A dose of painkillers to cure an ailing design style!

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The Victoria Falls, copper mines and friendly people, is the usual and familiar image of Zambia the world over. There is however no truth in that almost no impression or whatsoever exists when it comes to modern vernacular infrastructure, designers or architects practising in Zambia. This misconception might be due to the fact that very little is available on the World Wide Web, partly because there is minimal accessibility to the Internet by many Zambians but also because architectural publications by those that have access to the Internet overlook traditional style, focusing instead on contemporary architecture.

The architectural and town planning history of Zambia like many other African countries dates back to the pre-colonial era – this was the era before the colonisation of Africa.
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The economic development of Zambia takes root from the late 18th century to the early 20th century trade in copper back when Zambia was known as Northern Rhodesia – penned from Cecil Rhodes, an influential colonist. At that time, colonists with aristocratic pretensions emigrated from Britain to manage mines. The architecture of this period was heavily dominated by indigenous African themes which are seen in the local construction materials which were used to create a built environment that flawlessly camouflaged into the natural environment.
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The materials used here were thatch, mud (this served as plaster for the buildings and was sourced from termite mounds), and branches for posts (a variety of the eucalyptus family known as the Gum tree was used, along with the Mopane and Mukwa trees). Some traditional settings still use these materials to date for construction purposes as they are readily available. They were however seen as of substandard and primitive while modern techniques were seen as civilised and a reflection of affluence. These materials facilitated the construction of huts – locally known as Insaka.
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An insaka is a structure which is similar in western thought to a gazebo. In Zambia, it is a Bemba word for ‘place to gather’ which is derived from the verb, Isa – to come together.
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The insaka defined the indigenous African architecture while village planning was basically organic growth themed. This theme highlighted the mushrooming of homesteads around a nucleus activity – communal and other important buildings such as kraals, Chiefs’ palace, shrines, etc.; it was done this way to protect the communities’ wealth and resources from raids by fellow ethnic groups.
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After Northern Rhodesia was colonised, there was a shift in its architectural style as well as its village planning style, they both became more western influenced. Construction techniques now followed the western culture as the laid down standards to be imitated and the construction materials were now being imported from Britain.
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As the Copperbelt province triumphed in copper mining not only in Zambia but the rest of Africa too, the population of white settlers on the continent triumphed exponentially. Thus, there was a rampant need for accommodation.

In planning the Copperbelt province, a system of separation of areas was used; this separation was between the natives and the white settlers, hence, the separation of natives’ residences from white settlers’ residences and ultimately, low and high cost residential areas which we have come to know now came into existence.
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The white settlers designed homesteads for both the natives and those of their own. These designs were made in the United Kingdom by British architects and planners, and during construction, British contractors oversaw all the construction details to the last detail. Raw materials were shipped from Northern Rhodesia to British factories for processing and then shipped back to meet construction needs. The natives never really had much input in the design process or in any other construction details but their labour. They were made to work by assembling elements (materials) and putting them together to achieve the main composition – the building. Inasmuch as the pay was less than the amount of time put in, the natives begun to learn modern construction techniques and slowly they gained experience.
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With the increase in mining activity and construction developments, the province begun to develop and therefore expand. There was however another factor that led to this expansion, since copper and other raw materials had to be transported from the point of extraction to that of shipping to British factories for processing, rail lines had to be constructed, and as a result towns developed with the construction of these rail lines. These towns developed along the lines of rail, like Chililabombwe, Chingola, Mufulira, Kitwe, Luanshya, Ndola, etc., and by this time, the Copperbelt province had grown in its population as there was a rural-urban drift were the natives had started leaving their villages to work in the mines to earn a living, and improve their livelihoods. More settlers came into the country at this time for commerce while others came in for missionary works – to introduce Christianity.
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Rampant development led to an urgent need for education to serve for communication purposes with the locals. The introduction of education was also done so as to reduce on the high illiteracy levels among the natives. The settlers designed and constructed schools where their standards and ideologies on architecture and planning were imposed on the locals.
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The architecture further shifted from indigenous to exotic. The natives begun to imitate the western influenced designs as the indigenous styles continued to be regarded as primitive and of substandard. This supposition was due to the fact that Northern Rhodesia at that time had no exposure to the rest of the world to meet the acceptable standards of aesthetics and durability of that time. Africa was still divided into tribes with villages being ruled by chiefs who were only interested in expanding their territories by raids and conquests, hence, no grand town plans were drawn up.
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After independence, western dominance continued in architecture and planning as Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia neither had the skills nor the financial muscle to explore new ideas. The country had just achieved its independence and a lot still had to be learnt before it could be out into practice.
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Fifty years on, Zambia does not have a defined architectural style of its own. We are still looking to the pioneers for approval even though a unique style of architecture already exists. The style is vernacular architecture and it entails the use of local materials. The use of traditional techniques and materials should therefore be encouraged and not discouraged.
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This style should be documented and integrated into conventional architecture, if it is to attain the recognition it needs. The second goal is to demonstrate that local materials have the strength, comfort and beauty for modern applications. This change in perception has the potential to revamp and support vernacular architecture.
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Not until recently though, this style is being looked into more deeply. Some buildings around the country are now using this style of thatch for roofs on their patios and lodges (and some hotels), retreat centres and some high cost homesteads with Livingstone being much in the vanguard.
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Overlooking the western influence, a Zambia of 2015 should have seen an advanced exploration and skill into the use of its traditional materials; thatch and mud. Even though the structural properties of these materials would not have rendered skyscrapers possible, it can be said that Zambia would have defined its own architectural and planning style had it been given the chance to flourish. While great architecture is not defined by high rise buildings, it is however defined by that which embodies the style and culture of the environment in which it is built.
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The Government has resolved to use architecture to improve the economy and modernise the nation. This is evident in the rampant construction of shopping malls, stadia, among other developments. With the current strides being undertaken in trying to develop the country through Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, hereafter) and physical planning schemes like the 2030 Long Term Vision, Five and Six year National Development Plans, etc., Zambia by 2015 should have gone back to the drawing board and tried to make advancements in the organic growth scheme of village planning. The country now has both the skill and means to carry out such improvements and better them as can be seen in the revision efforts made on the Town and Country Planning Act. This is an act that monitors the growth and development of towns in what is known as Gatekeeping, where the district councils follow schemes as designed by town planners with the participation of the general public. This preferred approach of including the participation of the general public at design stage has come to be referred to as the Bottom-up approach. It has the advantage of being flexible and it is therefore easily amended.
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Looking into the future, the planning of tomorrow should see homesteads being built around the Central Business District (CBD, hereafter) and amenities as this was the kind of planning that was envisioned and developed by our pre-colonial forefathers.

In conclusion, if our style – Zambian vernacular architecture, is to be appreciated, the country should see the construction of standard “Insakas” in various hues, shapes and sizes, with more aesthetically pleasing and durable local materials like burnt brick plastered with processed mud, processed timber for support and high quality thatch for the roof.
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An insaka can perform functions like any other dwelling – enclose a space and protect it from the elements of weather while allowing for a workstation or socialising. A separation in functional spaces is to be emphasised as a way of incorporating culture into the design; A cooking insaka could be a private space detached from or attached to the main dwelling to store and keep heat for women to cook with as well as a place to socialise from, around this nucleus activity while the men would socialise in a more public insaka as men and women need separate social areas away from each other as dictated by the Zambian traditional culture.
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4 thoughts on “A dose of painkillers to cure an ailing design style!

  1. #Applause… I am personally impressed with how much you have shed light on the matter of vernacular architecture,which is an endangered style at the brink of extinction in Zambian Architectural style.
    The call to all designers/architects is loud enough and i hope and pray we react to this great cause and for a moment sit a rethink how we can bring back our style of beautifying the built environment.

    Like

  2. Nice… I am left wondering how i missed this post, or did I?This is great and very insightful…I am doing a piece on a similar topic but not nearly as comprehensive as yours. Might link your article when i finally get to post.

    Like

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