What would come to mind if West African Architecture was the title of this piece? A strange mix of images may surface. These are likely to range from traditional adobe construction, to geometric detailed carvings, to modern mega constructions of contemporary West African cities. The truth is that West African architecture is a little difficult to pin down. It would be reductive to suggest that it is anything by an architect of West African heritage because the story of individuals is often more complex than ethnic identity. Equally to suggest that it is simply anything constructed within West African boundaries ignores the complex political and cultural history of these regions and the reality of the architectural scene in this part of the world. The images we might have in our heads might come from direct experience, but more likely second-hand perceptions and impressions subconsciously developed. What we refer to as architecture is increasingly differentiated from other mere ‘buildings’ because of its ability to be processed and appreciated through a lens. This is true of architecture in general, but in the case of West African architecture, these images have a greater potential to be distorted in our imaginations than many other better understood categorisations.
In most cases, rarely do we think much further than the images in our mind’s eye, though architecture is really, less easy to define. Architecture can be sculpture, technology and art, but it is more interestingly and accurately described as a political and cultural activity that results in the creation of our man-made environments. Since architecture rarely sways from established ideals into the realms of critique, it can also be thought of as the material expression of the dominant values and aspirations of a society. Even when it appears to be the work of one or two individuals, the creation of architecture – a highly political act – is the culmination of hundreds of economic, regulatory and cultural decisions. Fundamentally, none of us lives outside of architecture and even within our own homes, we are subject to its subtle but pervasive influence when we least expect it.