Page C2.2 . 14 April 2004                     
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    West African Adobe


    Yet the maintaining and resurfacing of buildings is part of the rhythm of life; there is an ongoing and active participation in their continuing existence. If they lost their relevance and were neglected, they would collapse. This is not a museum culture.

    Butabu Buildings

    Architects working within this "Gobir" tradition often maximized interior spaces with the creative integration of internal supports and transitional spaces. These latter, such as the ambulatories leading to or flanking the central dome, transform what might otherwise be relatively austere into elegance and beauty.

    Another Gobir trait is the decorative use of supplementary ribs, an attribute that evolved from both aesthetic and pragmatic concerns. Only short timber sections were available, because branches of the local termite-resistant Calatropis procera, employed for infilling timber members of the dome supports, were only three feet (one meter) long.

    One center of Gobir-style buildings is the town and region of Yaamaa, Niger where a number of mosques, elite residences, and stores have been built during the last few years. The inception of new projects is mainly the product of one architect, a local resident named Falke Barmou.

    Barmou started as a traditional mason, but with divine inspiration went on to build the great mosque at Yaamaa, an exceptional structure not only for its great size but also for its innovative use of form. The facade is divided into a set of nine slightly staggered panels, framed in relief and decorated in a checkerboard missing-brick pattern.

    Traditional zanko finials, somewhat more ornamental than average, stand guard at the corners of the two front towers and above the entry. The play of convex and concave elements is complemented by the use of curvilinear and rectilinear design components, a juxtaposition visually underscored by the contrast of the large globe-shaped clay granary next to the mosque with the linearity and angularity of both the adjacent stair and nearby wall.

    In 1986, the Yaamaa mosque was recognized with an Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Though Barmou is no longer actively working as an architect, a number of his students are completing mosques, and elite houses in the region, among these the house of the chef de canton of Illela.

    Inherited Legacy

    One of Barmou's students, El Hadj Abou Moussa, created the mosque in Sanam, in the Tahoua province. Built in 1998, during the month of Ramadan, the whole of the mosque's construction process took roughly 45 days. The workers were largely local, and funding for the mosque and its architect was collected from villagers, neighboring communities, and emigrants of both Niger's capital Niamey, and abroad.

    Moussa's own residence in Yaamaa is a modest, earthen, terrace-roofed structure. A horizontal breakline runs parallel to the roof, across the upper facade. The use of setback areas of varying depths provides contrast between curving and straight elements, as does the use of a repeated scallop motif an element that features in other Yaama buildings.

    Two double scallops play on the facade against recessed arching elements, each decorated with deeper disk-shaped cutaways. These niche circles foreshadow the display of bright white plates arranged on the interior walls from floor to ceiling. Again, contrast is emphasized: the smooth, shiny, white plates are set against the rougher, dark-hued walls and ceiling. They provide a luminescent quality to the interior, reflecting light into the recesses of the room.

    In addition to constructing monuments of extraordinary sculptural and spatial appeal, architects in West Africa have made extensive use of the region's potent sunlight to enhance visual impact. Facade surfaces and interior spaces show a range of tactile and plastic attributes that are heightened over the day (and year) through the dynamic modulations of light and shade.

    This architecture displays unique creativity and aesthetic power. These edifices give evidence of not only striking formal qualities but also sophisticated technical skill, the core earthen material being employed to its fullest potential, with some structures lasting across the centuries.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    James Morris is a prize-winning British photographer whose work is largely concerned with the built environment and the cultural landscape. Suzanne Preston Blier is a professor of fine arts and Afro-American studies at Harvard University and a leading authority on the adobe buildings of West Africa.

    This article is excerpted from Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa, copyright 2003, available from Princeton Architectural Press and at



    ArchWeek Image

    A shop in Yaamaa, Niger, built of traditional Butabu, or mud adobe.
    Photo: James Morris

    ArchWeek Image

    Mosque in Sanam, Niger, designed by architect El Hadj Abou Moussa.
    Photo: James Morris

    ArchWeek Image

    Mosque in Sanam.
    Photo: James Morris

    ArchWeek Image

    Mosque in Sanam.
    Photo: James Morris

    ArchWeek Image

    Mosque in Sanam.
    Photo: James Morris

    ArchWeek Image

    Entrance to the house of architect El Hadj Abou Moussa in Yaamaa, Niger.
    Photo: James Morris

    ArchWeek Image

    Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa, from Princeton Architectural Press.
    Photo: James Morris


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