Racines Architecture recently won first prize for their project, ‘Les pieds sur terre’ in the CISP-Niger competition for an Earth Pavilion in the Niamey Boubou Hama Museum. Africanism chatted to Abiola Akandé Yayi:
Can you give us a short background on yourself and your practice?
I’m Beninese and was born in 1988 in my country. Seven years ago I came to Brazil to make my architectural studies at the Federal University of Uberlandia in the state of Minas Gerais. I graduated just last year, 2016. Being in contact with a different culture and the discovery of afro-descent Brazilians culture woke me up about the importance of cultural identity, then I started making some researches that took me to the understanding of the rationality inside the African sub-Saharan culture, in other terms, the paradigms behind the African culture and values. And now, almost all my work is basically based on African thought.
What was the competition brief and how did your design meet these requirements?
In 2013 while I was still a student in my third year of formation, I discovered an international competition organized by the CISP-Niger as part of the ACP project of the European Union and I got interested because of the theme. It was about building an Earth Pavilion in the Boubou Hama Museum in Niamey and my researches on earth architecture that time were very interesting, so I wanted to put them in practice. I invited one of my Brazilian colleagues, Robert Soares, to work together on a project to submit. At that time we had both a very functional and rationalistic vision of architecture so we designed the project on that base, optimizing the natural ventilation and illumination, using the topography with insight in order to valorize the volume and respecting the existing natural elements and constructions of the site. We also proposed several earthen construction techniques because one of the pavilion objectives was to celebrate earth as a good material for building.
Why do you believe your entry won first place?
The competition was opened to students and architects all over the world, but when we finished the project, we knew we had a chance to win because rationally, we responded well to the requirements, but while we were producing, we reflected and added some interesting propositions to improve the pavilion, like an multifunction space, an opened mini cinema outside for documentary projections, and resting spaces around the building. Other feature of our project was the integration of many activities in a small surface. The fact that we didn’t limit ourselves to the simple program of the competition surely played a role in the result.
What would you say is the most noticeable feature of the project?
This question is a little bit complicated for me to answer today because my vision of architecture has progressed a lot and I see and make a project through a systemic and complex vision so, it’s like an fractal object for me, even existing an hierarchy inside, it’s very different from a pyramidal hierarchy where something is more important or noticeable than other, for me it’s a whole, one wouldn’t exist without the other.
How did the environment influence your design?
The environment has been the base of the design; in fact, the design was born from the study of the existing relations on the site. The flows were determining as well as the natural elements of the site like the topography and vegetation, which is because we wanted to make and edification in respect of the site and not a white elephant.
What was the inspiration behind the concept?
Part of the project, principally the roof were inspired by Francis Kere’s architecture, but as we were very influenced by modernist and Brazilian brutalism, (architecture movement) our concept was to make a kind of African brutalist architecture building well integrated in his environment and not intimidated by its display of the materials as they are.
What sustainable initiatives were implemented in the design?
When we talk about sustainability, many people think of technologies but for me, sustainable architecture starts from the integration of the building in his ecosystem and its cultural meaning for the people who are going to use it. So the sustainability of this project resides in the example for the people in Niamey, as a representation of endogenous development and in the optimization of the natural energies (light and ventilation) in that very hot place. Of course we would like to propose some technologic alternatives for artificial energy requirements but the budget for building wouldn’t be enough.
How do you believe architecture on the African continent compares to that found abroad?
Some centuries ago, architecture used to reflect the culture of the place where it was built, but since the European industrial revolution and the internationalization of European modernist architecture, in my opinion, architecture loosed a lot in identity. Instead of building regarding the specificities of the local ecosystems and cultures, we build on the base of “world class concept” which is just a beautiful way to say building based on European standards of architecture. Technically it’s not bad but why not use the techniques and technologies to valorize our paradigm, our cultural identity and heritage?
Is there any other information that you would like to share?
What I’m aiming and I’m sure it’s the way for African architecture to be recognized as quality architecture around the world, is that we include our cultural values in the way we build. In other terms, if we valorize ourselves the world will valorize us too, but if we continue copying the western architecture without making any constructive critic, that’s to say that we are not innovating and we will still be invisible on the international scene while losing our heritage.