Traditional African Architecture Designs
For years, Africans developed architectural traditions that were unique to each tribe or community. It was not uncommon to see homes built using the same style and materials. For example, it was not uncommon to find circular villages made up of circular houses.
Stone and rammed earth were mainly used in North Africa, stone and mortar in the Horn of Africa, while Southern Africa architecture involved the use of stone, thatch and wood. In Central Africa, homes were built using thatch and wood. These materials, including mud, are still being used by African architects in rural Africa.
The Pyramids in Egypt
The pyramids are likely the most popular African architecture. The Great Pyramids of Giza are the most magnificent of all the pyramids ever constructed because they were massive and most consequential.
These structures do not just depict the architecture at the time, but the role the pharaohs played in ancient Egypt. More than 4000 years later, Egypt still receives thousands of visitors yearning to have a glimpse of this architecture that is a critical part of Egypt’s rich and glorious history.
Ghana – African architecture using curved stone, thatch roofs and mud walls
Like that of other countries in Africa, Ghana’s architecture depended on the readily available construction materials. For example, as early as 1000 BCE, temples, tombs, and monuments were erected from carved stone.
Homes and other buildings had roofs made from thatch and walls made from wood or mud. Rammed earth is still favoured for walls because it is economical, sustainable and environmentally friendly. Some African architects believe rammed earth for walls and floor is the perfect solution for housing deficits.
The Larabanga Mosque, the oldest mosque in Ghana, is one of the structures depicting traditional Ghana architecture. Its walls are made from mud and wooden poles popping out, pretty much like other traditional mosques in West Africa.
Aksumite Architecture from Ethiopia
The Aksumite African architecture gets its name from Aksum, a wealthy African empire, dating back to the first century. The influence of this empire was felt years after its collapse about 1,300 years ago. The profits from the trade of luxury goods made it possible for this empire to build urban centres, and this is how the city of Aksum came to be.
The square and rectangular structures, were made from stone walls plastered with mud or lime. The interspersed beams were decorated with Aksumite ornaments. While this form of construction was linked to the Aksumite empire, it was adopted in other places in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The Great Enclosure and Zimbabwe Architecture
Zimbabwe has had three major architecture types, the hill complex, the valley complex and the great enclosure. Much of Zimbabwe’s architecture is influenced by traditional and colonial architecture. African architects mostly built conical houses enclosed with stone barriers.
Modern buildings, such as the Kingdom Hotel Complex, Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, and Harare International Airport showcase some aspects of African architecture. For example, Kingdom Hotel has a rounded lobby and domed thatched roof. The exterior has iron stakes, with chevron and spearhead patterns painted. The conical tower in the Great Enclosure of Great Zimbabwe shares some similarities with the Harare International Airport tower.
The Sudano-Sahelian Architecture of Mali
The Sudano-Sahelian Architecture was adopted by most countries in West Africa, including Ghana and Mali. In Mali, the University of Timbuktu and the Great Mosque of Djenne are examples of African architecture. In 1988, the Djenne was named the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Malian architecture came to be during the Ghana Empire. However, this architecture flourished during the Mali and Songhai Empires. Adobe and mud bricks were the main construction materials used.
Single-cell, round huts of Southern Africa
When one sees traditional huts, common in sub-Sahara Africa, the assumption is it the facility is simple, rudimentary and built haphazardly. However, simple as they may be, African architects make key decisions in their designs.
For instance, the traditional huts in South Africa are expertly thatched using tightly woven grass to provide insulation against the heat and to keep the hut dry when it rains. In nearby Malawi, the mud walls are reinforced with reeds, wood or bamboo. Some communities even go further by compressing and drying the mud to create mud bricks.
Dwellings for nomads and pastoralists in East Africa
Some communities in Africa still embrace nomadic lifestyles. So, they are forced to create temporary shelters wherever they go. The San of the Kalahari made simple huts from wood. They then covered the wood with braided grass mats to keep the cold and heat out of the hut.
The Hadza of Tanzania built dome-shaped dwellings using tied branches and thick thatch. The Bambuti from Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) also interlaced sticks and laid mongongo leaves on the ground for comfort.
The Masaai of Tanzania had oblong dwellings, typically 2-3 meters tall. The women got wood from the leleshwa bush, in the savanna. The posts from this bush are chosen because the wood repels termites.
The posts are dug close together, and cow dung is used to moisten and seal the gaps between the posts. The poles are also used to make the roof. Leaves are then fitted in the gaps before mud is spread on the roof to help to keep the house warm.
Compounds of the Tswana, Zulus and Swazis
Africans traditionally lived in communities. The African architecture involved the erection of similar houses in one compound. Most of the houses were cylindrical, single-cell houses with conical thatched roofs.
The Swazi and Zulu had flattened domes or high conical roofs. The Tswana of Botswana made veranda houses with thatched roofs. In cases where more room was necessary, the Tswanas created semipublic spaces for hosting. All these dwellings had earthen floors.
Forest Dwellings of the Akan from Nigeria and the Asante of Ghana
Due to early interactions with European traders, the Akan people built rectangular homes with flat roofs. The Igbo and Yoruba of Nigeria also built rectangular houses, with the walls insulated using mud. The roofs were thatched. The Fon of Benin and the Baule of Cote d’Ivoire shared similar African architecture. The Asante of Ghana used poles and mud-infillings for the walls.
The Coastal communities of Kenya, Cameroon, and Tanzania
Most communities living close to the coastlines often use building materials that are unique to coastal regions. The Swahili people at the coast of Kenya used mangrove poles to construct shelters, while the Duala of Cameroon used bamboo and plastered the walls with mud.
The Nyakyusa African architects from Tanzania used bamboos to build tall houses with pyramidal roofs. In Angola, bamboos grew to a height of about 15 metres. These were split to construct rectangular homes with thatched roofs.