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The article by Alex Bresler of Matador Network is a celebration of African architecture – from mosques to monuments to modern structures, showcasing the variety and brilliance of African design that spans centuries.
AFRICA IS BIG. Fifty-four countries big. Approximately 11.7 million square miles, or 20 percent of Earth’s land area, big. Roughly 1.3 billion people, 3,000 indigenous groups, and 2,000 languages big. To say nothing of its age, with a human history that began some 200,000 years ago and since witnessed the rise and fall of empires, survived political wars and religious conflicts, seen colonizations and reclamations of identity.
Yet, despite its size and the individual heritages of its 54 nations, Africa is often synopsized in the image of a safari playground, referred to as if it were a country rather than the world’s second-largest continent. And of all the areas in which its culture has been overlooked, none has been so neglected as its architecture.
With vernacular structures that reconcile man’s ingenuity with the natural world, cathedrals to rival Europe’s and mosques to match the Middle East’s, monuments to the histories that have shaped nations, and a moving target of modern designs that has evolved throughout the ages, there’s a lot to learn about the buildings that buttress the continent. Here are 54 examples of African architecture, one for every country, that prove just how widely underrated it has been.
1. Clay Palace of Ghardaïa — Algeria
Deep in the Algerian Sahara is the M’zab Valley, a desert oasis housing a pentapolis of ancient fortified cities. Berber followers of Ibadi Islam known as Mozabites established these cities, or ksour, during the 10th century, and their impressive preservation earned the valley a UNESCO inscription in 1982. Ghardaïa, one of the five ksour, showcases traditional M’Zab architecture through its still-standing clay and gypsum structures, among them this Gaudí-esque palace.
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2. Currency Museum — Angola
Photo: Fabrice Fouillet /Costalopes
Across the street from the National Bank of Angola, another of capital city Luanda’s landmarks, sits this striking Currency Museum. Together backdropped by the harborfront, the two buildings exemplify two eras of Angolan architecture: The bubblegum-pink bank nods to the nation’s Portuguese colonial past while the museum reflects the modern aesthetic of local architecture firm Costalopes. The bulk of the Currency Museum was built below Major Saidy Mingas Square, with the aboveground roof doubling as a modern monument in downtown Luanda.
3. Tata-Somba houses — Benin
The Somba people of northwest Benin are known for being skilled builders. Traditional Somba dwellings are mighty earthen fortresses called tata-somba houses. They’re typically two stories tall and have mud walls, straw roofs, and turrets like you might see on a castle. Though similar to the tekyete structures found in neighboring Togo, tata-somba houses uniquely have designs engraved on both inner and outer walls. These abstract, geometric patterns are hand-drawn by Somba women and viewed as symbols of fertility and prosperity.
4. ISKCON Gaborone — Botswana
Photo: Iskcon Botswana/Facebook
Though Christianity is the predominant faith in Botswana, religions ranging from Islam, Hindusim, and Quakerism to Baha’i and Badimo are also practiced. This cheery temple in the nation’s capital, Gaborone, represents the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, otherwise known as the Hare Krishna movement. Among the temple’s many adornments are twin tiger sculptures guarding the front and a giant lotus flower hanging over the entrance.
5. Painted Gurunsi houses of Tiébélé — Burkina Faso
Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock
In the village of Tiébélé, which is occupied by the Kassena people of the greater Gurunsi ethnic group of Ghana and Burkina Faso, there exist hand-painted houses dating as far back as the 15th century. These simple yet elaborate structures, called sukhala, are found in the chief’s complex and feature designs drawn by Gurunsi women, while men are customarily responsible for building. Materials like mud, chalk, clay, coal, and a lacquer made from beans are used to create the black, white, beige, and red structures, some of which serve as mausoleums.
6. Le Champignon — Burundi
Photo: Jean Molitor Photography
Bauhaus architecture arrived in Burundi, a Belgian colony until 1962, around the mid-20th century. Several examples of the style exist in Bujumbura, the nation’s largest city, while Le Champignon, so-coined for its resemblance to a mushroom, offers one example in the capital, Gitega. Photographer Jean Molitor, who has captured Bauhaus architecture all around the world, describes the former residence as “idiosyncratic, a little playful, and individual,” noting that the interior design is equally striking and “flooded with light.”
7. Palácio do Povo — Cabo Verde
This bright pink Portuguese colonial was built in downtown Mindelo, a city on the island of São Vicente, toward the end of the 1800s. It was originally called the Palácio do Governo, or Government Palace, though the name was changed to the People’s Palace after Cabo Verde won its independence in 1975. Today, it hosts a regular rotation of cultural exhibits and shares its landmark status with Mindelo’s characteristic pastel Pombaline and neoclassical structures.
8. Reunification Monument — Cameroon
Cameroon has a long, complicated colonial history. It was occupied by German settlers in the late 19th century and later claimed by both French and British troops after World War I. It remained divided between French Cameroun and British Cameroon until 1960 when the former gained its independence. British Cameroon soon followed suit, reuniting with the rest of the country in February 1961. This monument was erected in the capital city of Yaoundé the next decade, with the different colors blending together to represent unification.
9. Notre-Dame of Bangui — Central African Republic
Known in full as the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de l’Immaculée Conception, this Roman Catholic cathedral towers over Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Its architecture is reminiscent of many structures found in former French colonies with tropical climates, from the use of red brick to the tall towers erected on either side. Built in the mid-1900s, Bangui’s very own Notre-Dame was solidified as a national icon after appearing on a 1964 stamp.
10. Mud huts of Gaoui — Chad
Found in the Sahel that connects the Sahara Desert to the Sudanian Savanna, the village of Gaoui, the former capital of the Sao civilization, plays host to some of the finest examples of Chad’s vernacular architecture. The village’s earthen huts are made primarily of mud and straw, and many feature painted embellishments like colorful trim lining the top, bottom, and entryway.
Read more here: Matador Network