Saving that Special Sense of Place (Hey, We’re Not Alone!)

Worried about Portsmouth’s fragile sense of place? Well, we’re not alone in the world.

Traditional African dwellings have all kinds of  exotic shapes

Traditional African dwellings convey a distinct and some say magical sense of place

On the other side of the planet, Africa’s traditional architecture is disappearing and at least one American fancier is scrambling to document it before it’s gone.

An American architect worries that the traditional  architecture that gives spots on the other side of the world from Portsmouth their unique sense of place is disappearing

American architect Jon Twingi worries that the traditional architecture that gives spots on the other side of the world from Portsmouth their unique feel is disappearing (see Jon’s website link)

“There’s this term genius loci,” explains Beaufort, South Carolina architect Jon Twingi, gazing with a faraway look beyond his porch past drifts of Spanish moss dangling from the trees,

“It means the spirit of a place. Every place is different, and every place has its own spirit—that’s what makes it IT. Can you imagine this in Santa Fe? [Or Portsmouth?] No. ”

Twingi is raising money via Indiegogo crowdsource funding (akin to Kickstarter) to travel to three African countries—Swaziland, Lesotho and Malawi—to document their disappearing traditional architecture for his website, African Vernacular Architecture, for anyone to use:

So many Africans use smartphones that he is also developing a special app so anyone in Africa can take digital photos of traditional buildings to add to the database.
In Africa, traditional buildings made of local materials take all kinds of interesting shapes

In Africa, traditional buildings made of local materials take all kinds of interesting shapes (see Jon’s website link)


In Africa, people traditionally use local materials—usually mud, thatch and bamboo—to build houses that look like beehives, mushroom clusters, insects on legs, and walled cities with fantastic, organic shapes. 

Just as tourists come to places like Portsmouth to experience what is unique about it (ie. not Anywhere-on-the-Planet-type buildings), tourists go to places in Africa to soak up its special feel—and much of that is conveyed by traditional architecture, according to Twingi. (Obviously, nobody’s likening Portsmouth to Africa or the disappearance of African building practices dating back many hundreds of years to that of brick buildings one or two centuries old–but the issue of the sense of place and the value and human wellbeing it conveys rings a bell, at least to this blogger).

Some successful newer eco-friendly buildings reuse tried-and-true traditional forms

Successful newer eco-friendly buildings reuse tried-and-true traditional forms and materials (see Jon’s website link)

In fact, Africa-bound tourists like the feel of that traditional built world so much that high-priced Safari lodges and some official buildings are modeled on the tried-and-true old shapes with modern amenities. “They reuse the idea in air conditioned Safari lodges with thatched roofs for tourists who want to see the “real” Africa,” Twingi says. “Some of these Safari lodges are five-star places with plumbing and electricity.”

Some newer structure that borrow from the old captivate tourists

Newer structures that borrow from the old charm tourists

Architecture, like food, is a big part of a country’s culture, said Twingi. “Not only is it beautiful in Africa, it’s sustainable, affordable and local. Mud and thatch have incredible thermal properties,” he said, noting that thatch is used in England [and Japan] too. “– they have such a tie to nature and the land as opposed to concrete block buildings.”

Twingi– the name he uses for this project.Borrowing from old forms to captivate visitors (see website link)

Resurrecting old forms in newer buildings (see Jon’s website link)

meaning “many small things”– fell in Iove with African vernacular or traditional architecture 15 years ago as a Peace Corp volunteer in Zambia. That’s when he spent two years living in a mud hut he found quite comfortable. He taught architecture for two years at Copperbelt University in Kitwe and took photos of hundreds of houses, churches and “Insakas,” gazebo-like grass-thatched buildings devoted to cooking or social gatherings for his other website, Zambia Vernacular Architecture,

See Zambia Vernacular Architecture (link in story) website for the real photo

See Jon’s Zambia Vernacular Architecture (link in story)

In Malawi, he was captivated by the skill of a local carver, who made him a box for his watercolors and took its measurements using a blade of grass.

He returned to Africa six years ago for a conference on vernacular architecture in Nigeria.

With almost a quarter of his $40,000 goal raised, Twingi is leaving in September no matter what. “I’ve got my plane ticket. I’m going,” he says.

Jon Twingi is an architect on a mission to sketch, document and photograph Africa's vanishing traditional architecture

One of Jon Twingi’s sketches of an eco-friendly traditional African dwelling (see his website)

To meet his goal of documenting the continent’s vanishing traditional built environment, he’s been in contact with people and architects in just about every African country.

How long will he stay? “It depends on the funding.”

To donate a few bucks, go to:




1 thought on “Saving that Special Sense of Place (Hey, We’re Not Alone!)

  1. Carl Hyatt

    Another aspect of ‘genus loci” and a sense of place: A few years ago I was involved with many other people in stopping an international company from building an elevated gondola lift car system to allow expanded access to the ancient Peruvian city of Machu Picchu. When you stand in the city of Machu Picchu today and gaze around at the 360 degree panorama of mountains & valleys it looks as it did 500 years ago. The godola lift would have cut cables and supports visibly through the valleys and mountain sides. It also would have had artificial lighting and run after dark. Indeed, the one thing going for it was that it would have cut down on the pollution caused by the buses that currently take visitors up the side of the mountain access. HOWEVER, it would have been devastating to the ‘sense of place’! Machu Picchu has the designation of a UN World Heritage Site. To get this designation the host country must sign on to certain conditions. One of the most important of those conditions is the preservation of the “intangible” qualities of a place. Just protecting the ‘stones’ of the city is OBVIOUSLY not enough. Protecting the ‘genus loci’ is built into the whole idea of Heritage Site. Anyone who gives it a moments thought knows this crucial to our response, our feeling, our attraction, (or repulsion) for a place.
    Our waterfront is not a World Heritage Site, it has to live in the ‘real’ world. What is left of our waterfront is one of our crown jewels. The point has been made here & elsewhere, the smart ‘real’ world thing to do for financial and many other reasons, would be to preserve the sense of place that is uniquely there. Obviously…OBVIOUSLY, that is why people come to Portsmouth. A ‘development’ like 173-5 Market St. is a dagger in the heart of the ‘genus loci’ of our town.


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