West African Adobe
by James Morris and Suzanne Preston Blier
Too often, when people in the West think of African architecture, they imagine nothing more than a mud hut — a primitive vernacular remembered from an old Tarzan movie. Why this ignorance to the richness of West African buildings? Possibly it is because the great dynastic civilizations of the region were already in decline when the European colonizers first exposed these cultures to the West.
Being built of mud (Butabu), many older buildings had already been lost, unlike the stone or brick buildings of other ancient cultures. Or possibly this lack of awareness is because the buildings are just too strange, too foreign to have been easily appreciated by outsiders. Often they more closely resemble, huge monolithic sculptures or ceramic pots than "architecture" as we think of it.
But in fact these buildings are neither "historic monuments" in the classic sense, nor as culturally remote as they may initially appear. They share many qualities — such as sustainability, sculptural form, and community participation in their conception — now valued in Western architectural thinking. Though part of long traditions and ancient cultures, they are at the same time contemporary structures serving a current purpose.
The mud from which these buildings are made is itself a controversial substance that tests our conventional views of architecture. It is one of the most commonly used building materials in the world, and yet in our urban-dominated society it is seen, effectively, as dirt. Buildings subtly alter in appearance each time they are rerendered, which can be as often as once a year. >>>
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This article is excerpted from Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa by James Morris and Suzanne Preston Blier, with permission of the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press.
Neighborhood mosque in Yaamaa, Niger, built of traditional Butabu, or mud adobe.
Photo: James Morris
Mosque in Yaamaa.
Photo: James Morris
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