For centuries, complex and intricate adobe structures, have been built in the Sahal region of western Africa, including the countries of Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Ghana, and Burkina Faso. Made of earth mixed with water, these ephemeral buildings display a remarkable diversity of form, human ingenuity, and originality.
In a fascinating book, published in 2003, titled ‘Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa’, and co-authored by British photographer James Morris and Harvard professor Suzanne Preston Blier, a stunning visual array of these structures is displayed.
In his Preface to the book, Morris writes:
“Too often, when people in the West think of African architecture, they perceive nothing more than a mud hut —a primitive vernacular remembered from an old Tarzan movie. Why this ignorance to the richness of West African buildings? Possibly it is because the great dynastic civilizations of the region were already in decline when the European colonizers first exposed these cultures to the West. Being built of mud, many older buildings had already been lost, unlike the stone or brick buildings of other ancient cultures. Or possibly this lack of awareness is because the buildings are just too strange, too foreign to have been easily appreciated by outsiders. Often they more closely resemble huge monolithic sculptures or ceramic pots than “architecture” as we think of it. But in fact these buildings are neither “historic monuments” in the classic sense, nor as culturally remote as they may initially appear. They share many qualities—such as sustainability, sculptural beauty, and community participation in their conception—now valued in Western architectural thinking. Though part of long traditions and ancient cultures, they are at the same time contemporary structures serving a current purpose.
The mud from which these buildings are made is itself a controversial substance that tests our conventional views of architecture. It is one of the most commonly used building materials in the world, and yet in our urban-dominated society it is seen, effectively, as dirt. Buildings subtly alter in appearance each time they are re-rendered, which can be as often as once a year. Yet the maintaining and resurfacing of buildings is part of the rhythm of life; there is an ongoing and active participation in their continuing existence. If they lost their relevance and were neglected, they would collapse. This is not a museum culture…”
In this review of the book from The Guardian Newspaper, journalist Jonathan Glancey writes:
“What these magnificent mosques prove is that mud buildings can be far more sophisticated than many people living in a world of concrete and steel might want to believe. Mud is not just a material for shaping pots, but for temples, palaces and even, as so many west African towns demonstrate, the framing of entire communities. The very fluidity, or viscosity, of the material allows the architects who use it to create dynamic and sensual forms.
Morris’s photographic trips through the region in 1999 and 2000 record a world of architecture that, sadly, is increasingly under threat. Perhaps it is mostly poverty rather than culture and memory that keeps this rich and inventive tradition of building alive…”
This book is a treasure trove of imagery and information to any architecture enthusiast. Critical elements like space, light, and texture are explored in intimate detail, revealing a strong argument for this kind of architecture to be studied, documented, and profiled more wildly. As Morris sums up his preface: “I am still curious why West Africa’s adobe buildings receive so little serious consideration. If architecture is a cultural expression, perhaps it is the culture from which these buildings have evolved, so alien to the European mind, that keeps it in the academic wilderness, hard for the commentators to place.
Photographs and Preface published courtesy of James Morris.