African Women Redefining Modern Architecture in Africa

By Shaan Khan (22/03/21)

Technology & Environmentalism race through new architects minds & weave themselves through modern building designs.

For an architect, it’s about finding new solutions to improve residents’ quality of lives that’s cost-effective. Utilising our planet ecologically through sustainable methods can lead to fewer bills to pay for residents through an abundance of locally-sourced, natural resources to craft & maintain buildings structures & systems.

This new-age architecture is the missing piece to the puzzle of Africa’s reimagining of housing development. But one last key component to not overlook is architects appeal to people through aesthetic.

Architecture with a Western aesthetic has swept over developed towns & cities worldwide—where concrete, brick & steel are integral to the image. What’s more representative of the ‘modern western aesthetic’ is the nature of the processed materials.

The material suppliers bleed the world of its resources and form monopolies. They superficially construct materials for houses tied to their branding. Materials are frankenstein’ed in the factories, toxic to human health and fill the air with carbon emissions—leading to pollution & global warming that directly harms Africa despite the factories being located far away in abundance in nations like China.

Traditional architecture with the Western aesthetic is the un-African way. But the new-age, eco-friendly way is.

In the era of pre-colonialism, African tribes were not dabbling in global imperialism, dominating trade routes & hoarding supplies worldwide—they were reliant on the fruits of Africa. Not their ‘Western masters’ that ravaged the continent’s resources then gave little back in penance but with ‘add-on interest’.

New, eco-friendly architecture brings Africans back to their roots. They utilise the earth around them ethically. It empowers African people to cultivate, craft & distribute like their ancestors of the past. To be in full control—it’s why it would be fitting in terms of cultural representation, for this new architecture to take shape of a more African Aesthetic.

African women are at the forefront of reimagining the future of African architecture. Hopefully leaving an ever-lasting impression on the continent, but also the globe; to bare-witness the feats of African ingenuity & successful creations that leave a mark on human history—but positively.

Rammed Earth, a Basis to Eco-Friendly Homes

A fundamental system that will be deep-rooted in the future of African housing is utilising local materials from the ground to build homes—coined as the ‘rammed earth’ technique.

Once, we would perceive materials from beneath our feet, such as mud & clay, to be impractical & archaic for the use of future housing.

Over time, humans have developed ideas & technology that make such locally-sourced materials more viable for long-term means and quality of living than factory-made materials or products like air-conditioners.

A pioneer in this new wave of eco-architecture is Joelle Eyeson, an African woman who co-founded the construction company’ Hive Earth.

Eyeson & her company’s mission is to take advantage of the abundance of locally sourced materials in West Africa, such as laterite, clay and granite chippings, by using them to build rural homes within the area that are both affordable & eco-friendly.

The architectural prowess of Eyeson’ is able to shift the perception of what a ‘mud house’ is; to a look that rivals a spacious, modern & middle-class ‘So-Cal’ abode in terms of structure—with its own signature style of wavy, African patterns eloquently engraved into the walls made from the ground.

Courtesy of Hive Earth.

With the aid of German engineers, the ‘Green Houses’ deploy underground cooling systems with the use of a $300 solar pump to lift cool air from underground into the houses—defeating the need for expensive air conditioners with a more viable solution.

Eyeson takes pride in these rural homes requiring no bills to be paid, also having them cost roughly $5,000 for a one-room house, appose to the city homes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Thanks to the aesthetic & design, practicality isn’t the only appeal that will have the masses desiring more eco-architecture using the ‘rammed earth’ technique.

Mariam Kamara – An Urban Future

When people think of the future of urban architecture, many quickly latch onto the ideas circulated from sci-fi movies. The same can be said for Africans in their quest to claim their future and to see city architecture in the eye of ‘Afrofuturism’ as showcased in the popular movie, Marvels’ Black Panther.

People have criticised the premise as a future projection of reality due to its fictitious nature and built on the assumption that humans can manage growing population density & market demands within urban landscapes with such systems built on the foundations of colonialism.

Niger-born architect, Mariam Kamara, stated in a report from FT that ‘The very notion of Afrofuturism signals something important,’ going onto explain that it’s a way for the new generation of Africans to reclaim their identity.

However, similar to Joella Eyeson, Kamara envisions future architecture to be more in line with pre-colonial African history where local lands power the people, with little to no Western influence—only fostering new international technologies & innovations for sustainability & modern living but keeping a wholly African aesthetic.

Kamara aims to ‘elevate, dignify and provide a better quality of life’ for urban-dwellers with her architecture. She even founded the architecture & research firm’ atelier masōmī, that as quoted on their Instagram page, they ‘tackle public, cultural, residential, commercial & urban design projects.’

Kamara & her firm, who have brought onboard young trainee architects, including African women—have listed the projects they worked on in Africa on their website.

Kamara’s work includes clean, minimalistic designs, accentuating the quality of construction comparable to Western standards but distinguishably African in aesthetic. It’s more than just ‘traditional’ African architecture; it’s an evolution that firmly takes into consideration the need for space, comfort, practicality & hygiene.

Adding to this stage of evolution is new-tech founded in the developments & are ‘one’ with the design.

One such example is the ‘canopy disks’ deployed in her development of the Regional Market in Dandaji, Niger. They are a spectacle & a staple point to the region’s identity now. The tech is made of recycled metal produced into poles with disks on top, providing thermal & solar protection to vending spaces beneath the disks.

Courtesy of Design Indaba.

Another nuanced urban development was Kamara’s project ‘Artisans Valley’ in Niamey, Niger. The mission was to provide a new public space for artisans to gather & showcase their wears, or a place simply for discourse, gatherings, events, kids play space, and even food vendors are welcomed here.

It’s designed as a whimsical promenade where urban dwellers gather for cultural experiences, consisting of a partially open-environment with loose housing in the form of shells that took inspiration from Niger’s rural cylinder clay granary clusters and are made up of earth bricks.

It’s a combative response to un-African architecture that bury the artisans showcasing of their wares deep into city clutter that will miss the eyes of many tourists. The area originally suffered from architecture that fed into city-clutter. A glaring concern about the past state of the place was that it had been unlit and considered unsafe.

By creating this grand walkway where African culture is flaunted in a structure that holds strong, pre-colonial African principles & aesthetic—it has become an eye-catcher in this open-space with high visibility throughout. Now, crime is easier to spot, boosting community health and creating greater awareness of Artisans & African ingenuity.

The Demand for African Women Architects is Growing

With these women being pioneers of future African architecture, their modern creations offer a more realistic projection on Africa’s future rural & urban landscapes.

A major player in the building projects throughout Africa is China. According to Archinect, Chinese contractors began outnumbering European construction companies back in 2011. In 2018, the Chinese governments had announced a new $60 billion funding pot that goes directly towards new development projects throughout Africa.

Fortunately for many of these projects, African women architects are given the opportunity to bring their designs to life and reshape Africa, but how much of it will be in their vision? Will they be environmentally-friendly, sustainable and highlight African identity?

To gather answers, we can delve into the construction boom in the East African region currently, with China directly funding the projects, outweighing the investments from a variety of East African governments.

The architects at the forefront of these projects are five African women:

  • Victoria Heilman
  • Emma Miloyo
  • Devothe Mukeshimana
  • Assumpta Nnaggenda-Musana
  • Maliam Mdoko

In an interview conducted by Archinect, the five women reveal their ambitions for the future. Heilman uses her knowledge of architecture to push for legislative reform in Tanzania over the construction industry. She explains that the building code in the country currently contains environmentally harmful methods that are not sustainable. Heilman believes she can use her knowledge to influence policy by educating citizens & the people in power on the benefits of eco-friendly architecture. Heilman describes her mission as ‘greenwashing the industry’.

In fact, each woman of the five all advocate & envision their designs in light of environmentalism & sustainability—forward thinkers that are as much involved in politics as they are in architecture.

So friction in some cases exists where people of established power within the construction industry are not open to change in architecture. A means of change expressed by the five architects is the rise in fellow African women architects.

Miloyo explains that within 15 years, African women that were students in architecture went from 5% to now almost half. She believes if the increase continues and those women who join the field also advocate for gender equality & policy reform in construction—then in the near-future, African women can ‘lead design table discussions’ and have their unrestricted visions for a better future come to fruition.

There are organisations working towards recruiting more African women into architecture. In Tanzania, the firm TAWAH launched the mentorship program ‘Women in Construction’, which connects Tanzanian women, by having architecture professionals mentoring younger women wanting to get into the field.

Black Females in Architecture (BFA) is a network to increase the demographic’s visibility within the architecture industry. BFA hosts a community where communication is revolved around Black-female-centric ideals within architecture—sharing knowledge & ideas to grow the perception of what Black architecture of the future is—represented purely by Black women.

With African women role models in the architecture industry, organisations offering funding and networks like BFA promoting relevant ideas—they all become nodes of information that African women can connect with; to build an authentic picture on what the future of African architecture is and how they can be a part of it.

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