Intersections of the Indigenous and Modern in Settlement Planning Concepts and Traditions in Africa



Architecture & Built Environment


  • sustainability, indigenous design

Full title: Learning From Synergies Between the Intersections of the Indigenous and
Modern in Settlement Planning Concepts and Traditions in Africa:

The study of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) in the built-environment disciplines has for a long time been limited and trapped in the idyllic discourses of 'exotic’ or 'primitive' architecture, and the ‘organic’ nature of the development and planning of such built forms and settlements, by emphasizing the essentially transient nature of these built forms.

There was, for a long time persistent negative perceptions that, until the coming of Europeans, Africans had lived in universal chaos and stagnation; and that, 'for countless centuries, while all the pageant of history swept by, the African remained unmoved, in primitive savagery' (Amankwah-Ayeh, 1994; p 105). While these myths and legends have been challenged (Davidson, 1959), there is still inadequate appreciation of the value of IKS in the built environment disciplines.

Significantly missing in these debates is how the synergies between the intersection of the ‘indigenous’ and the ‘modern’ could be contrasted and tapped in order derive deeper learnings from their functional, symbolic and creative meanings. The works of Hassan Fathy (1973) Susan Denyer (1982), Anita Larsson (1984; 1996), among other researchers, began to grapple with analyzing and situating the study of African indigenous architecture and systems of planning within their political economies and ecologies of resource utilization, production and consumption. This marked a welcome break from the sensationalist traditions steeped in colonial anthropological and ethnographic orientations of 'vernacular architecture' and organic planning research.

These and other researchers began to move away from research aimed at the ideological justification for 'difference' and therefore separation; towards a more inclusive discourse which recognizes that pre-colonial African settlements and cities were built on sustainable development principles, where town planning, settlement design and architectural principles articulated existing modes and relations of production of those social formations’ (Amankwah-Ayeh, 1994; Mabogunje, 1962; Tapela, 1988).

The paper explores the apparent similarities in conceptions of space utilization, security and sustainability, deriving from the nature of dwelling and settlement design, how these articulated the existing modes of production of space, society and the economy - and therefore could be reproduced sustainably. The paper explores the planning principles, design concepts, standards and norms used in the planning and building of indigenous African settlements and dwellings and suggests that, by tapping into rich traditions of indigenous planning  systems, the organic link between sustainable resource utilization and livelihood sustenance can be enriched.

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