This personal reflection is part of a series called Turning Points, in which writers explore what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead. You can read more by visiting the Turning Points series page.
Turning Point: In May, the Venice Architecture Biennale featured a main exhibition curated by Lesley Lokko, its first curator of African descent, with a strong focus on Africa and its diaspora.
I am an architect from Burkina Faso, a small country facing a challenge far bigger than its people. We are on the world’s fastest-growing continent, and we need new buildings. But if we choose to build our homes, offices, schools and hospitals the way that the West builds them, our planet will burn.
As long as culture has existed, my people have built houses with simple materials: clay, wood and rocks. Our architecture fundamentally draws on the natural environment, utilizing materials dug from our land and harvested from our forests. Our building methods were passed down as oral histories from one elder to a group of young people. But this way of practicing and disseminating architecture is not scalable. Africa’s population is booming, and people are flocking to cities in one of the fastest urbanization growths we’ve seen. Towns grow into cities, and cities into megacities.
Along the way, we’ve resorted to ways of building that were introduced to our continent when it was colonized. Concrete is viewed as modern, and clay dismissed as the poor man’s material. Contemporary buildings typically have a lot of glass, allowing the sun to heat up the interiors. This needs to be compensated by energy-intensive air-conditioning systems that contribute to global warming.
I knew that things could be done differently, and so I became a builder. I trained as a carpenter in Burkina Faso and went to Germany to study stonemasonry. I told people that I wanted to build a building, but my German friends said, “Das geht nicht!” or “That won’t work!” I had to go to university first. Even before I enrolled in architecture school in Germany, I started planning a primary school in 2000 for my hometown, Gando, featuring structures made of clay. When I proposed the project to my community, people were skeptical. They said clay was not able to withstand the rain. But we did it. A whole village helped lay the bricks.
In the right context, there is a place for modernism. But there is also a need for architecture that, environmentally, works in Africa. Sudano-Sahelian architecture, from West Africa, uses the heat-absorbing quality of clay to its advantage, with thick walls that are curved on the outside to reduce sun exposure, and very small windows. If they are maintained well, clay buildings can be extremely durable. The smartest building methods from our continent leverage materials that are available nearby, sometimes even on site.
Ever since my first project, what I’ve seen in my practice is that the process itself is what makes for a sustainable building. It is essential to connect with the local community and explain what you are doing. This means using references that people can relate to — instead of simply adopting standardized, Western approaches — and even involving them in hands-on work. I’ve seen well-intended buildings literally collapse because there is no sense of ownership. Meanwhile, hundreds of children can go to the primary school in Gando every day because the people who helped build it are part of that community.
It’s possible to overcome dogma: Vernacular and modern techniques can work together. For instance, my design for the national Parliament building in Benin, which is currently under construction, features a main structure made of concrete. This allows for a high space that opens up like a tree in the main assembly — a reference to how West Africans would traditionally gather to meet. An atrium creates a microclimate with a garden within the building, so it will require less energy to cool.
Our problems are here now, and they are specific to our terrain and to our people. In this search for a new African architecture, there are no shortcuts. There were no shortcuts for me to become an architect, either. And in the two decades since I received my architecture degree, a huge shift has transpired. Today, many people contact my studio to ask how to build with clay and how to use passive cooling methods. My practice contributes to educational programs at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, the Academy of Architecture Mendrisio in Switzerland and the Yale School of Architecture in the United States. People from Burkina Faso come to me, asking me to design a house for them in clay! This would never have happened just a few years ago.
In May, the global architecture community convened for the Venice Architecture Biennale. The focus of the 2023 exhibition, curated by Lesley Lokko, was Africa. Over half of the participants were from Africa or the African diaspora. I contributed to the show with a small pavilion, demonstrating the past, present and future of architecture in West Africa. I painted signs, words and sentences related to West African culture on some of the walls of this structure, to provide context for my design.
To paraphrase one of these lines: Just because our history was interrupted by others does not mean our future has to be.