The architecture is as diverse as the continent is large
Spurred by the desire to return to places I had known as a child, in 2000 I began to make study visits to African cities that would eventually lead to the publication of a photographic survey of the continent’s capitals. Although my original motives were quite personal, from the beginning I was interested in recording the sense of place and how it varied from one city to another. In each city I photographed representative civic, commercial and residential buildings. By comparing images, it was possible to identify common threads and areas of difference.
I wanted to identify the shared characteristics of the cities in each region, which I divided into six geographic terrains: the Maghreb, Desert, the Sahel, Savanna and Grassland, Forest, and Mountain and Highveld. The Maghreb capitals, for example, developed around the dense, human-scale medinas, with the French adding their villes nouvelles in Algiers, Tunisia and Rabat. This led to the phenomenon of the ‘twin city’, where the indigenous and colonial centres exist side by side.
In the desert region, cities can only exist by being close to water. Nouakchott is in the most desert-like setting, just inland from the Atlantic coast, and Cairo on the Nile has the largest population of any city on the continent. Sahel means shore – and is the name for the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert. The landscape extends horizontally over great distances, and vertical landmarks, from water towers to monuments at road junctions, punctuate the skylines of cities like Ouagadougou and Bamako.
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In the savanna and grassland cities, there has been a historic commitment to making civic space. Older examples include L’Avenue de l’Indépendance in Antananarivo, but the tradition continues in the new city of Gaborone.
Forest is the most extensive region, with the largest number of capitals, many of which are ports that have longstanding connections with other continents. The forest itself has often been cleared, but the combination of heat and moisture, and the consequent settlement patterns, still determine the character of the cities. The mountain and Highveld cities are located away from the coast and, due to their elevation and relatively temperate climate, their settlement patterns are more varied. At around 2,000 metres above sea level, Addis Ababa and Nairobi are the major cities in this region.
In each case, my photographs show the range of architectural gestures that have been used to represent the public life of the city. While many civic buildings stand back from their surroundings, commercial buildings tend to work in agglomerations. Their gestures are less forceful but, collectively, they define major routes and provide the architectural landscape. Residential developments, on the other hand, are often places of retreat, and Africa is rich in typologies that respond to climate and culture: tower houses in the medina in Algiers, houses with breeze-catching terraces in Nouakchott, mud-brick compounds in Djenne, hillside clusters in Antananarivo, and apartment buildings looking towards the ocean in Luanda. The way in which the buildings in each category relate to one another – the frequency and rhythm with which they occur – are the defining characteristics of each city.
Thatched house, bissau, guinea bissau
I was especially interested in how architecture responded to light and culture in different regions. In the Maghreb, the medinas keep the narrow thoroughfares and the interior spaces in deep shade, while the buildings of the villes nouvelles open up to the sunlight and air movement on the coast. In a desert city like Nouakchott, only bold forms stand up to the strength of the light, which bleaches colour and creates a soft atmosphere.
In the Sahel cities, the buildings of the colonial era developed a dry, tropical architecture based on colonnades and porticoes – unlike the vernacular architecture of the region, which is about walls that define perimeters and enclose cooling spaces. The light in the savanna and grassland region can still be quite harsh – which explains the brise-soleil architecture found in Dakar and Pretoria. Representing new developments across the continent, public buildings in the newly planned city of Abuja use the technology of tinted glass.
In the forest region, the roof architecture of Bangui, Freetown and Accra displays a readiness to respond to the constant risk of inundation, while the porches and balconies are the threshold spaces where people live. The climate in the mountain and Highveld is more permissive. Because of the elevation, precipitation is high, the vegetation is lush, and this is reflected in a picturesque, suburb-like quality.
On other continents, technology is more advanced and has had a homogenising effect on the built environment. In Africa, modern technologies arrived with colonialism but their impact on the general building stock has been less decisive. The continent is therefore unusual in two respects: it includes six distinct climatic zones, and the built environment is a direct reflection of the physical and cultural conditions in these zones. The clarity of this relationship in many African cities exposes the fundamentals of human settlement that now, for me, are an important consideration in other places.