On bending the rules

  • 20 oktober 2020
  • Door Tea Kufrin
As an architect working on international assignments, I often encounter architectural solutions that I don’t quite understand from the start. This happens especially in places where the social conditions of the built environment are very different from the ones I know personally. Such as in Mali. What are those local conditions? I decided to live in Bamako for some time to find out for myself. And realized that behind most surprising and strange-looking aspects of local architecture hides a combinations of needs and stubborn rules and regulations. Developing valuable local architecture requires finding out about and tackling both.

There is an enormous growth of West African cities and consequently an increasing need for new social housing developments. While in some African countries high-rise is starting to be more and more popular, in Mali this is not yet the case, and most newly built areas contain only single-family terrains. These plots, ten to fifteen meter wide and twenty meter deep, are always organised in the same way. To my big surprise, the house is always positioned roughly one meter away from a high wall that surrounds the plot, leaving unusable narrow corridors that eat up expensive square meters and blocking the view.

After living in such a house in Bamako, I learned the biggest reason for this layout is that the walls of the house are now largely protected against rain and overheating from direct sunlight. That the walls are prone to damage by rain and sun in turn is the result of poor quality building materials, such as low-grade cement blocks. I understanding the economic constraints. But better quality does not necessarily mean more expensive. The hydraulically compressed earth blocks (HCEB) that we use in our projects in Mali, Mauritania and Nigeria proof that point. It is a locally sourced construction material with great thermal properties for hot climates, that requires no maintenance throughout the years.

There’s another reason for building very high, almost two meter tall walls around a plot. While in some sense Malian culture does value privacy more than the Dutch, it is also true that it is not a Malian tradition to live completely isolated from neighbours. Yet, that is what happens now, in these gated residential plots. Looking at more traditional ways of life, interaction with the community has always been an important element of lifestyles across the country.

Take the example of Dogon villages in central Mali. Each family has an intimate area with a courtyard, granaries and rooms. Yet these always open up to public areas and public buildings in the area, where most of the day is spent. Each village has a Toguna, where the elders discuss problems, a Ponulu, for menstruating women, an area to pound millet and a special house for the spiritual leader, or Hogon. These spaces bring people together, and create a sense of shared ownership. The architecture here reflects a lifestyle: nothing can be found in excess and nothing is missing.

New housing developments in the capital Bamako often do not offer these kinds of mixed private and public clusters. They are not feasible for investors, who are solely focused on accommodating individual families. The development areas reproduce the traditional family plot, without accounting for its connection to a wider community. As a consequence, security problems arise. Because if you do not know the people around you, you will be less quick to trust them. Now, the high walls have become a necessity purely for safety reasons.

Unfortunately, nowadays, local governments, planners and investors are so hung up on the existing way of doing things, that basic questions are not being asked anymore. Very little space remains for thinking outside the box. Literally. The specifications of rectangular plots with a central house have made their way into regulations, and these take an endless amount of time and paperwork to change. And so, even in high-end projects, where there are less financial limitations on the price of building materials, houses are still placed on a plot in the same way. Because that’s how it is normally done. As outsiders looking in, we have often suggested improvements. In theory, they were always met with open arms, but in practice with a lot of scepticism.

After spending this time in Bamako, I realized it should be absolutely possible to create the kinds of comfort and familiarity with building traditions on the same number of square meter with a much higher quality of public space. The challenge therefore, is to bend the rules a little, and break them where necessary.

In our recent proposal for social housing in Bamako, we have made the controversial suggestion to minimise the size of a plot. The apparent loss of square meters, was compensated by shared gardens and parking. We managed to convince the client that a plot does not necessarily have to be big to have quality, but regulations state that a plot cannot be smaller than two-hundred square meter. Let’s see who’s willing to take the gamble with us.