Material Matters (2) West African architects integrating architecture, nature and community

He was determined to build with local materials rather than the concrete-block houses he saw everywhere in the city...

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Written by Marianne Lentz

 

When Joe Osae-Addo set out to build his house in Accra, he used it as a prototype to test these ideas.

He was determined to build with local materials rather than the concrete-block houses he saw everywhere in the city. And he wanted to live in a house that would stay cool without air-conditioning.

Quickly, however, he realised why this is done so infrequently in Ghana: the building materials he needed – timber and adobe mud blocks – were not manufactured anywhere.

Adobe mud blocks are really just compressed earth blocks, he explains. “In West Africa, we have this very red soil and with a little bit of water, it becomes basically like a mud brick.” However, he had difficulty getting the mixture right. It was not until he took a trip to eastern Ghana to observe how mud blocks were produced there in the traditional, handmade way, that he got it right.

“Using local know-how with contemporary techniques to create a material that my grandparents have been using for centuries, reminded me that when we are talking about development, being innovative isn’t about one or the other. It’s about a cross-pollination of ideas,” he says.

At first, he was met with scepticism.

“When I was building my house, everyone was amazed that I was going to live in a house like that, made out of mud and with no air-conditioning. But we forget that most of us are only a generation away from rural life.”

For a long time, he says, Africans have turned their backs on their rural past.

“My father was the first in his family to go to university. His father was a farmer. In one generation, my father went from growing up and going to school in a little town, going to university in the city in Accra, and then on to Harvard – all in one generation! It’s quite extraordinary. I think that as Africans we need to constantly remind ourselves that at heart, we are rural folk, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We are proud, rural folk,” he says, fiddling with the Kente scarf he always wears – something that connects him to home on his frequent travels.

His house has no fixed windows and no corridors, which means every room has at least two sides exposed to the outside.

“It’s the principle of cross-ventilation – the wind blows in and gets sucked out. Often in Ghana, we don’t think about those simple rules to make a house breathe.”

Landscaping also plays an important role in the architecture of his home, he explains. Tall trees cover the house and provide shade and protection from the heat, creating a place of respite in the humid, tropical environment.

Osae-Addo’s ideas correspond well with Kéré’s baobab-like installation at Louisiana and school project in Gando. To both, integrating architecture with nature seems paramount.

Another contribution that takes into consideration the surrounding community and pre-existing organisational structure is that of Nigerian architect Kunlé Adayemi, founder of NLÉ Architects in Amsterdam.

At Louisiana, he contributed with images from the Makoko Floating School project, a multifunctional schoolhouse and community centre floating on the lagoon heart of Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos.

With 16 million people, Lagos is challenged by urbanisation and overcrowding, as well as rising sea levels and consequent seasonal infrastructural damage from swelling tides and swift currents. In this unforgiving environment, the informal fishing community of Makoko sprang up in the large lagoon area of Lagos has and grown rapidly in recent decades. When Adayemi first visited Makoko, he was astounded. A village on water, built entirely on wooden stilts, Makoko has existed for over 100 years and is home to more than 100 000 people.

“It’s a community that is technically defined as a slum, that lives on water with almost no roads, no land, no modern infrastructure,” Adayemi says. “How have they managed to build so much out of so little?”

For Adayemi, Makoko became a model for thinking about how coastal African cities can develop sustainably in the future.

“Our largest real estate is actually water. We’re dealing with a very small footprint, so it’s a logical thing to do, really, to think about how to live on water, by water.”

Makoko has a thriving economy, a fishing industry. They use very little energy and even have their own agriculture, Adayemi was impressed to discover: plants grown under water.

“It’s a complete eco system,” he says.

Of course there are challenges. The settlement lacks basic social amenities such as electricity, schools, healthcare clinics and sufficient sanitation. The greatest challenge for Makoko however, is that of legitimacy. Recurring state-sanctioned demolition threats have repeatedly forced residents to evacuate their homes with no offer of compensation or transient housing.

Adayemi was interested in solving those challenges while harnessing the opportunities the community generated. The first thing he did was to learn from them: he watched how they built their homes, what materials they used. Ultimately, he generated a solution combining both local and global technology. The result: the Makoko Floating School Project.

Adayemi and his team spent four years negotiating with authorities. Only a few weeks before the Louisiana opening, the Nigerian federal government issued a statement that acknowledged the community and adopted the school as a model for development. “The school literally transformed the perception of the government and saved the community,” Adayemi says.

The structure of the school – which is built on recycled barrels picked up from waste dumps around Lagos – can be used for different forms of buildings, Adayemi points out.

“There’s hundreds of Makokos all over Africa. I hope this will serve as inspiration to governments to think about how to develop these communities and learn from them as opposed to fighting against them.”

The key, he says, is learning from the people.

“They are dealing with real problems, fundamental issues immediately connected with the environment. I’m always inspired by that, learning from what everyday people do.” 

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