Written by Rui Maio
African vernacular architecture is an inspiring one-man project conceived by architect Jon Sojkowski, who saw a great opportunity of increasing awareness and attention to African vernacular architecture by taking advantage of the current communication technologies. These vernacular structures have been erected with local materials for many generations, being therefore a significant part of Africa’s cultural heritage. However, this massive heritage needs to be catalogued so that it can be internationally recognised, cherished and valued. Unfortunately, many negative connotations have been labeled to African vernacular architecture for its alleged temporary nature, substandard comfort conditions and old-fashioned-style. According to this project’s mentor, these connotations are far from reality. When interviewed by the YHE, he clarified: ‘I lived in a mud hut for 2 years and found my home to be quite comfortable. These villages and homesteads are not cultural monuments that need preserving, they are a way of life for the majority of people living in Africa. What needs to be preserved is an individual's belief in vernacular architecture’. From his field research and experience in Malawi and Zambia, he found out that people desire metal roofs and burnt bricks (as used in western constructions) that are often perceived as permanent, modern and a symbol of wealth. The lack of knowledge and awareness on the potential of vernacular structures was identified as the main cause for the abandonment of these ancient construction techniques and local materials.
Based on this framework, Jon Sojkowski decided to take action and build the African Vernacular Architecture database, a unique online source containing images from every African country. First, he started in 1997 as a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Zambia where he had the opportunity to travel the entire country to document vernacular structures. More recently, in August 2014, he traveled to Swaziland with no budget for transportation to document those vernacular structures. In September 2014, he traveled to Malawi where he visited and documented over 300 villages and homesteads and interviewed several home owners.
When asked about the role of youth for the success of these types of projects, such as the African Vernacular Architecture database, he promptly answered: ‘It has been repeated many times that the youth brings a fresh energy, a new way of looking at things. But to be completely honest, what has the old guard (existing system) done for the documentation of African vernacular architecture? The answer is not much. There is no organisation dedicated to vernacular heritage documentation. No school of Architecture in Africa has any database or catalog of their own vernacular heritage. In this day and age of technology this seems pretty hard to believe. Thus, the youth engagement has been crucial for documenting this forgotten heritage’!
African Vernacular Architecture database has been growing thanks to extremely motivated people and volunteers that have been submitting their own pictures of African vernacular architecture. One of the most recent examples was Elao Martin, a student of architecture and member of the YHE, who has contributed to this database by collecting and submitting his personal photos about the Namibian vernacular constructions to the African Vernacular Architecture database. Hence, if you share the same passion for African vernacular architecture as Jon, you can also contribute for this project by submitting your photos on African vernacular architecture to firstname.lastname@example.org. Plus, you don’t need to worry about copyright issues, because you will naturally receive the full credit on your photos!