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South African Architecture - A Brief History

Architectural need for shelter, security and sanctuaries has always been driven by requirements. The temptation is to think that architecture as we know it today started with the Romans or Ancient Greeks and yet we are wrong. It was much earlier than that. We will need to look at examples of prehistoric architecture (e.g. Stonehenge) and Bronze Age architecture (e.g. the Nuragic structures in Sardinia) to understand why. Today, architecture is mostly about the need for comfort, elegance, modernity, technology and its ability to capture and reflect the spirit of the time.

We know by now that South African architecture has traversed through myriad social and political changes over the years and picked up a number of local and international influences that have guided it towards the melting pot of culture and history that it is today. The rural landscape of southern Africa is populated with both traditional and European-influenced African architecture that has, in turn, had significant influence on modern architectural work by now. Draftek takes a brief look at the history of South African architecture as it is today and also at that of its neighbouring countries to examine the diversity that has arisen from pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial developments.

But before we dive in, it is important to remember that South African architecture, particularly African cultures and architectures, are not homogenous and unchanging. Culture is a multifaceted and complex mosaic of both local and borrowed practices and aspirations, which is shown throughout African history. The interactions between African cultures in Southern Africa throughout history, as well as interactions with settlers, have gone a very long way to transforming architecture in amazing, and sometimes unexpected ways through decades.

Early Settler Architecture

First we can have a loo at one of the most distinct styles of South African architecture which is the Cape Dutch style, which evolved into the Afrikaner style. This ‘settler’ style is known as Cape Dutch due to its creation during the 17th century when the Cape was a Dutch colony back then, and despite the relatively small colonial population in the Cape (relative to the size of the territory), Cape Dutch and subsequent Afrikaner style architecture was spread with outstanding consistency. We can se clear aesthetic links exist between early settler architecture and that of rural North-western European style, although an unmistakable African character had been imbued within it.

Rooted in medieval Dutch, German, French and Indonesian style, houses built during the 17th century in Southern Africa had a distinctive and c, featuring grand rounded gables, harking back to the townhouses of Amsterdam in the same period.

Zimbabwean Architecture

Zimbabwe earns a definite special mention due to its historic architectural achievements, particularly Great Zimbabwe. The largest medieval city in sub-Saharan Africa. Great Zimbabwe was constructed and expanded over three hundred years in an atypical African style.

What sets Great Zimbabwe apart from the three hundred odd similar complexes on the Zimbabwean plateau? It is its sheer scale, featuring stone walls as high as eleven meters, extending around two-hundred-and-fifty meters to encircle the network of buildings. The houses that is within were circular, like many African structures, and constructed with conical thatched roofs. It is estimated that the site of Great Zimbabwe was established as early as the 3rd century AD.

Sotho-Tswana Architecture

Sotho-Tswana architecture is pre-emptive in terms of the themes it brought forward and passed along to other African cultures. It is characterised by round huts with conical thatch roofs. The Sotho-Tswana dwellings emulated the culture’s preference for closeness by building their homes in dense settlements. The Sotho-Tswana people initially called the Transvaal and its northern and southern highveld their home, and as they developed as a society, they soon discovered a preference for stonewalled enclosures and stone housed foundations, which have been found throughout this region.

Zulu and Nguni Architecture

Southern Africa has been home to the Zulu and Nguni tribes for centuries, and their homes have undergone evolution as technological advancements were made. Zulu architecture typically used perishable materials found in nature and followed a dome shape to construct the huts. These domed huts were initially constructed using concentric hoops, which later evolved into a ring of poles inserted into the ground and brought together in a crest, either as a continuous curve evident in early Xhosa dwellings, or to a point such as in Sotho regions.

These structures – called Indlu in Zulu – were expertly thatched and sported finely detailed entrances. Some Nguni structures sported layers of mats beneath the huts for insulation and grass rope nets to aid the homes in withstanding strong winds.

Zulu settlements were built as a series of domed huts six to eight rows deep in an elliptical shape, with a central kraal used by the king for holding cattle and ceremonies. Many southern African architectural styles nurture a preference for closeness and circularity.

Madagascan Architecture

Madagascar – geopolitically a part of Southern Africa – has much southeast Asian style reflected throughout its architectural development. Its first settlers brought with them a rectangular style of dwelling sporting peaked roofs and often short stilts. The coastal dwellings were generally constructed from plant materials, whilst those in the central highlands featured cob and brick. Brick-making was introduced to Madagascar in the 19th century by European missionaries, and this led to an increase in distinctly Malagasy architectural style that mixed traditional wooden aristocratic homes with European details.

South African architecture and that of its neighbouring regions has undergone a series of deconstructive and reconstructive phases where elements from conflicting and coexisting cultures were borrowed and reintegrated into architectural style. As a historic melting pot of culture, language and art, South Africa is a perfect example of the relationship between culture and architecture. The interaction between these dominant elements has produced its own offspring, seen in modern times in any city centre where Southern African cultures have collided, and quite beautifully so.

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