Only through the rational use of local materials and permanent research into architecture that adapts both the technical heritage and cultural regionalism to the needs of the 21st century will Africa’s ever growing populations succeed in overseeing and controlling their habitat and perfect their ongoing and future development, so says Earthen Magic and the Empire of Mali (Magies en terre et l’Empire du Mali), a 144-page book published in 2005 and that examines the gripping and at times surreal Sudanese-Sahelian architecture. It notes that humanity’s desire for modern housing has led to the sad scenario in which healthy materials that would permit the construction of housing naturally adapted to local climatic conditions is ignored.
The text providers “Jak Vauthrin, Marie Alix de saint Roman, Baba Cisse, Labelle Prussin, Aminata Traore, Abdoulaye Deyoko and Clotilde Vautherin” state that the erroneous use of any building material has broken the link between humanity, earth and history.
Though hidden in the great Nigerian Delta meek and mild architecture, the sculpture architecture of the Sudan Sahel appears here as the most contemporary expression of a millennial inheritance. With sculptures as the very heart of the neighbourhoods and the city centres the Sudanese-Sahelian most beautiful creations are barely inhabitable sculptures whose earthen masses seem to strangle every surface.
The earthen Sudanese architectural style(originated with the Macina people in the city of Dia and became prominent in Djenne and the upper delta region of the River Niger architecture, powerful and arrogant)defies the time which unsuccessfully tries to break down its angles.
Massive and cubical, this architectural style had earthen brick as its basic building material. Brick makers fashioned a mass of dampened earth that apprentice masons moulded by hand and then arranged on a specially prepared platform. Thick walls formed of sun-dried bricks were bound with earthen mortar.
Two centres of social life co-existed, the religious life symbolised by the mosque and the civil represented by the Saho or house of adolescent males; the buildings appeared as truncated pyramids pulled from the earth. Pilasters were constructed at each corner of the thick walls while other much smaller pilasters rose above the cornice. Mosques were characterised on the exterior by the protuberance of semi-circular or oblong forms that inside contained the Mihrab.
A saho served as a social centre and residence or dormitory for male adolescents, who therein underwent their transition to adulthood. Unlike the mosques, sahos were highly decorated with motifs of sexual symbolism and they remained in use until every member of the group had married and moved elsewhere in the village.
Wooden pickets or torons projecting from the surfaces of buildings symbolised germination, proliferation, rebirth and knowledge. The earthen pillars and quoins conveyed the concepts of masculine beauty, fatherhood and courage. Feminine interface found expression in pottery or calabash caps and the ostrich eggs that were mounted on the earthen pillars.
The apexes of the minarets and protruding pilasters were topped by calabashes from which decorative ostrich eggs were extended. For mosques eggs were replaced by mud rendered gourds to deter birds from perching atop the minarets. Door and window decorations were stylistically derived from Maghreban or Andalusian forms.
Main entrances were marked with an overhanging and corbelled canopy. At the base of the entrance there was a bench that invited and welcomed friends and visitors for long conversations. This image of the ancient Sudan masonry was gripping, at times surreal; buildings seem to emerge from the earth and to witness and revere the sky, anticipating the rains that would change its face, then the mason who would lovingly sculpt a new one.
Evolved out of a sculptural heritage focused on living beings, the Sudan Sahel architecture influenced the societies; colonisers copied the Macinan earthen architecture and adopted the techniques of the traditional master masons. However the integrity of traditional sculptural forms became bastardised and limited to pastiche replicas of decorative elements as new empire builders soon got rid of ephemeral materials, substituting sun-dried bricks with baked ones and traditional earth ash coatings with lime-based mortars that could withstand rain, making the annual re-coating no longer necessary.
The Contemporary Sudanese architecture that began in 1960 onwards employs hard building materials such as concrete blocks or more commonly reinforced concrete yet the burgeoning cities with their neon lights, noisy machines and automobiles that cause all kinds of pollution, Omni-present asphalt, shoebox apartments and living blocks, are yet to bring happiness to their inhabitants.
Sad and dreary residential quarters imprison their residents while not too far away in the surrounding shanty towns, teeming masses randomly assemble concrete blocks and corrugated iron, cement, reinforcing rods and Banco to create their own housing, imitating to the best of their abilities the decoration and flashiness of the villas in the residential quarters.
While providing texts in both English and French, the writers note that it is incumbent on all sectors of society”political, industrial and financial as well as city planners, architects businessmen and civic associations”to stop propagandising and instead plan the construction of adequate accommodation by the harmonious and judicious use of available human resources and indigenous natural materials. Only through the rational use of local materials and permanent research into architecture that adapts both the technical heritage and cultural regionalism to the needs of the 21st century will ever growing populations be able to oversee and control their habitat and perfect its ongoing and future development.