• The Plight of African Vernacular Architecture

African vernacular architecture experiences very little to none online documentation. This trend is even more pronounced by the rapidly disappearing of the said architecture, abandoned for Western materials, designs and techniques. In an effort to remedy this, architect Jon Sojkowski created a data base displaying images from every African country.  His goal is to create a central website showcasing the beauty, diversity and relevance of African vernacular architecture.

 

The majority of people outside of Africa have no true understanding of African vernacular architecture. A common thought is of a dilapidated earth hut with a thatch roof, a misconception many people harbor due to negative perceptions about vernacular architecture. It is widely considered substandard, for the poor, temporary or quite simply a part of the past. On the other hand, western materials, primarily metal roofs, are considered correct, permanent and symbols of wealth.

 Jon saw examples of these negative perceptions first hand when he traveled to Malawi in September 2014 to document the country's vernacular architecture. For three weeks, he and his Malawian team traveled 4,600 km and stopped at more than 300 villages to interview home owners and take pictures. Over 70% of Malawians live in rural areas and have homes with thatched roofs. Though there were some home owners who appreciated the positive attributes of living under a thatch roof, the majority expressed a desire for metal panel roofs. A primary reason was to eliminate the need to add thatch every year. Where there is some value in this reason, there are other factors as well. If a roof is thatched properly, not just a thin layer of material, it would not leak after the rainy season and in fact might last up to 50 years, depending on the thickness. The problem is people build what they can afford and in many cases it is just bare minimum which means the roof must be repaired more frequently.

 This negative perception of thatch is not limited to Malawi, in fact it is evident throughout Africa. In 2011 the Rwanda government banned all thatch roofs except for special exceptions. In most African countries while there is an effort or desire to move away from thatch roofs, the commercial safari lodges are almost all constructed with thatch roofs. It seems ironic that only roofs being properly constructed with thatch are for tourists interested in seeing the “real Africa.”

 Vernacular architecture is as much a part of a country's culture as language, music, food or arts. There needs to be documentation of this rapidly disappearing feature but there seems to be no desire to do so. Whether this is due to lack of funding or simply that people believe these negative perceptions and see no value in documentation, it is not being done.

 The data base was created as the easiest and cheapest way to share images of African vernacular architecture. Interested individuals are asked to submit their own images to the data base which in this day and age of photography and email, is not a difficult task. Full credit is given for every image submitted and the data base becomes a platform on which to share the images at no fee, to anyone with an internet connection. 

 

 

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