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Top: Nando Mosque, Mali. Supposedly built by a giant in one night, this highly sculptural mosque is a unique structure that borders the magical and fantastical. Middle: women's quarters, Tangasoko, Burkina Faso. Among the Kassena people, each married woman has her own quarters in the family compound. Built by men and decorated by women, they contain living room and adjoining kitchen. On her death they are allowed to disintegrate, the land and crumbled earth to be reused by a future generation. Bottom: house of the chief of Djenne, Mali. Moroccan influenced wooden windows are a recent development. Right: Hogon House, Sanga, Mali. The most distinct architectural form of the Dogon people, the^jfrtfliMM I

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Too often, when people in the West think of traditional African architecture, they perceive nothing more than a mud hut; a primitive vernacular half remembered from a Tarzan film. But why this ignorance of half a continent's heritage? Possibly because the great dynastic civilizations of the region were already in decline when European colonizers first exposed these cultures to a wider audience. Being made of perishable mud, many older buildings have been lost, unlike the stone or brick structures 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 are more like huge monolithic sculptures or ceramic pots than architecture as we might conventionally think of it. But the surviving buildings are neither historic monuments in the classic sense, nor are they as culturally remote as they may initially appear. They share many of the qualities now valued in Western architectural thinking such as sus-tainability, sculptural form and community participation in their conception and making.

Though part of long held traditions and ancient cultures, they are also contemporary structures, serving a current purpose. If they lost their relevance and were neglected, they would collapse. In the West, mud is effectively regarded as dirt, yet in rural Africa (as in so much of the world) it is the most common of building materials with which everybody has direct contact. Maintaining and resurfacing of buildings is part of the rhythm of life, and there is an ongoing and active participation in their continuing existence. This is not a museum culture.

Superbly formed and highly expressive, these extraordinary buildings emerge from the most basic of materials, earth and water, and in the harshest of conditions. They are vibrant works of art with their own distinct and striking aesthetic, skilfully responding to the qualities of African light and the inherent properties of mud to emphasize shadow, texture, silhouette, profile and form. During the course of a year the mud render dries, the surface is covered in a web of cracks and then it slowly starts to peel off before being re-rendered. With each re-rendering, the shape of a building is subtly altered, so

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change and movement are ever present. The material is tactile, warm and vulnerable, demanding and receiving an engaged relationship with its users. Often people attempt to cement render the buildings, but not only does this destroy them physically, as they rot from within, but it also destroys their character. Their uniqueness is their muddiness.

The future of these buildings is hard to predict. Mud is such a vulnerable material and there is an enthusiasm for building in concrete. Given the means, many would tear down their mud houses and build cement block and tin roofed replacements, common practice in those countries that can afford to do so. So what will happen when rural Africans are lifted out of their desperate poverty? Will there be an understandable rush to rid themselves of the physical manifestations of that harrowing past? It can already be seen in wealthier countries such as Ghana and Nigeria where there is virtually nothing left for future generations to repair and preserve. Not only the buildings have gone but also the skills to build them.

It is a gradual process of extinction. Already the extraordinary upturned jelly mould houses of the Mousgoum people of Cameroon are gone, soon those of the Kassena and Gurensi in Ghana will disappear. The Sakho houses of the Boso in Mali are all abandoned and in ruins. It is quite possible that when west Africa emerges from below the poverty line there will be little of its built heritage remaining to be appreciated. The saving grace is probably Islam, ever expanding and building more mosques, but even then only in rural parts. In cities, the mosques funded by Wahabi Saudi funds are atrocious concrete imitations of a bastardized Middle Eastern style.

In the sparsely populated Sahal plains of the Western Sudan, traditional built forms in mud are the most striking representations of human creativity and a unique part of our world culture - they should not be forgotten.

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