Diary note 44: African architecture

27 VIII 2021

Among the global upheavals sometimes mondial construction goes on. One could mention architecture as a global phenomenon and hesitate whether its manifestation in enormous faceless façades is a boon. But at the margin of this epidemic caused by profit and technique there are small constructions that are driven by values and even emotions. They will be noticed by idealists and recognized as meaningful for the future. Some foundations have a good record in recognizing and awarding these outliers in architecture, like the Agha Khan Foundation and the Prince Claus Fund.

Some of these pioneers are African, and at least one of these lives in Berlin.

We went to an Architecture Forum (called Aedes) to see a show of the Burkina Faso architect Francis Kéré. I had already seen his design for the parliament building of Benin. He had been recognized by both foundations and now carries the title of Architect of the Year 2021 awarded by a German publisher.

He is a sympathetic creator, mainly opening up the language of his craft as an architect to African traditions. As a former carpenter his work frequently roots in wood. As when he takes the communal tree of talking, the arbre à palabres, where people gather, as his model. Or the wooden overhead structure of traditional halls and houses. He marries the local material and form with global inventions. He strengthens for instance local clay building with modern cement. He is an architect of hybridity.

His work is neither a personal language or a product of capitalism, but it opens up new fields of inspiration, so far ignored.

I mentioned in my opening remarks the global construction of faceless façades.

It is nearly too easy to take the much criticized Humboldt Forum in Berlin as an example. But as the future home of the great Dahlem ethnographic collection, which includes Africa, it is also to the point. The building has been given the double task of presenting the world to Berlin and vice versa. The name of the great explorer Alexander von Humboldt has been given to it. It is the interface of the global view.

Moreover the history of the place is significant. On it stood the baroque palace of the Prussian King, who was for centuries the face of Germany. After the damages of the Second World War the building was removed by the Stalinist regime of East Germany for the parliament. I have seen the building, it tried to be modern but it was not completely faceless. It was rather a kind of supermarket of what the regime was wanting to be in the eyes of the world: a people’s republic and a forum of official art.

 When this regime collapsed and Berlin was integrated into the Americanized West, the function was lost and the building taken down again. After much wrangling a compromise was arrived at for a new building. This building would recreate the façade of the Baroque palace, and on the other three sides would be modern, Americanized modern, thus face-less. The building as such would have nothing to say. We have been to the building, it is nice, a shopping mall without face.