African Texts – A Critical Review / Ola Uduku

Draft paper – currently being worked on /  full references yet to appear…


In the last few years there have been a number of Architecture, Planning, and Urbanisation in Africa– related books that have been published. This review cannot in its scope cover all such publications, instead it attempts an analysis of four significant additions to the literature in this field in the past two decades. In no particular order, the books reviewed include Nnamdi Elleh’s African Architecture, Evolution and Transformation, (Elleh, 1996)  Antoni Folkers’ Modern Architecture in Africa, (Folkers,2009) Lesley Lokko’s edited volume “White Papers, Black Marks” (Lokko, 2000) and Jonathan Noble’s recent African Identity in Post-Apartheid Architecture, (Noble 2011)


The range of interests and authorship of these texts is sufficiently wide and varied to cover issues in African Architecture in their broadest sense. Lokko’s compiled volume, one of the oldest reviewed,  gives a good insight into the continuing concerns of the view or viewing of African Architecture from a theoretical and conceptual perspective that remains distinguished by racial and other classifications.


Elleh’s book, in contrast, is a single-authored tome on African architecture, in its widest definition. The first extensive architectural survey to be written by an indidgenous African on Africa, it has the distinction of covering African architectural styles and typology from pre-history to contemporary times. The two newer books, Noble’s thesis work on African Identity, and post-Apartheid architecture and Folkers’ Modern Architecture in Africa, return to the conventional academic viewing of African Architecture, from the dispassionate ‘observer- looking in’, and ‘traveller’s narrative’, perspectives respectively.


Within the parameters of this review, what is attempted is an evaluation of the state of literature in African studies with the books cited working as examples or codifiers for the issues and themes that have influenced architectural thought in the last decade. The key themes of race, ethnography, ‘modernity’ and “otherness” continue to inform the discourses that have continued to dominate architectural debate.


Modernity, or the discourse around what is ‘modern’ within the architectural sphere remains the most dominant debate that continues to resonate inside and outside of academia. Third world Modernism, Critical Regionalism, and the successors to the Tropical/International style are the categories in which the discussion is framed. [1]


For the purposes of this review, the term “Modernist Architecture” has been used to describe the “international-style” Architecture, prevalent from the post WW2 period up until the early 1970s, found throughout the world, including many post-independence African metropolises from Cape to Cairo. Although its origins remain contested, in much of Africa the style arrived with the new breed of mainly European and US trained architects, who had been influenced by the CIAM and the practitioners and proponents of the Modern Movement, during their Architectural Education, at Institutions such as the Architectural Association in London, the Lisbon Architectural Academy, and Harvard, who won commissions or set up practice to work in Africa after WW2.


This was reported and recorded in the Architectural Journals and literature of the day, (including Architectural Review, Architectural Design, and Architecture D’Aujourd’hui)   The successive “post” Modernist signature architecture, which dominated urban design from the late 70s to the Century’s end, could generically be described as symbolic of the anonymous Central business District (CBD) strip and walled and gated suburban Architecture to be found in most major cities in the emerging world.  In this period, and arguable to the present day more attention record and writing was devoted to rapid urbanization than the Architectural forms produced, (see for example Mabogunje, (1971) and Harris, (196X)


Aside from this however there has more recently been the recognition of the ‘everyday’ Architectural merit of the indeterminate buildings and locations between the planned set piece CBDs and middle class suburban housing estates, where the majority of Africa’s urban dwellers live.  This ‘everyday’ building type now dominates much of Africa and other evolving urban landscapes in the Asias, Latin America, and to a lesser extent, the Middle East.  Again this has elicited academic analysis, and criticism. The most complete, published Architectural critiques and analyses of the contemporary architectural fabric  at an urban level, being those produced by  Koolhaas, (Lagos)  De Boek (Kinshasa) and Chipkin, (Johannesburg).


How then can we successfully critically engage with, analyse and describe the contemporary architectural legacy of today’s African differentiated urban landscapes? There is a need for both the recording, exploration and discussion of the premises underpinning these new architectural territories and buildings. Currently the literature doing this remains limited.


Folkers’, African Modernism arguably attempts to fill part of this gap, as it gives a narrative discourse of one architect’s sojourns in Africa across West to East, in the period of a decade, and what ‘everyday’ modernity means on the ground or at the ‘chalk face’ to both the architect, and the beneficiaries. Importantly also it gives an interesting insight into the lived experiences of these buildings in the ensuing years.


What African Modernism unfortunately does not succeed in doing, is providing readers with a critical view on the links, implicit and otherwise, that development aid and other external benefactions have to the production of much of Africa’s contemporary architecture, for the masses. This new ‘aid-architecture’ covers a significant part of Africa’s emerging urban and rural built landscape, and has as yet had serious critique or commentary. Perhaps this is difficult when authors are so close to the issues and subject with which they analyse and engage. However Folkers’ text in itself remains an important document in its coverage and engagement with this form of architecture and planning .


Lokko’s, edited White Papers, Black Marks deals with the other extreme, a critical collection of texts, written by Africans – most living outside of Africa. Notions of race, its perception and inscription within the built form are dealt with within the polyglot writers group that has contributed chapters to the volume. Lokko’s opening essay gives a clear exploration of the field of interventions, practical and theoretical, and analyses the book’s essays attempt to cover.  The essays in themselves, although varied, do address the themes of race and place within the spatial confines of the architecture and related experimental and artistic spaces that are covered. The references, criticism and analysis are self–critical and contribute to the debate, which covers issues and themes of race, space and agency.


The White Papers Black Marks Collection contrasts well with Le Roux’s (2003 & 2004), writing on the portrayal, and viewing of African Modernist Architecture.  In these texts focused on Modernist Architecture in West Africa, Le Roux drew on her Masters research in Ghana, archival sources consulted in the UK, and a research visit to Nigeria as evidence for her two texts. In The Networks of Tropical Architecture, (Le Roux, 2003) she discusses the architectural networks that underpinned the spread and dissemination of the ‘movement’ in Africa. In Architecture in Post Colonial Ghana and Nigeria, (Le Roux, 2004), significantly she discusses the Modern Movement Architecture era in West Africa, the Western Architects involved in this and also the place, contribution, and recognition of  emerging indigenous professional architects  and creative practitioners to this architectural era.


Noble’s contribution to this review is the most contemporary, and possibly the most problematic. He attempts an analysis of a number post-1992 legislature buildings in South Africa constructed since, the end of the Nationalist Government ‘apartheid’ era. His research model and analytical framework is based on the philosophical analysis attributed to the North African philosopher, Frantz Fanon.


Thus the individual and comparative research of the buildings dwells on their responses to the philosophical cues which Fanon’s philosophical view on the ”othering” of Africa(n places).[2] This research approach is valid, and works well within the model and framework the author has set up. However the specificity of the research model and its analysis means the research is centred in its subject and context. This ‘boundedness’ therefore makes it difficult to expand the theories and analysis to other situations and contexts which are not as specific and similar to the initial analysis.


As a thesis, then, Noble’s critical research function has been satisfied, but in terms of wider strategic contextual issues and analysis the findings are necessarily limited by the specificity of research and the research model on which it was based.


The summary of the four texts described here provides the background to the review, which constitutes the second part of the document. The critical book on Africa is yet to be written, in its absence the lacuna is filled with the range and type of books discussed above.  This remains a shame, as in areas as disparate as art, film studies and music there is a more solid and critical anthology of text to review and study.


Equally importantly, when considering different area studies such as Latin America, Asia and Oceania, Africa remains under-represented or entirely absent from the discussion. This state of affairs further exacerbates the view that Africa has little recorded contemporary or authentic, non-vernacular architecture to discuss.


This is in direct contrast to the 1950s to 70s, where ethnographic research on African architecture and urbanism had been conducted & recorded by many including,  Susan Denyer, (1978) Amos Rapoport, (1969) Rudofsky (1964), and others, ensured that dwellings and urbanism in Africa were significant subjects of record and ongoing research. Similarly the modern – tropical architecture movement, as pertained to Africa had been recorded initially by Fry and Drew in their design handbooks,(195X), (195X) . This reached its climax in the 1960s with the journal articles on African ’Tropical” Modernism, and the photography of Udo Kulterman,  (1971)


Critical regionalism and the Latin American discourses on the regional Modern and Post Modern architecture of the city, have yet to arrive South of the Sahara. There is thus a need to begin to engage with the post-1970 architectural and design body of work produced on sub-Saharan Africa[3] in a meaningful analytical manner, that neither belittles contemporary styles and urbanism as being solely the ethnographic study of ‘everyday’ building nor reifies African Architecture as embodied within the ‘shanty-chique’ or ‘Safari-tecture’ exotic.[4]


Why might this be? Somehow the received commentary about coverage, interest in the area, or specialists all seem weak we know we have ‘African’ and other experts who have the necessary critical knowledge and faculties to engage with an African Architectural discourse that can and should critique the 2nd decade of the 21st century African contribution or engagement with contemporary (post) modern architecture.


The other much-touted trope has been that there is not the interest in the non anthropological or exotic in African culture. This patently cannot be true as we have an entire thematic research area focused on African film, from French West African cinema, to “Nollywood”. Further African literature, and its literary criticism seems to grow exponentially.


Returning to the texts selected, the main reason for their choice has been their ability to begin to address part/s of this. Elleh’s magisterial tome, deserves its place at the table, as much for its aspiration & endeavor as for its content. The confidence of his publishers also in allowing  the publication of the copiously illustrated volume at a time prior to mass digitization of publication is also commendable. In counterpoint or contrast to both Denyer’s traditional African architecture, (Denyer, 1978) and Dmchowski’s, (Dmchowski, 1988)  close and detailed study of Nigerian traditional architecture, this volume does contribute to the African architectural survey. What it lacks in depth it contributes in breadth. The depth void however remains an area for future engagement.


Folker’s African Modernism, also gives a narrative account of life in post 1970s Africa as an expatriate Architect with different engagements, from the altruistic ‘aid’ worker to the ‘architect with patron’ model. This gives a near up to date contemporary account of what it is to work as an architect in much of sub-Saharan Africa – and one’s encounter with the ‘everyday’ in construction.  The pragmatic account given is rich in description, but the critical insight into just what affect such intervention has on the local community needs comment. The now defunct Agha Kahn publication Mimar, (Mimar, 1981-1992) and its annual awards citations in some ways in the past have filled this void. However their remit does not cover all of Africa. Also the closure of ‘Mimar’ ended the only regular journalistic publication , which had at least a regular part Africa remit. Le Roux’s current thesis and work hopefully will begin to fill in this void.[5]


White Papers Black Marks, provides the critical discourse within the texts under discussion.  Although dated, the theme of the book remains relevant – a good indicator of criticality, Lokko’s remit was also clearly followed by her collaborative contributors, unlike many edited volumes, this collection hangs together with the subjects for engagement being questioned and exercised throughout the text. This text deserves a reprint, but more importantly to be revisited in the coming decade, preferably with the return of Lokko to the editorial helm. A well-edited anthology is worth a dozen edited collections.


Noble’s contribution, the most recent, and the most detailed of the texts being discussed, is a reading of four contemporary public architecture/space projects, designed and built in the ‘new’ post apartheid South Africa. Taking as its theoretical background the work of Frantz Fanon, this is a closely analysed text, specific to its subject, post apartheid public space and its analytical frame, applying ‘Fanon’’s philosophical view with the contributory viewpoints of Appiah,[6] and others.  It is a well-argued critical piece of writing, presumably evolved from a broader academic thesis on the same subject.


The specificity and uniqueness of public architecture, in Africa, from before self rule to the present however means this thesis may have limited application to other architecture(s) elsewhere in Africa. Perversely then it is the opposite of the earlier African ‘traditional architecture’ and regional ‘African Architecture’ primers, that provided only a broad, generic viewing typology of African architecture. Noble’s volume by contrast gives a close analysis of a specific situational and context-related form of Architecture, and its relationship to its community, which it, could be argued, is a standalone subject, that is almost ‘a-contextual’ to its African location.


Scanning the future Horizons:

Having discussed these four texts and their contribution to literature on African architecture, what can be deduced? Certainly there has been a significant, albeit limited contribution to texts on African Architecture, (South of the Sahara) in the last decade. Importantly also these contributions have mainly come from Africans, or those who have had more than a touristic engagement with the subject matter they describe.


Furthermore, with the ubiquity of new media, aside from these texts there is a thriving digital media contribution to the dissemination of architectural ideas, thought, and debate internationally. Archinet, and the World Architecture News, (WAN) are architectural dissemination networks that anyone with an internet link can access. They also complement the more traditional architectural reportage journals.  Reportage on Africa and other emerging regions has begun to get increasing coverage from these new media channels.


Things can only get better in this regard, as younger generations of  architects, planners and urban theorists become more global in their reach both by their personal living and working choices and in the more catholic use of theory and philosophies related to urbanism, architecture and community.


The downside to this however is the perpetuation of the traditional modes of dissemination in Architecture, which remain locked in the edited Architectural journal. The ‘theme’ issue on the exotic (Africa, Asia etc) remains the main way African architecture is considered in ‘mainstream’ (Western) media. New awards such as the Holcim Award have begun to redress this, although the division of awards between the Western world and elsewhere continues this distinction.


As mentioned the only contemporary publication that covered parts of Africa fairly regularly, was the journal Mimar. The occasional publication such as Architecture for Humanity’s Design like you give a Damn, (Architecture for Humanity, 2006)   Lepik’s Small Scale, Big Change, (Lepik/MoMa, 2010) publication and Pro Bono, (Cary & Public Architecture, 2011)  all have interesting case study project references of relevance to Africa, but these are the exceptions and their publication print runs are limited as is their dissemination. The majority of architectural journal and monograph publications focus on the reportage of the Western ‘everyday’ architectural programme. Academic architectural journals are equally limited in their publication of non Western-oriented research. Probably this state of affairs is unsurprising as the majority of subscribers and the readership is Western based.


Where do we go from here?

How and what kind of publications are needed to begin to address the lacuna in field of African architecture publications? This new literature needs to address a range of audiences, from the undergraduate and post graduate academic for teaching needs and also researchers investigating contemporary critical texts on African architecture.


The coffee table books on African Style and ethno-cultural views of contemporary Africa have a place in publication genres, however more critical texts remains scarce, and hard to discover. There is therefore a pressing need to have research, writing and literature on African Architecture in the broadest sense, both exploring conceptual issues related to what is identifiably ‘African’ in relation to contemporary Architectural discourses, and also in the documentation and recording of contemporary Architecture and urban interventions, again from multi-disciplinary perspectives.


African Architectural writing and debate however cannot, and should not, be seen in isolation. It is important that there is academic engagement with other global and regional discourses on Architecture. The ‘bandung’ cultural debates of the 1960s, and the wider cross-global connections are important in all forms of cultural discourse, including architecture.


Equally important is the involvement and linkage with other contributors to the evolution and production of African Architecture, these actors and players include, the contractors, builders and users of the built environment, all of which have influenced architectural production at some level. The critical analyses and views of the designers, constructors and users are all equally relevant, and should contribute to the debates on African Architecture. What is advocated then is an cross-disciplinary viewing of the theme and not necessarily a multi-disciplinary approach to analysis.


What is needed to spread and disseminate the advocated new writing, debate and publications on African architecture further in forthcoming decades? Effective dissemination, is the key to ensuring what is out there is absorbed. More writing and writers go without saying, across the Architecture and architecture-related subject range.


Accessibility, in terms of the aspects of architecture and urbanism planned is also crucial if the books are to be read widely, across academic and a range of general interest levels.


As McLuhan historically prophesied, the medium is indeed in crucial both conveying and becoming the message. Thus the need to consider future means of publishing and dissemination which seeks to make knowledge ubiquitous to a global readership, that is neither library nor university-bound, is important. The emergence and popularity of digital literature and the use of mobile dissemination methods, suggests that as in the West the paper book and journal are dying out, and the uptake of new media for dissemination will be important.


How this will impact on Africans and Institutions access to material is not clear, but the investment in the development of digital access to literature and books will certainly reap results in future. The long awaited inclusion of literatures from emerging regions such as Africa, will benefit from this liberalization of literature and literary access in the future.


By democratizing the publication process, and opening up readerships for contemporary, (and older, now accessible digitised texts), one hopes that the agendas which have influenced publishing in Architecture and Planning will equally be debated. This should encourage more debate and critical reflection on what contemporary texts currently inhabit the lacuna in African academic writing, and what should be added to the party. This should be an invigorating process as the debate, can now be digital, go viral and include a global audience, clearly this should be democracy at its best.



This is not a manifesto for research and writing on African architecture, it only seeks to highlight the paucity of publications and debate in the area. Furthermore, it has sought to both provoke and to raise questions as to why this situation exists. Above the rhetoric then, it is suggested that there needs to be both more publication of research and case studies in African Architecture and as importantly better means of disseminating this at a local-international scale.  Future writing and research is likely to engender collaboration and be supported through relevant conferences and networks.[7]


Most importantly however is the need to ensure that the new writing and publishing on African Architecture being called for is widely disseminated, through the new media channels now freely accessible to writers and readers alike. This is also a call for new writing and debate engages with the wider, global discourses on architecture. It is a call for inclusion and not exclusion, the greater project, of rewriting and interpreting African Architecture today needs to harness all means and break down the barriers, implicit and explicit, to its publicity and engagement in international architectural discourse at all levels.


This is not a radical call to action, but simply a textual encouragement to researchers to sign up to be involved in writing new texts on the theme of Contemporary African architecture. It also calls for our contribution and critical engagement in future debates in global architecture in which the African contemporary experience and context can be brought to the dialogue. It is ultimately an invitation to collaborate in the process… and spread the word.



Select Bibliography



Africa Perspectives

(Elleh, 1996)

Modern Architecture in Africa, (Folkers,2009)

Lesley Lokko’s edited volume “White Papers, Black Marks” (Lokko, 2000) Jonathan Noble African Identity in Post-Apartheid Architecture, (Noble 2011)

AR, AJ, RA, Kulterman

Mabogunje, Harris, etc etc

(Koolhaas, (Lagos)

De Boek (Kinshasa)

Chipkin, (Johannesburg).

Susan Denyer, (1978)

Amos Rapoport, (1969)

Rudofsky (date), and others,

Fry and Drew in their design handbooks,(195X), (195X) .

African ’Tropical” Modernism,

Udo Kulterman,  (1971)

Shanty Chique

Safari Architecture

Dmchowski, 1988



Le Roux


World Architecture News (WAN)

Architecture for Humanity’s Design like you give a Damn, (Architecture for Humanity, 2006)

Lepik’s Small Scale, Big Change, (Lepik/MoMa, 2010)

Pro Bono, (Cary & Public Architecture, 2011)

Holcim Foundation – emerging architecture awards

McLuhan, Understanding Media, (1964)

Appiah K. In My Father’s House (1992) The ethics of Identity (2002)


[1] Third World Modernism, is the title of an edited compilation by Dung Fa Lau, (2010) whilst Critical Regionalism, is the title of an earlier volume by Stagno et al (19)

[2] See Fanon (date)

[3] This needs qualifying because there is much written about the Maghreb

[4] ‘Shanty Chique’ and ‘safari-tecture’ are terms that are used here to describe the architecture of shanty towns and safari lodges, which have elicited significant academic and popular coverage.

[5] Le Roux, H, Phd in Architecture, Leuven University, 2012

[6] See Appiah K, In My Father’s House, (1992)  and The ethics of Identity (2005)

[7] For example the biennial African Architecture Perspectives conference, last held in Casablanca in November 2011, also there is the West Africa Built Environment Research (WABER) network which holds annual conferences for Built Environment Professionals in West Africa.


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