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Diary from Africa
Jon Beswick

London architect Jon Beswick, 27, has left the UK on an epic 48,000km overland trip circumnavigating Africa, during which he and his travel partner, strategy consultant Charlie Curtis, will build shelters for HIV clinics and raise money for UK charity One to One Children's Fund. Until 24 February, Jon was working as a project architect for Sacks Maguire Architects on high-end residential projects in Belgravia and Hampstead with construction budgets of £2,000,000. The budget for each shelter, which he is designing, is only a few hundred pounds and will pay for local labour and materials. Over the next few months Jon will be writing a diary for WAN as his adventure continues...

It’s been a long and extremely hard month and once again I’m writing in darkness. Unlike the cafe in Gibraltar, this isn’t a power cut…there is simply no power. I’m now vehicle-less in Guinea, in a mud hut with no running water, no power, no central heating, in fact very little at all. Since leaving Gibraltar, Charlie and I caught a ferry into Morocco, then drove through Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, Senegal (again), Guinea Bissau and into Guinea. On route the scenery has changed from arid desert to topical forests with everything in between. Along our journey, I have recorded, sketched, visited and slept in local dwellings, which always adapt to meet these hugely varied climatic conditions. I’m constantly amazed by the ingenuity of the locals to construct and mediate the harsh conditions that they live in, with nothing but the materials found around them. In some cases I’ve seen shelters that have been constructed out of cars and washing machines…a sad reflection of the genius loci of urbanisation.


Most of us are aware of the romantic images associated with Moroccan Kasbahs and the Bedouin tents of the indigo clad Berbers. The tent is a hugely important structure all across the Sahara, spread originally by the nomadic camel traders. Strips of cloth are sewn together on ground looms or by hand, originally made of goat hair, we now see brilliant white canvases reflecting the desert sun. These are held in tension with anchored ropes, the number of which varies depending on the size. Either one central pole or a ridge (to prevent pole piercing the fabric) gives the tent shape. The fabric creates a dark and cool space inside and contracts in the wet to protect its inhabitants. Beduin tents in the Atlas Mountains have steeper pitches for snow than the flatter variants in the Mauritanian desert.


Although technically part of Morocco, Western Sahara is a totally different animal when it comes to shelter. Saharan sands blow across its bulk meeting the sea all the way down its length. It is the juxtaposition of the sea meeting the desert that has produced mini fortresses at Guiluem. All the way along the coast, fishermen cast lines off the cliffs and shelter in rocks, driftwood, fishing netting and other spoils from the sea. All the shelters are small boxes with walls constructed of rocks from the desert or driftwood from the sea. There are no windows due to high winds and the entrances are small and sealed with driftwood. The roofs are typically tarpaulin or sacking and tied directly to the walls with rope and or fishing net. Some are totally covered in netting and resemble the fish that end up inside them.


There’s a local saying that there’s so much sand in Mauritania that it permeates your soul. With a tiny population and a lot of desert, the architecture isn’t pretentious but shelters Mauritanians from the ferocious


Saharan sun and sand. Like the rest of the Sahara the nomadic tent is commonplace but equally so is the wooden shack and less commonly mud bricked houses with pitched roofs. Buildings are the most dilapidated we’ve seen and appear to be thrown together in haste out of anything that can be salvaged from land or sea. With no vegetation there is a distinct lack of building materials here and it is here in the populated capital Nouakchott that houses are constructed of rubbish. Mechanics live in car boxes, washing machines and old tyres form walls and every building is totally different except for the basic necessity of providing shade.


The climatic change from Mauritania to Senegal is stark. Senegal is broken with mangroves, huge reserves and is far lusher than its neighbour Mauritania. Consequently houses on stilts aren’t uncommon especially around the mangrove areas. The majority of other dwellings are square mud huts with almost domed thatched roofs. The roofs are constructed from stick frames and thatched on the ground, built up in layers to water proof and underlined with empty sacks. The size and square shapes of the buildings are far more uniform than in The Gambia for instance due to the size restriction of the thatched roofs. Walls are either stacked mud bricks, reeds on a wooden frame or left open on a timber-framed structure to simply provide shade. Like every country we’ve visited modern structures are concrete frame boxes erected cheaply and quickly. A three bedroom house here can be built for £1000.


The British influence in the Gambia is startling. Houses are much closer in appearance to Western style homes. They are larger, rectangular in plan with larger windows and doors. Roofs are so commonly clad in corrugated on steel or wooden A-frames. I’m informed there is a large corrugated-iron factory in the Gambia and sheets are cheap. Even in the country villages use the iron sheets on line houses to provide shelter for as many as twenty people.


Architecturally Guinea Bissau is very similar to Guinea. It’s the first tropical rainforest district we’ve driven through. Dwellings outside the capital are mainly of the mud hut, thatched roof variety. Roofs overhang and extend almost to the floor providing covered shelter outside. Locals congregate under these awnings, which are propped up on thick wooden props. Missing mud bricks provide airflow and limited light, as windows seem to be non-existent. We stayed in one such hut near Igore, inside the dwelling was dark and cool with beds carefully positioned around a central food and tea preparating area. There is a wide range of shapes and sizes of hut here but almost all are constructed of thatch on mud bricks that have been dried in the sun.


As one of the poorest of the countries in Africa, Guinea it is one of the most exciting countries architecturally. Outside the corrugated iron slums of the capital Conakry, the majority of the population live in basic mud huts without running water, electricity or paved roads. In the small village near Koumbia a local man shows us around his house which is under construction. Circular in form, with mud brick walls and a thatched roof, it is typical of the houses in this area. What is exciting for me is, that this group of houses (for an extended family), displays the first exterior decoration we’ve seen. The mud brick walls are plastered externally with mud and water dug from a large hole in the ground only meters away. Different coloured sands have then been used to paint patterns on each of the dwellings. The house under construction is larger and consists of a circular wall within a circular wall. The inner area is for living/ cooking while the exterior ring is for sleeping. Shaped air vents in the exterior wall provide cooling. The owner informs us it will take just three weeks to construct; they are rushing to finish before the rainy season.


The relentless pursuit of the identification of typologies in vernacular architecture is as prevalent as classification of styles in the history of architectural discourse. The very nature of vernacular architecture inhibits its classification as the vernacular depends on tradition, social norms, domestic priorities, climate and the availability of


skills and materials. These factors vary country-to-country, region-to-region, village-to-village and even family-to-family within villages. Grouping the architecture of Guinea Bissau into type for example can be reduced to a few, I was told a Swedish team recently identified 6 major form types consisting of sub categories within them. I suspect they would have found even less in Guinea as the mud-bricked hut is so widespread, but this ignores the subtle but important variations from village to village. As mentioned, huts are commonly grouped together by family and often architectural tools identify these clans. Walls are painted with family motifs, ventilation holes again form identifying patterns, even the men are scarred with lines on their temples to identify tribes. Different pitched roofs depend on rain volume, and wall colour depends on the adjacent mud. There are millions of slight variants which arise from the personal preferences of the inhabitants.

The other major problem with type is that these African villages are changing faster than at anytime in history. While retaining tradition styles and shapes, technological advances are beginning to have a huge impact. The spread of mobile phones and the Internet is rapid, Internet access can be found in huts powered by generators. Many of us think of vernacular architecture as villages of mud huts, in the middle of tropical forests but urbanisation is also affecting vernacular styles. Urbanisation is a modern trend that will only continue to grow. For the poor living in urban squalor, construction of shelter has the same priorities as their tropical forest relatives. The only difference is, that instead of using adjacent mud they use adjacent rubbish from cars, to washing machines, to cardboard, to old train carriages. Just as important as the supporting infrastructure of the road network are the huge communities in Africa living next to train tracks who provide various supporting services to the rail industry.


In every country we’ve visited the dilapidation and deterioration of buildings is prevalent. In the West there is a tendency to overbuild, mass and wall size exceed the everyday live load requirements from people, wind etc. As a result western buildings tend to last, in poorer African countries buildings tend to be ‘under built’… if finished at all. This is partly to protect inhabitants during failure, partly if structures are temporary, such as the nomadic Berbers and partly due to lack of resources. The biggest problems faced by African builders and all vernacular buildings are a result of the dead load of the roof, it’s weight carried by the walls. The resulting movement is mainly left untreated and buildings continue to be occupied until collapse. In the desert in Mauritania we often saw the timber shacks approaching 45-degree angles, in Guinea mud walls buckle until large holes in walls demand attention. The Western approach to this age old problem is often to triangulate using a ‘tie beam’. Here I have yet to see any form of lateral restraint because it inhibits usable space. The vernacular solution is to use lightweight roofs and heavy weight walls. When failure does occur, possibly as a result of the rainy season, the problem area can be quickly rebuilt. Often I’ve seen second roofs that have been erected on the ground, ready to be lifted onto walls to replace the old. The other main advantage of the heavy walled construction is its inherent thermal mass mediates climatic fluctuations. Visiting these dwellings I for one am grateful and impressed by the effectiveness of their ability to protect their inhabitants.

See fantastic images of indigenous buildings from Jon's tour here



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