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Architecture

AfricaThe "triple Heritage" Architectural Concept

Looking at the floor plan of a family dwelling in Africa, one needs to ask: Who lives there? Is it a Muslim family, a Christian family, or a family that believes in ancestor worship? Is there an extended family ancestors' shrine? Is the dwelling laid out as an extended family compound or as a single-family bungalow in an exclusive wealthy section of the city? When examining the tectonics—that is, the construction methods by which the structures of the house, the styles of decorations on the façade and elevations (fronts), roof, openings, and columns, are held together in harmony—of a built object in Africa, one is bound to reflect on what the walls are made of. Are they constructed from grass, branches of trees, reeds, raffia palm fronds, timber, coral shells and sands, clay, or stones? Regarding more recently built structures, one must ask: Are the walls built with concrete materials, zinc, plywood, synthetic materials, engineered wood, or cardboard boxes? What about climatic control and protection from the elements such as the sun and rain? Is the roof of the dwelling high-pitched, low-pitched, sloping to one side, or flat? What material(s) is it made of? Slate, zinc, shingles, clay, thatch, or grass? How are cooling, heating, and humidity controlled? Furthermore, because one of the most important aspects of buildings is the elevation, and many traditional African compounds have portals, one is bound to ask questions regarding the relationships between the portals and the elevations of the houses in the compound, such as: What styles and motifs articulate the portal's surrounding elements, and how are the doors and windows decorated? Are they painted with clay or other pigments? Do they display specific symbols that can be recognized by the members of the community? These are questions that can be addressed with a clear understanding of Africa's geography.

The distribution of climatic zones and vegetation types, along with the availability of building materials, influences the manner in which people build in different parts of the continent. While the coastal tips of northern and southern Africa are covered by Mediterranean vegetation, further inland one encounters semiarid wooded steppe lands that border the deserts—the Sahara Desert in the North, the Kalahari Desert in the South. Both regions are buffered by vast Sahel and savanna grasslands and forests that stretch to West Africa and parts of East Africa. Heading north from the West African Atlantic, mangrove forests, dense tropical rain forests, and evergreen forests gradually transition into Sahel and savanna woodlands and then into the desert proper—the Sahara.

The distribution of cultural groups and political experiences across different parts of the continent from ancient times through the present also underscores the importance of understanding the geography of the continent when studying its architectural heritage. The northern parts of the continent, comprised of the countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, are inhabited by populations that are predominantly Muslim, and certain cultural buildings and edifices from the past and present reflect this way of life. The Muslim population in northern Africa extends to West Africa in countries such as Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad, although these nations contain pockets of Christian communities. Similarly, building techniques reflect these religious cultural affinities as well as responses to specific regional, vernacular, and climatic needs.

Moving eastward toward the Atlantic coast from the northwestern African coastal countries, a great change in religious affiliations and cultural identifications can be observed among citizens of the same country. For example, in Sierra Leon, Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon, the populations in the northern parts of these countries are predominantly Muslim, whereas the southern populations are predominantly Christian. The middle parts, often identified as middle belts, seem to have balanced numbers of Christians and Muslims. In the Central African Republic, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), and Angola, large Catholic and other Christian denominations reside side by side with large Muslim populations. With the exception of Ethiopia, a Christian country with a predominantly Coptic sect as well as a minority Muslim population, many East African countries are predominantly populated by Muslims with fairly large number of citizens affiliated with the Christian faith. The Republic of Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania have large Muslim and minority Christian populations. As in West Africa, northern Sudan is predominantly Muslim, whereas the southern part is principally Christian. Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, and the Republic of South Africa are inhabited by populations that are predominantly Christian with significant populations of Muslims. Once again, the architecture of these regions of Africa reflects the cultural and climatic variations.

It is important to emphasize that the West did not introduce Christianity to all parts of Africa. Certain North African territories and East African countries such as Ethiopia adopted the Christian faith in the middle of the fourth century C.E.—that is, about the same time that Imperial Rome adopted Christianity as its official state religion. One cannot ignore, however, the proselytization of the Christian faith to Africans by later colonizing European missionaries. Also, keeping in mind that the Islamic religion began to spread on the continent in the seventh century C.E., one is left with the inevitable question: What form(s) of cultural affiliations were on the African continent before the coming of Islam and Christianity? The answer is that there has always been indigenous African culture; in fact, one has to speak in the plural by stating that there have always been indigenous cultures that were generated and propagated by the peoples of the continent and that varied greatly from place to place. Indigenous African cultures have had the greatest impact on the continent's architecture(s).

When discussing African architectural practices, the most important thing to keep in mind about the indigenous, Western, and Islamic aspects of African cultures is that they are broad concepts that vary from place to place and region to region. Nevertheless, these concepts lay solid foundations for studying the continent's architecture across time and space in different regions of the continent. For that reason, Nnamdi Elleh, in his book African Architecture: Evolution and Transformation (1997), summed up the original sources of African architecture as indigenous, Western, and Islamic in what he called the "triple heritage architectural concept." The formation of this theory followed years of research exploring the works of architectural historians such as Udo Kultermann, Peter Garlake, Susan Denyer, and Susan B. Aradeon, and it took into consideration the geography, anthropology, sociology, history, and political systems of Africa, especially as reflected in the works of such scholars as Ali A. Mazrui, who first coined the phrase "triple heritage" in his book titled The Africans: A Triple Heritage (1986).

It is obvious that for a continent as large as Africa, such a sweeping proposition can be problematic. The triple heritage concept needs to be clarified, because when examined from cultural, functional, stylistic, and tectonic perspectives, there are gray areas in which it is difficult to separate indigenous from Western architectural motifs, or indigenous from Islamic architecture. Conversely, there are several cases in which motifs that help identify Western and Islamic architecture cannot be completely isolated from one another. Issues of regionalism and vernacular articulations that are inspired by climatic necessities and available building technologies can compound this problem. This is where history and archaeology can help sort out how these three large building cultures came together and provided the continent its architectural heritage. The aim in Ruins of a conical stone tower of a convent in Zimbabwe. The religion of a region and other cultural variations can play an important role in African architecture, affecting such choices as elevation, construction style, building materials, and decoration or ornamentation. © CHARLES & JOSETTE LENARS/CORBIS adopting this historical approach is not necessarily to achieve a total level of cultural separation asserting in absolute terms that this is indigenous, that is Western, and that is Islamic—as desirable as that may be; it would be hard to reach a level of absolute certainty regarding which tectonic and stylistic motifs could be identified and separated from one another in all cases. Nevertheless, understanding the mechanisms in which architectural fusion took place among the three cultures places one in a better position to determine the functions, styles, and systems of the continent's architectural practices. Hence, the next three sections provide synopses of the indigenous, Western, and Islamic aspects of the triple heritage architectural concept.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Anticolonialism in Southeast Asia - Categories And Features Of Anticolonialism to Ascorbic acidArchitecture - Africa - The "triple Heritage" Architectural Concept, The Roots Of Indigenous African Architecture, Western (european Colonial) Influences On African Architecture