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The African City: A Global Architectural History

This module will consist four introductory lectures investigating the global architectural history of the city in sub-Saharan Africa from the twelfth century onward.

Published onMar 23, 2021
The African City: A Global Architectural History

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Module Syllabus

The African City: A Global Architectural History

Dr. Elisa Dainese

Assistant Professor of Architecture

Dalhousie University, Faculty of Architecture and Planning

[email protected]

Module Abstract: This module will consist four introductory lectures investigating the global architectural history of the city in sub-Saharan Africa from the twelfth century onward. The goal of the module will be to enable teachers of architecture and art history to present this material in a conceptually rich and globally situated manner. The course material would fit in a survey of architecture 1100 to the present day.

This module investigates global architectural history, postcolonial theory, and politics of knowledge, raising questions of social engagement and political economy in African architecture and urbanism. With a focus on knowledge transfer, cross-pollination, and negotiation among traditions the unit offers a critical exploration of themes that challenge national narratives and colonial stereotypes. The theoretical content of the module translates to the undergraduate architectural survey level through the analysis of several case studies focused on African architecture. Objects of inquiry include the pre-colonial architecture of Benin City, Great Zimbabwe, and M’banza Kongo (lecture 1); the Dogon ginna and the Mousgoum teleuk during and after the age of exploration (lecture 2); the mining compound, the camp houses in Moroka, the matchbox-houses in Sophiatown and Soweto, in Johannesburg (lecture 3). Other subjects include the contested infrastructures—highways, motor parks, and markets—of Lagos, in Nigeria (lecture 4). These topics are explored in a series of lectures where architectural history, design, art and anthropology are interwoven to provide the basis for further inquiries in the global architectural history of the African city.

Context and Fit: This module contextualizes understandings of diversity and inequality at multiple scales and within trans- and inter-continental networks. In order to do so, it introduces narratives of subaltern pasts on the architecture of the African city that significantly add to the content of the GAHTC library. As an example, the first lecture of this proposal (“The African City before 1500: Global Networks and Exchanges”) expands the work presented in the module entitled “First Societies,” while the second lecture of this project (“Travelers and Archi-Tourists in the Sub-Saharan Settlement”) adds a different historical and anthropological perspective to the already existing “Earth and the Environment in African Architecture” unit mainly focused on material culture and environmental issues. In addition, by investigating architecture not only during European imperialism in the continent, but also in the periods before and after the European control, the proposal connects with and develops further the topics explored in the modules “Sites and Systems of Global Colonialism” and “The Global History of Architecture and Climate,” which question African exchanges and transfers primarily during colonialism.

As it is developed, this proposal complements the material currently presented in the GAHTC library, but also constitutes the basis for further and future examinations in the global architectural history of the sub-Saharan city.


  1. The African City before 1500: Global Networks and Exchanges

  2. Travelers and Archi-Tourists in the Sub-Saharan Settlement

  3. The Colonial City: Displacement and Migration in Apartheid Johannesburg

  4. The Post-Colonial City: Cosmopolitanism and the Challenge of Growth in Lagos, Nigeria

Lecture 1: The African City before 1500: Global Networks and Exchanges

This first lecture introduces the broad theme of sub-Saharan cities and settlements in the pre-1500 world. In order to deconstruct the widespread misconceptions about the absence of significant sub-Saharan cities before the arrival of the European colonizers in the continent, we will introduce and analyze three different examples of sub-Saharan settlements and their architecture. We will discuss how cities such as Kilwa, Benin, Great Zimbabwe, and M’banza Kongo became the centers of ancient network systems of power and commerce connecting with other settlements within and outside the continent. We will also analyze how architecture in these centers became the place of encounter among different traditions. This will allow us to begin to understand how continuity, modifications, and distortions took place within global exchanges. This lecture would provide a background for understanding the development of the African city in the post-1500 period.

Lecture Materials:

Required readings:

Preston Blier, S., “The African Urban Past: Historical Perspectives on the Metropolis.” in Adjaye, D., and Allison, P., African Metropolitan Architecture. New York: Rizzoli, 2011, 14-19.

Prussin, L., “An Introduction to Indigenous African Architecture,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol.33, no.3 (Oct.1974), 182-205.

Lecture 2: Travelers and Archi-Tourists in the Sub-Saharan Settlement

This lecture tracks multiple travel experiences of architects, artists, and scientists who crossed the Sahara from the 1850s to the twentieth century. It examines the itinerary of their trips, their drawings, and the photographic and filmed materials collected during their trips with a particular attention for the architectural and urban realm. Focus of our study will be the ginna and the compound of the Dogon village, and the teleuk and the family enclosure in the Mousgoum settlement. The analysis of travelogue materials on Dogon and Mousgoum architecture will allow us to question the process of construction of the colonial image of sub-Sahara and introduce notions as orientalism and otherness. The lecture will also provide insight into the results of the colonial booty on the places visited by the travelers and the increasing presence of tourists in the region.

Lecture Materials:

Required readings:

Ockman, J. “Bestride the World Like a Colossus: The Architect as Tourist.” In Architourism: Authentic, Escapist, Exotic, Spectacular, ed. J. Ockman and F. Salomon, 158-85. Munich; New York: Prestel, 2005.

Clifford, J. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. Chapter 2 (55-91).

Lecture 3: The Colonial City: Displacement and Migration in Apartheid Johannesburg

In looking at Johannesburg, in South Africa, this lecture introduces three different waves of people migration to and within the city from the gold boom of the 1880s to present time. This will allow us to discuss the topics of labor control, forced migration and displacement focusing on the places of resistance to apartheid. In the first part of the lecture, we will discuss the process of colonization, soil exploitation and scramble for resources in the Transvaal colony (and later province). We will investigate the movement of migration of seasonal laborers working in the mining sector and the subsequent development of the architecture of the compound system. In the second part of the lecture, we will connect the concepts of colonization, modernization, and “sanitation syndrome” as developed in the British colonies. We will focus on the forced and periodical movement of displaced people to the township of Sophiatown, the camp of Moroka, and the matchbox-houses of Soweto. The lecture concludes with the investigation of a more contemporary phenomenon of people migration: the post-apartheid wave of foreign laborers moving to Johannesburg from other African countries.

Lecture Materials:

Required readings:

Foster, J., “The Wilds and the Township: Articulating Modernity, Capital, and Socio-nature in the Cityscape of Pre-apartheid Johannesburg” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol.71, No.1 (2012), 42-59.

Parnell, S., “Race, Power and Urban Control: Johannesburg's Inner City Slum-Yards, 1910- 1923,” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3 (2003), 615-637. 

Lecture 4: The Post-Colonial City: Cosmopolitanism and the Challenge of Growth in Lagos, Nigeria

In looking at the work of artists such as Yinka Shonibare, a British-Nigerian artist living in the United Kingdom, and the brightly colored Dutch wax fabric he uses in his artwork, we will explore the concept of transoceanic exchanges, cosmopolitanism and hybridization within the contemporary challenging growth at work in Lagos, Nigeria. We will discuss Lagos as a global place of encounter and negotiation among traditions since the foundation of Lagos Island and its later peaceful annexation to the Benin Empire before the arrival of the Portuguese in the area and the slave trade (ca. 1470). The lecture will also investigate the contested role played in Lagos growth by British colonialism and the development of colonial infrastructures, especially its highways, motor parks and markets. We will end the lecture by looking at the work of local/global artists—as Olalekan Jeyifous and Wale Oyejide—on Lagos as a multi-cultural and post-colonial metropolis.

Lecture Materials:

Required readings:

Cooper, F., “What is the concept of Globalization Good for? An African Historian’s Perspective,” African Affairs, No.100 (2001), 189-213.

Gandy, M. “Learning from Lagos.” New Left Review 33 (May-June 2005): 37-52.

Caldeira, T., “Peripheral urbanization: Autoconstruction, transversal logics, and politics in cities of the global south.” Environmental Planning D, 35: 1: 3-20.

Author Bio:

Dr. Elisa Dainese is an architect, theorist and historian and she is currently Assistant Professor of Architecture at Dalhousie University. She works on issues of decolonization and postcolonial theory, global history, globalization, modernism, architectural design and urbanization with a focus on the transoceanic exchanges across Africa, Europe and the Americas. In 2012, she obtained a PhD in Architectural Composition from the IUAV University of Venice, with a dissertation focused on post-war architecture, Team Ten, Aldo van Eyck, and the fascination for Dogon architecture of Mali (Africa). She started her career as an EU-licensed architect in the Atelier of Prof. Arch. Boris Podrecca (Wien, Austria) and in the Italian office of Prof. Arch. Aurelio Galfetti (Lugano, Switzerland) where she worked on public and private projects of urban and architectural design. Her research has received grants, fellowships, and awards from Columbia University (Italian Academy of Advanced Studies in America, 2016-17), the Bruno Zevi Foundation (Bruno Zevi Prize for historical-critical essays, 2017), the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA, 2018), the Mellon Foundation funded Global History of Architecture Teaching Collaborative (MIT, School of Architecture + Planning, 2017-19), and the Graham Foundation (2019-21). In 2013-16, she was the recipient of a three-year Marie Curie International fellowship funded by the EU and developed in connection with Harvard University (Department of African and African American Studies), the University of Pennsylvania (History of Art Department), and the University of Venice (IUAV, Faculty of Architecture). She is currently working on the development of a manuscript with the results of the research where she will explore the key role that sub-Saharan traditions played in the historical and conceptual refashioning of modern European and North American architecture from the 1940s to the 1970s. Her book projects also include the manuscript entitled War Diaries: Design after the Destruction of Art and Architecture (co-editor, University of Virginia Press, 2020). Elisa Dainese is the author of articles and essays in The Global Encyclopedia of Women in Architecture (2020), May ‘68 and Architectural Education, International Perspectives (2020), the Journal of Architecture (June 2019), e-flux (Apr 2019), Time Frames (2017), the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (Dec 2015), New Urban Configurations (2014), Nuove qualità del vivere in periferia (2013), Landscape and Imagination (2013), and Catalogo della Mostra Internazionale Triennale d’Architettura Milano (2012). She has participated in numerous international conferences in Europe and North America and served as an organizing team member of both the Venice Biennale of Architecture (2010), IUAV AFRICA - Rwanda Pavilion, and of the Milan Triennale of Architecture (2013) where she focused on the Great Green Wall projects of Africa and China. In January 2020, she will join the School of Architecture at Georgia Tech as the new Assistant Professor of History and Theory.

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