An epic project which offers a country-by-country gazette of traditional, heritage, vernacular, colonial, modern and contemporary architecture
‘It is my belief that there is not a singular theory that has the capacity to tell the truth about the African continent or its architecture. It is my hope that we can embrace specificity, patience, and people in any theoretical understanding of architecture in Africa.’ So says the Berlin-based Burkinabé architect Diébédo Francis Kéré. To some degree, the seven-volume compendium – Sub-Saharan Africa: Architectural Guide, edited by Philipp Meuser and Adil Dalbai – is an attempt to make that dream a reality. The first volume is devoted to the history and theory of Sub-Saharan architecture and the remaining six volumes offer a 49-country-by-country gazette of traditional, heritage, vernacular, colonial, modern and contemporary architecture (featuring 850 buildings and 200-plus articles); the project is epic in its proportions. Although thankfully, for those of us who are now feeling faint of heart, each volume is designed in the format of a hand-sized guidebook. It’s to its credit that while covering such wide-ranging ground the study refuses to shy away from the problematics – such as a consciousness of the various acts of translation required for architecture in this context to participate in a discipline dominated, in its international scope, by European and US practitioners and discourse, and the tendency towards sweeping generalisation involved – of its subject matter.
Volume one begins with a theory proposed by the South African artist Doung Anwar Jahangeer, who, when asked about what distinguished African culture from Western culture, suggested that in the West people earn money to invest in art or creative culture, while in Africa people have to be creative to earn money. It would be trite to say that Sub-Saharan Africa shows just how creative the continent’s architects can be. Although to some extent it is a showcase for that. More importantly, the collection tells a fundamental story of what happens when the specific conditions of site, social needs and cultures meet the requirements of politics, economics and national identity. And how that balance levels out differently from place to place.
Sub-Saharan Africa: Architectural Guide, edited by Philipp Meuser and Adil Dalbai, DOM Publishers, €148 (7 volumes, softcover)