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The unknown iconic African architecture

Most of the African architecture particularly of sub-Saharan Africa remains unknown despite having some of the most iconic architectures.

The pyramids of Egypt are the most recognized and known architectures of Africa around the world.

Reviews of architecture in sub-Saharan Africa focus mainly on housing in villages, rural mosques, and the mélange of colonial and modern influences that characterize urban areas.

In North Africa, where Islam and Christianity had a significant influence, architecture predominates among the visual arts.

Find below the range of architectural styles in sub-Saharan Africa for a technical exploration of architecture as an art and as a technique.

They encompass buildings from earlier eras, the colonial period to more modern masterpieces.

The list of most iconic African architecture

Kasubi Tombs, Uganda – 1882

 The Royal Complex at Kasubi is the burial place of monarchs of the Buganda Kingdom. It is located in Uganda’s capital, Kampala.

The complex was predominantly built from wood and other organic materials. 

The interior is designed to replicate a sacred forest and is topped with 52 circular rings to represent each of the 52 Buganda clans.

Lideta Market, Ethiopia – 2017

Lideta market is a contemporary shopping centre built in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, with lightweight concrete. The cut-out pattern decorating the building’s gleaming white shell imitates a traditional Ethiopian fabric.

The considered design includes a perforated façade that controls the flow of natural light and ventilation within.

Hikma Complex, Niger – 2018

The Hikma complex project is a culture and education hub where the secular and religious peacefully co-exist to cultivate minds and strengthen the community.

Architecture studio Atelier Masōmī’s Nigerien founder, Mariam Kamara, restored a former Hausa mosque that had fallen into disrepair, adding a community space and library.

The new building re-interprets traditional Hausa mosque organization with contemporary structural support and detailing. 

Maropeng Visitors’ Centre, South Africa – 2006

Maropeng is a state-of-the-art visitors’ centre designed to help people learn about the early development of modern humans. It is known as the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. 

The building resembles a burial mound rising from the earth in a design that appears truly integrated with nature.

Pyramids of Meroë, Sudan – 3,000BC

These are the oldest entry in the step-sided pyramids, which date back to 3,000BC. 

They are located 200km (125 miles) from the capital, Khartoum, in Meroë in the Nile Valley.

The pyramids were built with sandstone blocks, while elaborate reliefs are etched within their interiors.

The site is a Unesco World Heritage Site which was once the capital of the ancient Kushite empire and excavations revealed the remains of palaces, temples, and royal baths.

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Basotho Houses, Lesotho – date unknown

The house reflects a mural decoration involving engraving, mosaic, and relief elements on the facades of houses. 

Built with earth brick and plaster, this house is painted in the traditional colors of red ochre to symbolize the blood of fertility and sacrifice, white to represent purity and peace, and black to reference the ancestors and the promise of rain symbolized by “dark rain clouds”.

Kenneth Dike Library, Nigeria – 1954

Kenneth Dike library is one of the key works of “tropical modernism”.

The library was built during a period when patterned sunscreens had risen in popularity – an architectural feature that reduces heat within a building by deflecting sunlight.

The library is part of the University of Ibadan campus – founded by the British colonial authorities in 1948 – and became an influential model for climate-responsive architecture in the sub-region.

Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali – 13th Century

The Great Mosque is the largest earth-built structure in the world. The mosque is a symbol of the city of Djenné, which flourished as a centre of commerce between 800 and 1250.

The building’s smooth sculpted walls are constructed with sun-baked earth bricks, sand, and earth-based mortar, and a coat of plaster.

Palace of Emperor Fasilides, Ethiopia – early 17th Century

The palace is located in Ethiopia’s northern city of Gondar, within a fortified compound known as the “Fasil Ghebbi” (Royal Enclosure).

The place hosts some 20 palaces, royal buildings, elaborately decorated churches, monasteries, and unique buildings.

The architectural design was influenced by the Baroque style brought to Gondar by Jesuit missionaries.

Dominican Chapel, Nigeria -1973

The Dominican chapel blends sculptural elements and modernity with a Nigerian vernacular style of architecture.

The structure incorporates carved timber columns and elaborate metalwork on the balustrades and gates.

The structure marked a radical break from the modernist movement that had cemented itself on the African continent to a means of expression that was “homegrown and derived from local culture”.

Great Mosque, Benin – 1912-1935

The great mosque reflects the Afro-Brazilian architecture built in the 17th and 18th Century churches in the northeastern Brazilian state of, Bahia. 

It is one of many Afro-Brazilian mosques built in the early 20th Century by returning descendants of freed slaves.

The colour palette of bright yellow, brown, green, and blue are reminiscent of Bahia’s historic architecture.

Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre, South Africa – 2009

The design is constructed with “a long-forgotten vaulting technique that bricklayers from North Africa took to Catalonia.

Mud bricks were formed using soil from the construction site and only 5% of additional cement to create a clay mixture.

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