Africa architecture like all other aspects of the culture reflects the interaction of environmental factors. These factors are natural resources, climate, and vegetation, with the economies and population densities of the continent’s various regions. All through the history of Africa, it is known that Africans have developed their own local architectural traditions.
Broader regional styles in some cases can be identified. A typical example is the Sudano-Sahelian architecture of West Africa. Available evidence has proven that in some areas, African architecture has been influenced by external cultures for centuries. Since the fifteenth century, Western architecture has influenced coastal areas and it now serves as an important source of inspiration for many larger buildings, particularly in major cities.
The Great Pyramids of Giza, the largest Egyptian pyramids built in the 26th century BC are regarded as one of the greatest architectural feats of all time. The Pyramids are old and are one of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
History records that the earliest African dwellings were carved out of solid rock. The dwellings were later constructed of animal skins. After that, the dwellings were made with wattle and daub, a framework of woven sticks that is covered with a layer of mud to seal the dwelling from the elements.
With time, they made use of mud bricks, or mud compressed into bricks, sometimes combined with straw, which became the building material of choice. It is difficult to trace when mud brick was first used; it is still used in some regions today.
However, stone became the most durable materials, some ancient stone structures have survived, while other materials succumbed to rain, rot, or termites. The use of fractal scaling is a common theme in traditional African architecture. This involves small parts of the structure which tend to look similar to larger parts, such as a circular village that is made of circular houses.
A common feature of African architecture is the use of a wide range of materials, including thatch, mud, mud brick, stick/wood, rammed earth, and stone. The preference of these materials vary by region. For instance, Southeast and Southern Africa for stone and thatch/wood, Central Africa for thatch/wood and more perishable materials, West Africa for mud/adobe, North Africa for stone and rammed earth, the Horn of Africa makes use of stone and mortar.
The overwhelming majority of thousands of people in Africa living in rural areas build in grasses, wood, and clay. People are often nomadic where vegetation is largely confined to thin grazing cover. They make use of tents of animal skins and woven hair for shelter. Grasses are used as building materials employed widely for thatch and mat roof coverings in the veld and less-forested areas. The use of hardwoods as well as bamboo and raffia palm for building are peculiar in the forest regions. Other major building resources are earth and clay.
The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania are known for the construction of an oblong, or sometimes square, low-domed huts which are some 20 feet (6 metres) long and at shoulder height designed closely with woven frames of thin leleshwa sticks and saplings. The huts are arranged in a circle around the cattle enclosure, or manyatta and the frames are packed with leaves, plastered over the cattle dung. This acts as a deterrent to termites.
The major features of these huts are that they are aerodynamically designed to resist high winds. Also, the manyatta thicket boundary acts as a defensive barrier. Similar structures are also used by a number of other tribes. For example, the Barabaig of Tanzania build thorn-bush enclosures in the form of a figure eight, with one loop used as a kraal for the cattle and the other lined with huts with flat-roof frames.
All over the world, ecological and demographic factors play an important part in building design. In Africa, some factors have contributed to migratory movements. And some of these factors are soil erosion and overgrazing, as well as pressure on land as a result of population growth contributed to these movements. Another fact is the growth of urban centres which led to wide-scale migration in the 20th and 21st centuries. These migrations have had a profound effect on the dispersal of house types in Africa. Also important to state here is geographic influences. African nomads and pastoralists are good examples due to consequence of their hunting and gathering economy. Typical examples are the San of the Kalahari that move frequently. Other hunter-gatherers live in dry savanna territory, which contains a wide range of game animals. Example is the Hadza of Tanzania who’s domed dwellings of tied branches are given a thick thatch in winter. Also in this category of hunter-gatherers is the Bambuti of the Ituri Forest in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo who are forest dwellers. It will be noted that their similarly constructed temporary shelters are interlaced with crossed sticks, over which mongongo leaves are layered.
In Southern Africa, the architecture reveals the diverse and tumultuous past of indigenous clans. The Zulu, the Swazi, and, in KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa, the Nguni, using concentric hoops, construct frame domes. However, others make a ring of poles inserted into the ground and brought together in a crest.
Savanna kraals and compounds are prevalent throughout Southern Africa region. Houses of the Xhosa tend toward a consistent form; the rondavel, or cylindrical, single-cell house with a conical thatched roof. In that region, the variants include a low plinth or curb that supports a domed roof (some Swazi and Zulu), and are flattened domes or low-pitched cones on head-height cylinders, having high, conical roofs.
However, the methods of construction also vary. A well known method is a wall with a ring of posts and infilling of wattles or basket weave packed and plastered with mud.
In the East African lakes region, houses of considerable size are built by some Luo (near Lake Victoria) and Kuria (Tanzania) people. The Luo make extensive use of papyrus reeds from lake borders, using the thicker stems structurally and the leaves for thatching material. Their homesteads are frequently ringed with hedges within which cattle are penned. Most of these Central African inhabitants construct granaries which are often basket-shaped and basket-woven, raised on stilts. This is to keep rodents away and they are placed beneath a thatched roof to keep them dry. They also build veranda houses, and secondary thatched roof crests, which allow ventilation.
In the savanna and semi desert regions of Sudan and western Africa, cylindrical houses are built by the majority of people. These houses are often constructed of mud in a coil pottery technique with less wood available.
In Western Africa, the characteristic settlement form is the compound, a cluster of units linked by walls. Many of these compounds are circular in plan, however, others conditioned sometimes by the uneven terrain, are more complex. In many compounds, earthen wall and floor surfaces are plastered smooth and dried to a rocklike hardness. Coloured clays are used to decorate these surfaces, and in some instances, sculpted with ancestral motifs.
The best-known architecture in Africa comes from Egypt. At the time of the pyramids, Egypt was the richest part of Africa. This is because of its location along the Nile River and its close proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. The country’s location enabled trade with other countries and this encouraged the exchange of ideas and made Egyptian architectural styles to spread to Europe and Asia. This resulted to foreign styles influencing African architecture.
Records show that early Egyptian architecture was primarily from stone due to the availability of it. Mastabas consist of tombs or burial chambers, and are usually built for Egyptian pharaohs or rulers. As the builders became more skilled, the tombs of the pharaohs became more complex as they were made with blocks of stone that fit together almost seamlessly and with smoothly sloped sides.
However, by 2000 BC, stone columns were used by Egyptian builders to make their buildings more open and spacious. Also, elaborate carvings became part of the architectural forms and features of both tombs and religious temples.