/ 23 July 2020

On bioclimatic architecture: ‘We have our own science, but we have forgotten how to transmit it’

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African solutions: The typha australis reed grows on the banks of the Senegal River and provides excellent thermal insulation. (Photo: Worofila)

Mamadou Jean-Charles Tall is a Dakar-based co-director of Tall Architectes et Associés, and has been a member of Dak’Art Biennale. He has also served as president of the board of the Collège Universitaire d’Architecture de Dakar, an institution that he co-founded, where he teaches and is director of the master’s of architecture programme. 

Over several decades, Tall has cultivated an enduring concern for the development of an approach to bio-climatic architecture that is embedded in the transmission of sophisticated African knowledge systems. I sat with him virtually, to discuss his ongoing research on bio-climatic architecture and his African Mobilities project that surveyed diverse architectural styles and urban patterns in contemporary Senegal in Migrations and the Image of Space in Senegal (2018).

Jean-Charles Tall: In Migrations  and the Image of Space in Senegal, the idea was to question why  Africans always seem to be trying to reach the European “paradise” or the American “paradise” in mainstream media. My point was that, in fact, migration is circulating in many directions, and it is part of the way we human beings are. 

However, from the 18th century to the early 20th century, there were many more people migrating from Europe to Africa, through colonisation, than the opposite. This has translated into a very, very strong inscription of European habits in the space. 

Mpho Matsipa: What kind of ethos is your research and design practice trying to articulate around bio-climatic African architecture?

I found out that even in the villages, everybody is abandoning the spirit of traditional architecture. There is a fight for power that has been won by Europeans. They impose their way of understanding the world and try to erase completely our traditional ways of understanding our world. 

When you come to West Africa, you will see that all the cities that are important in the framework of today’s urbanism and architecture — Dakar or Saint-Louis — are colonial cities that have been created to extract the wealth from the country and take it to a port, so that they can ship it back to Europe. So I have always been questioning: How can we — if we regard the city as a tool for organising a society … for a very, very clear (colonial) purpose — how can we reuse it as a tool for the development?  

So this brings us to a discussion of bio-climatic architecture, right?

In all the cultures in the world, the architecture that has been produced by the people themselves takes into account the climate, the situation, the society. Whatever they do does not come from chance. It is something that they really understand. 

I am teaching the way that the climate enhances the houses. I found out that the traditional houses in the southern part of Senegal, where the Jolof built with earth and with thatch for the roof, as well in the other regions of Senegal, are much cooler than the weather would suggest.

In Casamance, they implement systems of cross-ventilation of the structures. Even the preparation of the rainwater in the very hot regions in Senegal [is ingenuous]. What they have is this clay pot just at the door of the house. But when you look at [the pots], you see that they are covered, so that the insects will not come into the water. You have small holes on the top of the cover that allow the water to evaporate a little bit. That’s a system of refreshing the house through humidification. In fact, that system is known by everybody.  

The strange thing, is all the green movements that are being developed [merely] look much more modern than those systems that we are implementing. It’s very strange that people still believe that they are atrasado (late in their development), while they have been abandoning things that have been reused today by all those people talking about bio-architecture, bio-acclimatisation, adaption to the climate.

In geopolitical and epistemological terms, the principle concern for you seems to be about how to build environmentally and culturally sustainable architecture in Africa. How does this relate to your concern for transmission of African building knowledges? 

It’s important that we develop our own knowledge and we develop our own way of transmitting (institutions, publications, pedagogy et cetera). The way of transmitting things in the future will be very important. So I do believe that as long as we don’t have our own understanding of the world, which [comes] through structuring our own knowledge, we will lose everything about Africa, about who we are, and — if we don’t know who we are — there’s no way that we can survive in this world.

The full podcast will be available on the African Mobilities website from August 4.