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The African connection and post-war design principles in architecture:
the intellectual bridge to Europe and the USA

Final Report Summary - AFROBRIDGE (The African connection and post-war design principles in architecture: the intellectual bridge to Europe and the USA)

Geographical categories, such as “Western” and “non-Western,” have been frequently used as markers of exclusion in architectural writing. For a long time, North American and European designers considered traditional African architecture to be the product of “savage,” “primitive” and “inferior” cultures in the attempt to rationalize their dominance. In the years after World War II, however, several architects began to promote the study of traditional Africa as an antidote to the “heroic” stance of modern architecture, looking for new ideas outside the traditional boundaries of the architectural discipline. Beginning in 1945, university programs sponsored lectures and courses on traditional African architecture; Western journals and magazines published a growing number of articles on the topic; and international congresses and meetings focused on sub-Saharan buildings. As a result, the interest in Africa deepened, challenging the modernist idiom and affecting architectural design in Europe, North America, and Africa itself.

The AFROBRIDGE project reexamined the Western/non-Western bipolarity involved in the exchange between Europe, North America, and Africa. The research analyzed the impact of African architecture on postwar modernism as part of the cross-cultural phenomenon of mobility of people, ideas, and publications. The work focused on modern North American, European design and traditional sub-Saharan architecture and it concentrated on the vital interrelationships between these important sectors of activity.

In particular, during the three years of the AFROBRIDGE project, Dr. Dainese, researcher in charge of the project, studied the Western interest in African architecture and the modernistic conceptualization of African design. Dr. Dainese carried out (not necessarily in chronological order) (1) a documentation of the conditions which permit the exchange between European, North American and African architecture; (2) the analysis and definition of the characteristics of the African exchange; (3) an identification of the architects involved in the African connection; (4) the identification and analysis of the building case studies involved in the process of knowledge exchange between Africa, Europe, and North America; (5) the definition of the design principles involved in the diaspora of ideas (with particular attention for the concept of sustainability); (6) the development of a theory of the African exchange; (6) the identification of present time implications and project’s significance for current times.

Starting point was the analysis of the Western conditions that favored the development of the African exchange, and the study of Said’s orientalism, colonialism and postcolonialism, modernization theory, and westernization of Africa. Using a combination of holistic method, theoretical approach, literature and archival research, Dr. Dainese identified several presentations, unpublished documents and books produced in the early 1940s and ‘50s which provide evidence of a general and widespread post-war interest in sub-Saharan architecture. Dr. Dainese focused on the 1940s and the Western desire for stability evolved after the destruction of World War II into the questioning of modern culture and, in architecture, into the critique of the ‘Charter of Athens’ of 1933. As an example, she focused on the programs of CIAM meetings (International Congresses of Modern Architecture) that clearly encouraged the dissemination of the African topic within the architectural and design discipline. Connected to this point, Dr. Dainese studied the 1950s discovering of alternative models in architecture. Among others, the fellow examined the work of several members of Team Ten - Aldo van Eyck, Herman Haan, Christian Norberg-Schulz, Amancio Guedes etc. - who formed the group responsible of the death of CIAM. Mixing archival and literature research with the study of several case buildings - the fellow analyzed several Team Ten drawings - Dr. Dainese investigated how Team Ten architects interpreted traditional African architecture and used its principles in their criticism of contemporary architectural and urban design, identifying in it different alternative models that architects could choose for the built environment. In addition Dr. Dainese concentrated on the period between1950s and ‘60s and the relationship between traditional African architecture and modernism in several newly independent countries of West Africa. Although the process of decolonization had started years before, Dr. Dainese illuminated that the Euro-centric attitude toward African societies and traditional architecture still guided the work of several Western architects working in the sub-Saharan regions in the 1960s. By contrast, the fellow focused on the work of less known architects of African origins, who combined an interest in traditional African architecture and spatiality with modern design and climatic responses. Through comparative analysis, Dr. Dainese confronted the Euro-centric attitude and a more cosmopolitan approach to African design. In the last phase, the fellow examined the Western interest in traditional African architecture during the world’s recession of the 1970s when several European and North American architects promoted the study of traditional African architecture in connection with the resurgence of the African topic in architectural history. The research illuminated and mapped a strong interest in African architecture connected with the development of the green movement in architecture.

The results of the AFROBRIDGE project include presentations in international conferences and publications in top journals, edited collections and the development of a website. This material is the first comprehensive work on the exchange between European, North American and African architecture in the post-war period. AFROBRIDGE’s results have the potential to inform crucial debates among architects and historians re-opening the debate on architectural design before and after World War II. They disclose the fundamental role that sub-Saharan traditions played in the historical and conceptual refashioning of postwar architecture. Illustrating the migration of knowledge through the integration of different fields of inquiry, such as design disciplines and humanities, the project results highlight the process of continuous hybridization among North American, European and African cultures.

So far, only a few studies have addressed the questioning of Western culture and epistemology in postcolonial architecture. Several scholars, students and professionals have investigated the work of North American and European architects in the African continent. However, traditional African architecture and the key role that it played in the development of modern and post-modern architecture remains to be fully examined in its complexity. The AFROBRIDGE project has started filling this lacuna. As explored in the project, the connection between Africa, Europe and North America illuminates a new genealogy of history, which reveals unknown exchanges, mutual relationships, and reciprocal connections among distant traditions. Inviting to the reflexive analysis of current narratives of colonization and post-colonization, the study highlights the urgent need for more critical uncoding of colonial ideologies in the study of African (and global) architectural history.

The results of the AFROBRIDGE project contributes considerably to the advancement of the state-of-the-art and, as the website of the project shows, they have already been widely used by other architects, historians, and scholars of other disciplines to investigate European-North American-African interactions not only in the post-war period. In fact, in addition to offer insight into the intertwining of post-war modernist culture and African architectural traditions, the investigation of African models and their relation to modernist aesthetics illuminates a rich array of material from a period crucial to understanding the present time, while the results of the AFROBRIDGE project contribute to the ongoing architectural discussion on sustainability and on the current discourse on the Global South.

Dr. Dainese has provided updates about the AFROBRIDGE project in the website


Dainese Elisa, “Ghana” in Carughi U., Visone M. (eds.), Time Frames, Conservation Policies for Twentieth Century Architectural Heritage, Routledge, London, UK (ISBN Hardback: 978-1-4724-8929-6, 2016, currently under publication).

Dainese Elisa, “Investigating the African City: Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, and Others,” in Corser R., Haar S. (eds.), Shaping New Knowledges, Washington, DC: ACSA Press, Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (2016, currently under publication).

Dainese Elisa, “Histories of Exchange: Indigenous South Africa in the South African Architectural Review and the Architectural Review”, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol.74 no.4 (Dec 2015), pp. 443-463 (ISSN 0037-9808, DOI: 10.1525/jsah.2015.74.4.443).

Dainese Elisa, “Le Corbusier’s Proposal for the Capital of Ethiopia” in Torres Cueco J. (ed.), LC2015: Le Corbusier 50 Years Later, UPV Press, Valencia (2015), pp.502-516 (ISBN: 978-84-9048-373-2).

Dainese Elisa, “A New Lesson from the Territory of Bandiagara, Mali: the Dogon Landscape Transformation of the Cliff” in Cavallo R., Komossa S., Marzot N., Berghauser Pont M., Kuijper J. (eds.), New Urban Configurations, IOS Press - Delft University Press, Amsterdam, pp. 897-903 (ISBN: 978-1-61499-365-0).

Dainese Elisa, “The Concept of “Habitat”: the Cellular Design Reformulation of the Postwar Modern Movement” in Newman C., Nussaume Y., Pedroli B. (eds.), Landscape and Imagination. Towards a New Baseline for Education in a Changing World, UNISCAPE, Florence, Bandecchi & Vivaldi, Pontedera, pp.51-54 (ISBN 978-88-8341-548-7).