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Make do and mend: care and maintenance in Burkina Faso

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Practices of persistent upkeep in Burkina Faso are themselves a piece of heritage that must be maintained

‘Everything that is not tradition is plagiarism.’ Inscribed on the north facade of the 17th-century Casón del Buen Retiro in Madrid, this aphorism by Spanish writer, philosopher and art critic Eugeni d’Ors is not altogether true. Nevertheless, reflections like those formulated by d’Ors invite us to take stock, at a moment when immediacy and the search for an apparent originality seem to determine everyone’s course. The desire for novelty has established itself as the goal, to set oneself apart and be different.

Tradition is the transmission of a legacy from one generation to the next. Without tradition, societies become indistinguishable from one another and die out. Inherent in tradition are all possible developments of the present, and in architecture it must be understood that tradition includes relationships with construction: the processes and instruments of the trade.

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Care maintenance burkina faso degrowth architectural review 03

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Care maintenance burkina faso degrowth architectural review 07

These structures seem to be part of their own world, and do not compare with the high-sheen and hard-wearing materials that make up most of the global north. But with the extreme cost of making architecture from these irresolute materials, the attitude to repair embodied in traditional techniques is one that must be heeded

Each year between the months of March and May, before the arrival of the summer’s rains, women from the village of Tangassogo in Burkina Faso collectively render the mud, wood and hay walls of the village with tools such as brushes and feathers, mattocks, and stones. The Kassena people deploy the same pigments they use to decorate clay jars, and geometric patterns are mixed with recognisable images and symbols of the place and painted all over the wall. This is both a finish and a maintenance measure, slowing down its erosion when the rains come to wash away first the superficial, then the deeper, layers of paint.

Throughout the history of architecture it has been part of common practice to work on surfaces and transform bare materials by means of colour. The application of pigment to the walls of a cave invests it with a series of meanings. As one of humanity’s earliest ways of transforming its immediate environment, cave paintings translate material into surface, and the generic into the specific.

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Care maintenance burkina faso degrowth architectural review 05

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Care maintenance burkina faso degrowth architectural review 11

Wall drawing, rather than carving, is often associated with architectural interiors: Roman frescoes, decoration in medieval and Renaissance chapels, as well as modern and contemporary murals. There are many cases where the external surface is used as a canvas to draw on. In 1860 Gottfried Semper published his greatest work, Der Stil, a text that linked the origin of architecture to the origin of textile techniques. The primitive man who could weave stems or natural fibres together, and alternate them to create patterns of texture and colour, easily went on to braid branches or reeds and build fences or small palisades. 

According to Semper’s theory, following an evolutionary thesis similar to Charles Darwin’s, those textile enclosures progressively incorporated more advanced materials, such as wood, stone and ceramic, all the while maintaining the decorative patterns inherited from their textile ancestors. Semper established the logic of a process that starts with covering a body, eventually adding a shell inside which the body can move freely, to progressively add complexity to that envelope and ultimately formulate an architecture, which will forever be contaminated by its epidermal, textile beginnings. So it is that architecture will always be conditioned by the symbolic power of cladding.

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Care maintenance burkina faso degrowth architectural review 10

Along with its ongoing tradition of annual restoration, the village is currently undergoing a heritage protection project. Drawing on the collective participation of the resident women in maintaining the plaster exteriors of their mud houses, this project concerns both disseminating knowledge about an ethnic group’s traditions, but also collaboration among neighbours, families and communities. Beyond the preservation of particular objects and structures, the ambition is to help preserve identities and cultures. Led by Albert Faus, an architect living in Burkina Faso, and Toni Cumella, a manufacturer of ceramic tiles based in Barcelona, and produced in conjunction with the Catalonian architectural association, the project is currently exhibited at the Museu de Granollers in Spain. 

In the Kassena community, the habitat is organised in detached family properties known as ‘concessions’. Each concession comprises several dwellings built with walls of different heights, forming courtyards varying in size and degree of privacy. Set between the houses and the walls are communal spaces, in which families go about their daily activities and hold gatherings and celebrations. Spaces are covered, partly covered, or open to the air, in accordance with the many social and spiritual customs of the culture. Given the variety of possible compositions within the concession,  Kassena architecture is highly complex and dynamic, always evolving along with changes taking place within families.

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Care maintenance burkina faso degrowth architectural review 06

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Care maintenance burkina faso degrowth architectural review 04

Source: Toni Cumella

Through their houses, the Kassena people tell us about situations foreign to Western ideas of reality. With gradual transitions from private to public, and a lack of exact boundaries, the outer walls protect the community from a hostile exterior; doors force you to stoop when stepping inside, walls ask that you move laterally. Changes in floor level keep animals out. Small openings restrict views, disconnecting the intimate interior from the outside world. Furniture adapts to the curved walls of the homes, as if made to fit inside a jar. Everything is built with seeming spontaneity, but is painted on with precision. These practices are a whole lesson in ways of building identity – in a place where life unfolds with difficult limitations, in which economic realities and social changes can either make cultural traditions disappear or turn into mere museum pieces.

Because new construction systems can be executed much faster than working by hand, and the most basic technological solutions prove to be more durable, the desire for change can now be satisfied more quickly, with no reference to the past. Anything that once potentially anchored us to a historical tradition is doomed to be hidden and eventually disappear. Analysing the relationship between art and work, William Morris, the pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement, warned us about the dangers of modern society, its distancing from an idea of real life and what he called the ‘age of the substitute’. He inspired Heinrich Tessenow, a German architect now partially forgotten, who defended an economic model that prioritised the work of the artisan over an industrial system made massive, a system which reduces the value of work and of human effort enormously. He wanted to restore continuity, and a holism that technological progress had disrupted. 

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Care maintenance burkina faso degrowth architectural review 09

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Care maintenance burkina faso degrowth architectural review 02

This view can be applied to the world as it is today, where nearly everything has become unreal, a vulgar imitation, a substitute, where immediacy, industrial production, and greed have produced abundant copies and facsimiles, but where little in the market retains a connection with history, a sense of origin, or a relationship with nature. Morris discerned the advent of a low-cost culture bursting with products incapable of serving their purpose: products quick to become useless, and that without a second life cycle, become waste. William Morris was convinced that happiness depended not on having a job, but on enjoying one, and that giving beauty to the result of work made work itself pleasurable. Eugeni d’Ors wrote that there is no radical difference between work and play, between necessity and art, between utility and beauty.

There are architectures born to last as long as they last, without much maintenance, and there are architectures that can be made to last with only simple, regular repairs. Such maintenance measures on some works of architecture contradict the demands of people who have no time to care for what they build. The maintenance of a home is an opportunity to strengthen the bonds of teamwork, as an essence of tradition. Mixing, pressing, drying, painting are all expressive processes that bear the traces of the human hands, visible on the walls of Tangassogo homes.

Translated by Gina Cariño

All photos by @annamas_photo unless otherwise stated

This piece is featured in the AR December 2019/January 2020 issue on New into Old and Preservation – click here to buy your copy today