Worried about Portsmouth’s fragile sense of place? Well, we’re not alone in the world.
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.
“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: http://www.
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).
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.”
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.”
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, www.zambiaarchitecture.com
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.
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: http://igg.me/at/mudhut