Interview with Phill Mashabane: African identity and sustainable habitat

Africa is experiencing galloping urbanization and population explosion. How is architecture attempting to answer the resultant social challenges? Phill co-founded Mashabane Rose Associates in 1995, a dynamic design and architecture studio based in South Africa. He is an external examiner at several tertiary institutions in South Africa and across the rest of the African continent covering areas of Professional Practice.

How would you describe African architecture?

African architecture uses a broad array of materials that vary from region to region: stone, cob (lump clay) and rammed earth, “wet” and dry stone, mud and adobe, and even flexible materials like animal skins. Other forms of architecture involve structures carved into rock and speos.

If I had to name an underlying constant, I’d say that African architecture is defined not only by the materials used, but also by the shape of the spaces filling a variety of functions to the point of becoming key components, such as, internal courtyards with their walls decorated in adobe reliefs painted in bright colors.

The ways in which African architecture is constructed cannot be summed up in a single point of view. Attempting to give a definition is a highly complex exercise because of the many regional and cultural influences at play.

We are also witnessing the emergence of religious architecture which, in some cases, is personified by Islamic architecture that has developed across several regions of Africa.

In short, African architecture melds diverse approaches focused on making sure things work. Africans have always worked collectively.

Understanding how people live helps gain an overview of African architecture.

How is African architecture adapting to the socio-economic challenges thrown up by rapid urbanization and the population explosion?

In Africa, as elsewhere, challenges are created by exponential population growth and climate change.

Traditional habitat is under threat from socio-economic factors resulting in a concentration of people in limited spaces with all the attendant problems of comfort and durability.

This is the situation that all habitat stakeholders must deal with at all stages in their involvement: from discussing, through to manufacturing and implementing solutions.

Climate change is forcing professionals to go back to ancient methods and design what we today term “eco-construction.”

To build a sustainable future, companies and trade professionals must focus on short circuits for the supply of materials.

How do you see the future of architecture in Africa?

Tomorrow’s architecture will start to borrow the cultural codes of those who have the resources and the means to infl uence living spaces and lifestyles in Africa.

It is increasingly adopting forms from other regions of the world, with the exception of coastal regions that already bore the stamp of this infl uence. Africa has often been considered – wrongly so – the world’s poorest continent.

Yet, it is a continent with great wealth. Problems only arose when non-local materials started to be used.

What is the turning point in African architecture that Saint-Gobain must not miss?

In its quest for new solutions, Saint-Gobain must absolutely focus its attention on cultures and beliefs. Understanding them is crucial for Saint-Gobain if it is provide spatial solutions that improve on what already exists but without altering the dimension deemed indigenous by the local populations. We will be of no service if we impose readymade solutions in response to the pressing issues of space and identity specific to the African context.

In terms of comfort, Saint-Gobain is clearly on the right track. Take acoustics, which is nothing new for Africans. The difference lies in the fact that their methods do not use machines.

The priority for Saint-Gobain will be to assess the current situation and, quite simply, improve on the methods leading to the same result. Your company will also have to supply materials that are easy to use and in tune with its market’s cultural beliefs and convictions. - Phill Mashabane, Architect. 

Did you know ?

In the 1960s and 1970s, as their nations were decolonized, the governments of Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Zambia wanted to symbolically mark their newly regained independence by erecting buildings as signs of their newfound freedom.