry spaces, curator Rosen proposed reaching out to set designers. In the natural course of their activities, these magicians of the stage are experts at dealing with active, populated spaces, and are thoroughly accustomed to working collaboratively. Based on a series of enchanting concept sketches, stage and set designer Robert Israel was brought on board. Rather than just filling the space, Israel’s work transforms the area to continue the sense of delight sparked by the shimmering glass of the building’s exterior. Swimming above the broad stairway that connects the ground floor and the main level lobbies is a family of giant puffer fish. And suspended beyond the main level information desk is a flying cow with a nine-foot wingspan, heading towards a ring of the 28 phases of the moon. Just outside, a very colorful huge rhinoceros, with a baby rhino on its back, both built out of block-like cubes, stands at over 20 feet high at the entrance to the Bloomberg Children’s Center’s Emergency Department. The craggy, uneven pavement at its feet is evidence of its weighty stature and rootedness in the community. Israel did not get to see the final building before he designed the sculptures. He worked with architecture plans and models and tried to figure it out.
Every form of Architecture ought to be an Art
In many parts of the world, where the encouragement of more accessibility to art and the promotion of cultural self-expression have high priority, individuals from local communities are given the opportunity of getting involved and collaborating with the architect on the artistic embellishment of the new building in their midst. This is a scheme easily adapted. Themes for art works — be they murals, mosaics, relief works, or sculptures — can be generated in community meetings. Local narratives can provide specificity to broader and more general themes and issues, allowing the artwork to become a focal point of shared memories or aspirations. People thus become active producers of the building rather than passive consumers and the process of engagement may contribute to public responsibility, ownership, and the prevention of vandalism. Artistic decoration is also the easiest way of involving the future users of the building — who might be children — hands-on in shaping their own built environment. Art can describe a building’s function; it can imbue a space with a spiritual quality; it can visually enlarge a space by creating an illusion; it can confer status; it can demonstrate wealth; it can convert a neutral space into one suited for a particular ritual; it can ascertain claims about a building’s owner or users; it can establish links between cultures or attempt to recover values of the past; in short: art plays a vital role in shaping a building’s identity.
Architecture is not the making of an exquisite object for the select few, but has a much broader function in society. Human beings have a fundamental need to experience their existence as meaningful. In this context the ability to identify with one’s environment — be it natural or built environment — provides a sense of belonging. Architecture often falls short of providing this sense of belonging, of truly capturing the genius loci. Art can play an important role in this regard, because it is more accessible and can be experienced on a more immediate, emotional level, thus allowing people to relate to a building through art. Art must once again be understood to be an integral part of architecture, as it always has been until fairly recently. Only when architectural students are taught that art is part of architecture just as plumbing or wall finishes or landscaping, will budgets be established accordingly and architects will not be forced to `hide’ costs for murals under the codes for paint or landscaping. The general public, from which clients emerge, can hardly be expected to revise their established understanding of architecture if professional architects themselves do not understand the integral unity of art and architecture. The challenge lies with the educational institutions to revise their curricula and reappraise the role of architecture and the role of the architect in society.
LeCorbusier, the famed modernist architect who represented a movement to integrate art and architecture once said: “You employ stone, wood, and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces: that is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good. I am happy and I say: ‘This is beautiful.’ That is Architecture. Art enters in…”
All architecture has the potential to reach that state. And any architect, planner, or designer working in collaboration with the owners or the public, can do what Corbu is describing.