PERSPECTIVE | BY TIM CULVAHOUSE, FAIA
Villages of West Africa
Across much of West Africa, from Bamako in western Mali to Tamberma in the north of Togo, indigenous buildings are formed of the earth on which they rest. As Steven and Cathi House, of House + House Architects, write in their recently published book, Villages of West Africa: an intimate journey across time, “With few building materials to choose from, West African cultures have taken the earth underfoot into their hands to create some of the most beautiful, sculptural, and ecologically sound buildings in the world.”
Mud mixed with straw, cow dung, or other binders is an elastic, versatile material, unparalleled in its ability to be shaped as needed. It can be molded while wet, made into dried bricks and stacked, fired into hard, durable units, used as a plaster, or bonded to a wooden structure.
In Villages of West Africa, their photographs vividly capture these buildings and the people who dwell in them. An extensive selection of these photographs is on view at the Center for Architecture + Design Gallery through April 20. They are worth seeing not only for the beauty of the images, but also for the stories they tell of a way of building that binds a people to its architecture, in harmony with their environment.
Though similar in methods of construction, the earthen buildings of West Africa are remarkably variable. The Grand Mosque of Djenné, Mali, the largest earthen structure in the world, is monumental and austere. The red clay houses of Koumi in western Burkina Faso are as rugged as the lives lived there. The Kassena village of Tiébélé, 400 kilometers east of Koumi, is a tapestry of geometric patterns.
Whatever their appearance, these buildings are vulnerable to their climate — months of hot, dry weather interrupted by brief seasons of torrential rain. This vulnerability requires villagers to come together periodically to restore weathered surfaces. In Tiébélé, the women of the village embed ash and other dry pigments into a newly applied coat of mud, and then burnish it to a silken and water-resistant smoothness. In Djenné, the entire city — men, women, and children — participates in the annual, weeklong festival known as Crepissage de la Grand Mosquée — Plastering of the Great Mosque.
Whether the villagers of Tiébélé speak of “architecture,” I don’t know, but if they do it is not in our sense of the word, as something set apart from and ostensibly above everyday life. Their knowledge of building is intimate. They weigh the value of materials, quite literally, in their hands, and so they waste nothing. And, as Steven and Cathi House note, the results are completely recyclable.
We are entering a phase of renewed interest in the vernacular or, more precisely, the indigenous and what it can teach us about sustainability. This January, for example, saw the publication of Julia Watson’s Lo―TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, which Sala Elise Patterson describes as a “compendium of indigenous technologies . . . a powerful toolkit for climate-resilient design.”
Most of us would trace this perspective within architecture to Bernard Rudofsky’s provocative book, Architecture Without Architects, published in 1964, and in fact Rudofsky plays an unexpected role in the provenance of Villages of West Africa. As young architects, Steven and Cathi undertook a yearlong sojourn through Greece, Dalmatia, Italy, and Spain, exploring places like those described in Architecture Without Architects. On their return to San Francisco, where they maintain their architectural practice, they learned that Rudofsky was scheduled to speak in the (much-missed) SFMOMA architecture lecture series. Cathi House wrote to him, sharing how his writing had influenced their thinking about architecture and asking if they might meet him while he was in town. Rudofsky ended up spending the afternoon before his lecture in their apartment discussing shared experiences, and they remained friends and corresponded regularly until his death in 1988.
House + House’s book, Mediterranean Villages: an architectural journey (Images Publishing, 2006) is a probing study in black and white of the places they had visited in that seminal journey. Meanwhile, they continued to explore; over the course of their travels, they have visited 65 countries, “not counting ones we just passed through.”
In addition to their photographic skills, they have honed the capacity to engage intimately with people whose cultures and experiences are far distant from their own, from our own. They have experienced the power of respectful inquiry, which can’t be rushed. When you enter a village, you first present yourselves to the village chief. You sit with him, drink tea with him, and explain what you’re up to and why. And you discover that, on his approval, word spreads magically, doors open, and you are invited in, even into a home in which, only moments before, a baby has been born.
Villages of West Africa suggests that there is a more than coincidental relationship between respectful inquiry and sustainable construction, that there is intelligence to be discovered not only in the algorithms of high-performance façade design, but also in the wisdom of indigenous practices and the people who hold that wisdom not just in their hands, but in their hearts and traditions, as well. This book and exhibition are timely reminders of timeless resources, well worth seeing.
Tim Culvahouse, FAIA, is editor of arcCA DIGEST, the Journal of AIA California.