Of the People: A Culture Speaks

Lest you think you can only change the world as an architect by designing or building something, in week six of the Change the World Novena, I bring you the story of architect as ethnographer. 

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know how important I think it is for buildings to support the social and cultural values and activities of their occupants. My friend and classmate at Carnegie Mellon, Will Riehm and I spoke recently about the fascinating research he has been doing on the study of design as an expression of cultural identity in the Acadian culture. His studies of the blended mix of race and language in pre-Civil War Louisiana led him to apply for and win a Delbert Highland Fellowship to study the culture at its source in western Africa. His six week visit to the Sen Gambia region between Senegal and Gambia provided some eye-opening insights into the past and future of place-making (read all about this on his blog

What Will had noticed in his previous research was that most of the architectural writing he had encountered on African Colonialism lacked an ethnic content- it was often oversimplified, factually incorrect, and insensitive to the user group due to a need to impose Western theories about building on a non-Western culture. His trip to Africa allowed him to see buildings in ethnographic context, understand how people use them, and discuss thoughts on the building trends he observed. He also took the time to seek out academics at two different schools to talk about the architecture education process in Africa. “I think we do a lot of projection onto Africa based on what we think they should do,” says Will. “We should listen, not impose.” Some things he learned:
A family outside a traditional mud hut
on their compound
Sustainable is a relative term. In the Gambia, it means permanence of structure, the ability for a building to sustain itself. Sustainable technologies refer to building systems that have a lasting aspect to them.

IPD may end up being driven from emerging economies. In African design schools, the focus in on building systems and how they are put together. Students learn from early on how to work as an integrated team with craftsmen and engineers. African design schools believe that the traditional Western model for planning, design and construction is too lengthy, inefficient, and lacking in meaningful user input. “Their need to un-silo the planning, design and construction processes is allowing them to leapfrog us with new issues related to urban development. I don’t think that they’ll end up having ‘architects’ as we understand them,” Will muses. Instead, the traditional focus on specialized craftsmen will expand.

Design should be accessible to the common person. “Everyone knows how to build and what things cost,” he says. People often build their own living structures, or play some part in their construction. There also is a very different attitude toward the realization of a project. The network is more important than the individual, and during what can be a very long process of construction (with stopages as funds run out), a property owner will allow others in his or her village to have access to the land for grazing or planting, use of the building shell during lulls in construction, and even access to land after the home is built and occupied.

Issues based urban design will eclipse traditional planning. In Janjanbureh, a city that was the old colonial capital, there is a web/node organization of streets connecting different types of commodities to markets (nodes). Streets are lined with shops and people live in organic walled compounds. There is no true urban planning, as development outpaces infrastructure. In this environment, the drivers of place are security (including food security as people need to buy non-perishable items at stable prices), access to healthcare (clinics), and roads and infrastructure. Will noted a surprising lack of of reverence for the historic colonial buildings because they were replicas of Western architecture and did not resonate with the population. This was a huge contrast from writing that had linked African colonialism to the Acadian identity.

Materiality is a hierarchy of its own. Traditional structures in this part of Africa are made of Ruhn palm, whose fibrous strands are used as structural members. Bamboo or palmetto fronds are woven and bound to create the fabric for a tensile structure. Sometimes, this is finished off with a mud plaster. However, Will observed an “upgrading” of this process to express sustainability: From the traditional roof framing with central tension ring, people would substitute walls of mud blocks, then concrete blocks, mahogany wood framing and finally, steel and corrugated metal with a concrete block interior finished with cement plaster.
Interestingly, a trip that began with a desire to understand the architecture of identity of African colonialism turned the mirror on Western design practices themselves. The architecture of West Africa is a study in diversity and integration, what best serves the population’s needs in terms of sustainability, accessibility and materiality. This has led Will to hypothesize how the architecture of this culture can lead to a new approach to design in general.

He will be further exploring the concept of “Just in Time Design” with his colleagues in Africa, deriving a rapid delivery prototype based on tradesmen and the way that their skill sets inform how things get built. He is planning to assemble a design lab here in the US that involves hands on construction to encourage students to think differently about the built environment in terms of scale, ease of construction, and purpose. He’s also interested in organizing a research outpost in the Gambia to continue to study ways that this vernacular architecture can inform the practice of architecture. As more and more countries adopt Western design methods, there is a globalization of style that occurs that stamps out local culture. Will believes that his study of ethnographic impacts as a way to gain insight into one of the last vernacular styles of architecture on the planet will eventually help to inform how and why we choose to build at all.

William Riehm joined the faculty of  the Interior Design Program of the College of Architecture, Art, and Design at Mississippi State University in 2011 after over 15 years of practicing architecture and planning in New Orleans, Louisiana. He holds degrees in architecture, urban planning, and interior design from Carnegie Mellon, the University of New Orleans, and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, respectively. His research interests include historic material culture, community development, and issues of professional practice. Most recently, Mr. Riehm was awarded a Delbert C. Highlands Fellowship of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture for travel and study in The Gambia.