Tented love: how Senegal created spectacular new African architecture | Architecture
Vvisit the Dakar International Fair it’s like walking through the ruins of an ancient worshiping civilization of Toblerone. A group of triangular pavilions rise from a podium, each clad in a rich pattern of seashells and pebbles. These are reached by triangular steps that lead past triangular plant pots to significant triangular entrances. All around, large sheds resembling a shed stretch out into the distance, ventilated by triangular windows and topped with triangular jagged roofs. Only the triangular honey of the triangular bees is missing.
Built on the outskirts of the Senegalese capital as a showcase for world trade in 1974, this astonishing city-sized hymn with a three-sided shape was designed by young French architects Jean François Lamoureux, Jean-Louis Marin and Fernand Bonamy. Their obsessive geometric composition was an attempt to answer the call of Senegal’s first president, the poet Léopold Sédar Senghor, for a national style that he curiously called “asymmetric parallelism”.
After the country’s independence from France in 1960, Senghor was determined to use the arts to forge a new national identity, freed from Western tradition and drawn from African civilization, especially Sudano-Sahelian traditions, “Without derogating from the requirements of modernity”. Senghor never quite defined what this brave new style should look like, but he vaguely spoke of “a diverse repetition of rhythm in time and space.” Powerful, faceted shapes and strong, rhythmic geometries have become fashionable.
Dakar is home to many structures that try to meet Senghor’s ambitions. The international fair complex is the most spectacular, its make-up tilting its head vaguely towards a nomadic, tent-shaped desert settlement dotted with everything from animal horns and seashells to clay pipes and gnarled volcanic rocks. He is in a sorry state, although a conservation project funded by Getty is currently underway, and it is still possible to see how he attempted to forge a bold new path, combining modern techniques with indigenous traditions, creating an expressive and sculptural language rooted in its context.
Many such projects appear in the Atlantic Coast volume of Sub-Saharan Africa, a huge new architectural guide that brings together an astounding collection of more than 850 buildings from 49 countries in 3,400 pages. Seven years of preparation, the publication provides an illuminating cross-section of the continent, from the glittering skyscrapers of oil-rich Luanda in Angola, to the mud mosques of Mali and the art deco buildings of Burundi. It has more than 350 authors, half of them of African origin.
Philipp Meuser, co-editor of the guide, writes how, on the one hand, “glossy magazines featuring Africa normally show safari lodges with pseudo-ethnic architecture, or luxury resorts set on long sandy beaches ”or, on the other hand,“ reports of overcrowding and lack of education and health care ”. But there is hardly any report on everyday architecture, offering a “real” image of African cities. While by no means exhaustive, the guide aims to fill part of this void, by combining descriptions of historical, vernacular and contemporary buildings, considering them in the context of race, gender and power, whether colonial, neocolonial or local.
On a recent visit to Dakar, the book was a valuable companion in helping to understand the messy urban fabric of the chaotic coastal capital. A curious confection looked like a fantastic postmodern interpretation of Sahelian mud architecture, with curved rocket-shaped obelisks projecting from its corners, painted a rich rusty red, and rain spouts echoing the overhanging wooden beams of vernacular mud construction. This is the Institute of Social Hygiene, which was in fact designed by architect Henry Adenot in the 1930s, when the French colonial authorities abandoned their usual fine art style and attempted to adapt buildings to local contexts in the name of cultural integration.
Any local inspiration was usually superficial: in this case, the ocher-colored walls are of reinforced concrete, but painted to look like sun-dried earth. In Senegal, French architects were mainly inspired by Sudanese and Moroccan styles – popularized by international exhibitions in Europe – ignoring the local architecture of the Wolof, Serer or Fulani peoples.
It is the postcolonial architecture of the 70s and 80s that really stands out for its originality, largely by the Senegalese architects Cheikh Ngom and Pierre Goudiaby Atepa, as well as the French Henri Chomette. They all developed a distinctive form of modernism in keeping with President Senghor’s ideas of asymmetric parallelism. Monolithic tapered pillars, often of rough-textured concrete, support powerful chiseled volumes, with an inventive use of pebbles, rocks, and seashells to add a tactile and rugged texture to almost primitivist forms.
The Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar is one of the best places to see this kind of work. A group of amphitheatres, designed by Chomette and Roland Depret in 1976, includes five white, curved, windowless structures set on textured brick plinths, arranged around a sort of village courtyard. As you get closer, you realize that the shimmering white surfaces are made of painted seashells, while the ridged masonry is designed to evoke tree bark. You climb from the courtyard into the enigmatic white cocoons, which house steeply sloping amphitheatres sunk into the ground.
The Faculty of Law and Political Science, by Cheikh Ngom, has an equally striking presence. Its gnarled red lava rock walls – covered with some sort of oversized volcanic pebble – are flanked by tapered buttress-like fins, rendered in textured sandy concrete, opening to reveal a shaded open-air hall full of spaces to sit and discuss the sun.
Buildings from this era show a much more sensitive approach to the local climate than recent developments, with solar shading, deep windows, and large overhangs to allow passive cooling as much as possible. It should be noted that the two recent Dakar trophy projects – the great Chinese-built theater and the Museum of Black Civilizations – share an aesthetic that could be anywhere and need to be fully air-conditioned.
Both are the work of Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal from 2000 to 2012, who had a penchant for oversized cultural trinkets he could put his name on. The most gargantuan rises above the city on a hill to the west, in the form of the magnificent kitsch monument of the African Renaissance. Featuring a ripped topless man and his full-breasted, scantily clad wife, with a pointed baby held aloft, the 49-meter-tall bronze statue was made by North Korean sculptors at a cost of $ 30 million (£ 22 million).
Taller than the Statue of Liberty, it has been widely ridiculed as a symbol of the vain debauchery of the former president, who claims the intellectual property on the monument and still receives 35% of the revenue from ticket sales. Many Dakar residents seem to share the point of view of the late Senegalese master sculptor Ousmane Sow, who criticized the statue as “aesthetically childish and banal in the extreme”. Still, once you’ve climbed the 200 steps to its base, it offers an excellent vantage point to admire the teeming city below.
It’s easy to think that Dakar’s architectural golden age is long gone, given the quality of what is currently being built – and the fact that the only official school of architecture closed in 1991. Many structures of the post-independence era have been demolished or mutilated to the point of being unrecognizable. . The independence of the hotel Indépendance de Chomette, which once stood like a large vertical beehive overlooking the town’s central plaza, has recently been stripped to the bone, its hooded sculptural blinds have been amputated, and the remaining shell has been covered with a gray coating cheap.
But the guide offers a glimmer of hope for a new generation of young architects and engineers rediscovering vernacular techniques. I had not thought for a moment about my hotel, the Djoloff, until I found its extension listed in the guide as an example of the revival of compressed earth bricks. The seven-story structure was built by Doudou Dème, who studied soil engineering in Grenoble before returning to Senegal to set up his company, Elementerre, in 2010.
In a nation addicted to concrete, where cement bricks are poured in place for virtually every type of building, Deme and her peers face an uphill struggle. But the advantages of its low carbon and highly insulating earth bricks are obvious, especially since it combines them with organic insulating panels in typha. Offering thermal comfort and regulating humidity, they make air conditioning obsolete. We can still see a future of planet-friendly asymmetric terrestrial parallelism.