James Morris

Butabu: Adobe architecture in West Africa.

Butabu: Adobe architecture in West Africa
By Professor Suzanne Preston Blier (Harvard)

Edited section (introduction and envoi) of an essay commissioned to accompany the photographs in ‘Butabu’, first published by Princeton Architectural Press 2003.  The full essay runs to 30,000 words covering the subject in some detail.



“Above all it is the humaneness of this architecture.” Bernard Rudofsky

“Architecture is more than an array of techniques designed to shelter us from the storm. It is an instrument of measure, a sum total of knowledge that, contending with the natural environment, becomes capable of organizing society’s time and space.” Paul Virilio

Among the Batammaliba of Togo, one of the important cultures whose architecture is featured in this book, the term butabu describes the process of moistening earth with water in preparation for building. In this language, the prefix and suffix bu reference the earth and anything associated with it. The middle phoneme ta signifies forms that contain something else—houses (takienta), for example. The process of mixing earth with water defined in butabu is shared in each of the striking architectural landmarks in this book.

The technique of wet earth construction in the Batammaliba and other regions of the western Sudan is a complex one based on a sound knowledge of both structure and the inherent properties of different earths (often the earth is mixed with clay and/or sand to get the right consistency). Important too is the correct manner of kneading the earth (sometimes a several day process) and the building up of earthen “blocks” (wet, sun dried or baked), which are integrated by placing one building element in the intersections of the previous layer. If the earth is not of the correct texture, if the kneading is rushed, if the walls are not perpendicular to the ground and flat, if the structural design is uneven, if the final plastering is not done effectively, the building may very well collapse.

The photographs in this book provide evidence of the creative ways in which local architects shape this material into vibrant works of art. They also show the complex and divergent systems in which the simple properties of earth and water come together to convey forms of striking artistic sophistication and interest. The visual features of West African earthen architecture—its unique play of texture, shadow, profile, and primary geometries—are enhanced by elements of the environment itself.

This is an architecture that challenges the inherent boundaries between built form and sculpture. It incorporates vital attributes of geometric primacy and boldness that also delimit many African figural traditions. Texture is part of this—whether defined through the rich modeling of decorative elements in earth, or the incorporation of bristling timbers into the surface for structural support or ongoing repairs; the buildings seem to attract touch as a vital part of their appreciation. Another of the visually powerful features of this tradition is the way in which it is enriched through the constant play of light and shadow. The sun both bakes the earthen core and redefines its surface and interior through the course of each day. Yet another vital component of these buildings is the way in which dynamic aspects of silhouette or profile serve to shape the whole—whether defined by a row of conical earthen extensions at the height of the facade, or by the unique or the angled rhythmic play of structural elements. There is an equally important emphasis placed on primary geometries—squares, triangles, circles—in the conceptualization; in some cases several different competing shapes are integrated into the same structure.



The architectures of the Western Sudan display unique creativity and aesthetic power. These edifices give evidence of not only striking formal qualities but also sophisticated technical skill, the core earthen material being employed to its fullest potential, with some structures lasting across the centuries. In addition to constructing monuments of extraordinary sculptural and spatial appeal, architects here have made extensive use of the region’s potent sunlight to enhance visual impact. Facade surfaces and interior spaces show a range of tactile and plastic attributes that are heightened over the day (and year) through the dynamic modulations of light and shade.

These building traditions at the same time reference the distinctive social, political, and religious contexts of the region’s history. Architecture here reflects key attributes of the history of empire and state expansion and the concomitant upheaval, war, and migration that have resulted from related regime practices. Idioms of adaptation and appropriation often have served here as powerful architectural strategies of recontextualization, challenge, and resistance. As such, Western Sudanese building traditions offer a unique lens for examining larger questions of social identity and the Islamic/traditional religious interface that long characterized the region. Many examples show architectural syncretism, with buildings often drawing on both indigenous and foreign sources. Yet these structures are far more than composite visions, representing instead innovative expressions and counterfoils to core local, regional, and foreign cultural values. The Nando mosque, the reconstructed Djenne mosque, and Boso men’s houses in Mali are particularly important examples of this. The latter Boso sakho structures challenge not only local building practices but also French colonial building and post-independence concerns of nation-states.
Western Sudanese state architecture such as these frequently include recirculations of well-known forms that assume new meanings over time and space. The story of Mali King, Mansa Musa’s famous court architect from Granada, al-Sahili, points to the ways in which co-joined early Berber and Fulani-Tukulor traditions may have been taken up as new models linked simultaneously to autochthony and state authority. In the architecture of both the Mali and Hausa states, ribbed domes held primacy as co-joined icons of ancestry and dynastic authority. The prominent place of state architects in these
contexts is noteworthy, not only for what they may have brought by way of architectural innovation, but also for the role they assumed in promoting a state architecture at once new and familiar, traditions that then served as vital models for larger building projects in the area.

A range of features, including monumental (often multistory) facades, attached pilasters, rich-patterned facade surfaces, and conical pinnacles at the height of the building, distinguish the region’s indigenous rural architecture, serving in some cases as part of a meta-language of autochthony. In Dogon and Batammaliba contexts, where conical roof pinnacles are given offerings of white millet gruel following the harvest, these forms are identified with ancestral authority. These conical forms also sometimes serve as visual metaphors for the defensive horns of antelopes, suggesting the importance of powerful game,
masculine prowess, and family regeneration within the local ethos. Similar earthen cone elements often were incorporated into elite architecture and mosque traditions of the Western Sudan. There are enough similarities in both the form and iconic associations of these facade motifs to suggest that they held certain broad-based associations across the regions’ populations. Thus when Ahmad, the one-time ruler of the Tukulor dynasty, left his native Mali in 1890 following the French takeover here to seek residence in his mother’s home town of Sokoto (in modern Nigeria—a Hausa area), there were many architectural
features—not only monumental palaces and religious structures of earth but also conical elements at the height of the façade—that he would have found familiar.

The transcultural importance of the conical motifs was made clear to photographer James Morris when his assistant, a man of Dogon origin, expressed shock at how comfortable (indeed blasé) the Batammaliba appeared to be with respect to the conical shrines in front of their homes. While clearly the Dogon assistant was able to recognize vital differences in altar use and iconic association between his own traditions and those of the Batammaliba, at the same time the altars were familiar enough to him to have suggested a certain complementarity. In this broader Western Sudan area, which witnessed large-scale population movements through history for various political, religious, and environmental reasons, to some degree the broader comparability of key building elements may have been as important as their specific local meanings. These and other attributes can be said to constitute an architecture of familiarity and authenticity, building blocks of a local and regional visual language of identity and resistance through the long history of violence and change.

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