Architecture may not be the first thing to come to mind when one thinks of the African continent. The world of traditional architecture is often overlooked or viewed as primitive “mud huts.” The monumental feats of architecture in Mali put shame to this stereotype. In the city of Djenné for example, masons have passed down techniques from generation to generation perfecting the act of building with mud bricks. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, Djenné was founded in the 13th century by people of the Boso ethnic group. It is home to a Great Mosque built in 1907, one of the most renowned mud-brick buildings in the world.


The historically resistant architecture of Djenné and the masons behind it are highlights of the exhibition “Mud Masons of Mali,” now on view in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. An array of photographs, film, and traditional objects of masonry, the exhibition aims to tell the story of the people behind the buildings. It also touches on the growing influence of Western styled architecture in this historical town and what possible effects it may have on the future generation of merchants.


(The Culture Trip)

(The Culture Trip)

Djenné and other cities like it are unique examples on the African continent where Westernized buildings are preferred over traditional ones. In Africa’s biggest cities, architecture is modelled on European or North American buildings, hardly on indigenous designs. Despite the fact that mud bricks are perfectly suited for tropical climates, as they are cool on hot days and warm on cool days, cement is considered the best option for building homes. Few homes boast traditional African influence outside villages unaffected by the waves of time. African city dwellers tend to view indigenous structures as primitive or associate it with poverty, especially when those structures are made of mud bricks.


There are a few examples of modernized buildings based on a combination of African techniques and Western engineering. While apparently most of these buildings are created by foreign architects, one African architect who has made his mark in preserving traditional mud architectural heritage is Diébédo Francis Kéré. From Burkina Faso, Kéré is an architect and lecturer who has overseen projects that employ the skills and materials of his hometown. He is the mastermind behind Gando primary school, which received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004 for its innovative use of traditional, sustainable methods. Kéré’s architecture is innovative and shows a glimpse of how traditional African architecture could be if valued and cherished.


Does indigenous architecture have a place in modern Africa? Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment below or reaching me on Twitter @rafeeeeta