MasterBuild Africa

Domestic Architecture

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African architecture is exceptionally diverse from region to region, and has been subject to numerous external influences.
The architecture of Africa, like other aspects of the culture of Africa, is exceptionally diverse. Many ethno-linguistic groups throughout the history of Africa have had their own architectural traditions. As with most architectural traditions elsewhere, African architecture has been subject to numerous external influences from the earliest periods for which evidence is available. The Islamic conquest of North Africa saw Islamic architecture develop in the region; western architecture has had an impact on coastal areas since the late 15th century, and is now an important source for many buildings, particularly in major cities.

One common theme in much traditional African architecture is the use of fractal scaling: small parts of the structure tend to look similar to larger parts, such as a circular village made of circular houses. Vernacular architecture uses a wide range of materials. One finds structures in thatch, stick/wood, mud, mudbrick, rammed earth, and stone, with a preference for materials varying by region. North Africa primarily used stone and rammed earth; West Africa mud/adobe; Central Africa thatch/wood and more perishable materials; Southern African stone and thatch/wood; and in East Africa the materials varied.

Ten broad categories of traditional hut and house structures have been identified throughout Africa:

  1. Domical (beehive)
  2. Cone on cylinder
  3. Cone on poles and mud cylinder
  4. Gabled roofed
  5. Pyramidal cone
  6. Rectangle with roof rounded and sloping at ends
  7. Square
  8. Dome or flat roof on clay box
  9. Quadrangular, surrounding an open courtyard
  10. Cone on ground


Lunda dwellings display the Square and the Cone On Ground type of African Vernacular Architecture


Early Modern Period

During the early modern period, the absorption of new diverse influences such as Baroque, Arab, and Turkish and Gujarati Indian style began with the arrival of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. Castles were built by arriving colonizers, at times as defensive fortresses during times of war. Early European colonies developed around the West African coast, building large forts, as can be seen at Elmina Castle, Cape Coast Castle, Christiansborg, Fort Jesus and elsewhere.

Living conditions changed for many indigenous African communities under colonial rule. The tradition of building houses out of mud walls, thatched roofs and other traditional materials decreased while houses started being built with cement blocks and zinc roofs. Roads for vehicles were built. Buildings such as hospitals and schools were erected in many areas. Along with these changes came electricity and running water to many areas in the early 20th century.

By the late 19th century, most buildings reflected the European preference for eclectic and mixed styles, taking from Mediterranean and Northern European influence. Examples of colonial towns from this era survive at Saint-Louis, Senegal, Grand-Bassam and elsewhere. A few buildings were pre-fabricated in Europe and shipped over for erection. This European tradition continued well into the 20th century with the construction of European-style manor houses, such as Shiwa Ng’andu in what is now Zambia, or the Boer homesteads in South Africa.



Shiwa Ngandu, Zambia

Main house on the estate at Shiwa Ngandu, built by Stewart Gore-Browne.

The revival of interest in traditional styles can be traced to Cairo in the early 19th century. Afterward it spread to Algiers and Morocco by the early 20th century, and soon colonial buildings across the continent began to mix European and traditional African styles of architecture.

The impact of modern architecture began to be felt in the 1920s and 1930s. Le Corbusier (Algeria), Steffen Ahrens (South Africa), and Ernst May (Nairobi and Mombasa) were influential architects at the time. Villages in Libya and Italian East Africa began to incorporate modern Italian designs.

A number of new cities were built following the end of colonialism, while others were greatly expanded. In the city of Abidjan the majority of buildings were still designed by high-profile non-African architects. Experimental designs have also appeared, most notably the Eastgate Centre, Harare in Zimbabwe. With an advanced form of natural air conditioning, this building was designed to respond precisely to Harare’s climate and needs, rather than import less suitable designs. Neo-vernacular architecture continues, for instance with the Great Mosques of Nioro or New Gourna.


Eastgate Centre, Harare, Zimbabwe

The pink-hued Eastgate Centre, with its distinctive chimneys


Cite: Domestic architecture

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