World Policy Journal spoke with Jon Twingi Sojkowski, a registered architect who became passionate about documenting vernacular architecture in Africa after working with the Peace Corps in Zambia. Sojkowski is now developing a database of vernacular architecture that includes images from 31 countries across the continent in an effort to bring these local, sustainable designs to a global audience.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What is “vernacular architecture,” and how is the term specifically relevant for Africa?
JON TWINGI SOJKOWSKI: “Vernacular” refers to architecture that incorporates indigenous designs and materials. Though architectural styles are quite diverse across the African continent, they all share a similar aesthetic and a utilization of certain key local materials, such as mud, stones, thatch, reeds, bamboo, and palm leaves. People use construction techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation, and the architecture is sustainable, working in conjunction with the seasons.
WPJ: What is the aim of your African Vernacular Database project?
JTS: It’s really hard to find any images of African vernacular architecture online. After years and years of researching on the internet, I became frustrated that there was nothing of substance available. It’s surprising to me that I haven’t found any university webpages with vernacular architecture databases, but perhaps this information is only available to faculty and students.
The problem is that there’s no public archive for this kind of architecture. UNESCO, known as the “intellectual” agency of the United Nations, has offices in 50 of the 54 countries in Africa, and states that its mission is to “[build] intercultural understanding … [protect] heritage and support cultural diversity.” Yet it only has 16 images of architecture (only seven of them would classify as vernacular) in its photo bank of “10,000 digitized images for professionals and the public.”
I created the database to fill this gap. There are currently 500 images from 31 countries, all of which are submitted by people who are in or have been in Africa. These are their own personal images and full credit is given for each one submitted.
WPJ: You stated in a 2015 article with Archdaily that many Africans use Western materials rather than local materials because they are viewed as “modern” and “for the affluent.” Where do you think this perception comes from?
JTS: I was a lecturer at CopperBelt University in Zambia from 1997 to 1998, and my students, colleagues, and I discussed this issue frequently. In Zambia, for example, the first Westerners to arrive were missionaries, and they brought with them the technology of burnt brick construction. The British set up towns and an urban economy, which led to the migration of people from rural areas to cities. This new urban architecture was therefore connected to the myth of Western wealth and power perpetuated by colonialism, and these power dynamics continue to be relevant today.
WPJ: Are there economic policies in place that either support or impede the utilization of local materials?
JTS: Are you interested in finding images of thatched roofs in Rwanda? You’re too late. In 2011 the government in Rwanda banned thatched roofs on all domestic structures. An article by the BBC stated, “Corrugated iron is replacing thatched housing across the country, but critics have said it has left many of Rwanda’s most marginalised people without shelter. Thatched roofs have been traditionally used all over Africa. It’s cheaper and some say more practical. Is it right that tradition be sacrificed in favor of modernisation? Should thatched really be banned or should it be a personal choice?”
This policy is representative of the government’s push for modernization. Traditional thatched roofs, despite being more sustainable and more weather-appropriate, are seen as symbols of poverty.
When I was doing research in Malawi in 2014, I became aware of a similar program, though not as extreme as Rwanda. It was a carry-over policy from former President Joyce Banda. The program was the Mudzi Transformation Trust initiative and in addition to its goals of improved infrastructure and clean water, it called for more adequate housing for the least privileged in the country. A major part of this provision was to replace thatched roofs with metal. I met with some faculty and students at Malawi Polytechnic School of Architecture. I wanted to hear their opinions and thoughts on Malawi vernacular architecture, and while the Mudzi Transformation Trust initiative project was not explicitly mentioned, the team of faculty and students showed me two new structures built with concrete blocks and metal roofs. It was a hot day and the interior of one home we were invited into was extremely warm. The metal panels transmit the sun’s heat into the interior space, while thatch does not.
WPJ: Are there other initiatives in Africa, either by civil society or government, to engage with more vernacular designs and techniques?
JTS: I know of very few. One interesting project was highlighted in Design Indaba featuring a home-decorating competition in rural Zimbabwe. Started in 2014, the original contest had 30 entries, and there were seven prizes awarded to winners in different categories. The competition swelled to 300 the following year with 77 prizes awarded. The contest was considered a huge success, so much so that there were calls in other areas of Zimbabwe for similar competitions. According to the article, “if the competition continues to elicit as much interest in the future as it has in only one year, it’s not far-fetched to imagine it having a reverse influence on its Western-style counterparts in the cities.”
WPJ: How do you envision the future of your project?
JTS: The project will grow at a grassroots level. People say that more documentation is needed but as each year passes it is evident that, yet again, nothing is being done. Whether this is difficulty in obtaining funding or just apathy, the fact remains that there is still very little information available online.
Ideally, it would be great for organizations that have people working or living at the ground level to get on board. International Habitat for Humanity, World Vision, or the U.S. Peace Corps are very good possibilities. It would be incredible to connect with an organization with ample resources, such as the United Nations.
I would like the database to keep growing. If there are more images showing the diversity and beauty of African vernacular architecture, perhaps there will be a greater appreciation of it on the global and local levels.
[Photos courtesy of Larsen Payá, Laura Sanders, Elao Martin, Elizabeth Toomey, Michael Santarelli, Jon Sojkowski, Andy Murphy, James Dorsey, and Bill Clabby]