Beaufort-based architect Jon Twingi is documenting African vernacular architecture for preservation by creating an online database. He started in Zambia 15 years ago. "I traveled the entire country and documented all of the existing vernacular architecture," he said. He was a Peace Corps volunteer and lived in a village where the chieftainess worked in the cassava field.
Vernacular architecture is art. It is a part of a country's culture, and it's disappearing, like the tabby concrete ruins and fish camps here in the Lowcountry. In Africa, vernacular architecture looks like garage-sized beehives and woven roofs hanging low like mushroom caps and grand, breezy safari lodges. Habitats that are alluringly natural and obviously human. However ...
"Western materials and techniques are considered to be permanent, correct, civilized, a symbol of wealth," Twingi explained. "Vernacular materials and techniques, on the other hand, are viewed as makeshift, temporary, for the poor, part of the past." But vernacular is both traditional and innovative. The artisan who can build a 20-inch thick thatched roof does so because of his ancestors, and also for practicalities like the abundance of thatch growing nearby, and for creative whimsy. After building your own hut, wouldn't you feel like painting polka dots and crocodiles on the smooth mud wall?
"There's a huge connection between people and the land," Twingi pointed out.
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The artistry of vernacular architecture stems from its genius loci. "It's a really cool concept that means that every place has its own spirit. Beaufort is different from Seattle. Hong Kong is different from Miami. I've lived in a mud hut. It's architecture of the earth; the huts just rise out of it. I believe in sustainability. I like that type of architecture better than steel and glass."
Safari lodges are an example of one architectural tradition adapted to modern use. Because tourists prefer this scenic style of lodging and lounging, the vernacular is preserved and renewed, the way construction in Beaufort's historic district supports old architecture and the tourism industry.
When Twingi (whose name means "many small things," like mosquitoes around the swamp) lived in the bush in Zambia, there was no electricity or running water. "The thermal insulating properties of thatch and mud is good. When it's a 100 degrees out, it's considerably cooler inside, and vice versa."
The architect had a mattress and chairs of bamboo, and eventually had a bed frame made. In these villages, one house could be three or four huts and insakas, gazebo-like structures for cooking or social gatherings, a human-built alternative to the shade tree. Twingi designed one to fit his hammock, a fire pit, and a water basin, and hired local artisans to build it.
On his next documentation trip, to Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland, Twingi will work with African architects, university contacts, carvers and batik artists. These small countries in southern Africa are safe and have good infrastructure, "and there's no documentation yet," he said.
His research is being funded through Indiegogo, where contributors can sign up for architecture-themed perks like watercolors by Twingi, batiks designed by him and made by African artists, or hand-carved wooden picture frames containing original photos.
"Malawi carvers are just insane, they make measurements with pieces of grass, the carvings are elaborate, and they're fast," he described.
Eventually, in between the rainy seasons and building seasons and all the good conversations that will arise among designers and artists, Twingi's African vernacular architecture database will be comprehensive, analyzed and organized, and available to all on the Internet. It will be a part of the sustainability movement in architecture, and it will be one way that people can learn to stop equating poverty with skillfully built huts. Dispense with the colonialism and stereotypes so that artistry can thrive.
"I would say everyone needs an insaka," he said, when I asked Twingi which design element should be imported to Beaufort. "It's a really comfortable space. I'm not here to change perceptions, I'm here to document before it disappears. I'd like to show people the beauty."
To learn more about Jon Twingi and African vernacular architecture and to contribute to the documentation, go to www.igg.me/at/mudhut.
Lisa Annelouise Rentz lives and writes in Beaufort.