Perspectives Identity

Building on Architectural Traditions of the Sahel

Renowned architect Francis Kéré and photographer James Morris reflect on the past, present, and future of Sahelian architecture.

Jul 15, 2020

A black and white photo of two men in front of a mud building

In his native Burkina Faso and in neighboring Mali, Berlin-based, internationally renowned architect Francis Kéré has created buildings that honor Sahelian architecture and draw upon sustainable, locally available materials. His practice has been recognized and honored repeatedly, most recently in 2017 by the Prince Klaus Fund for Culture and Development. In 1999 and 2000, British photographer James Morris spent two years traveling through the Sahel to photograph the region's earthen architecture. The resulting book not only allows for a comprehensive study of these structures, but is a testimony of this medium's rich potential and the endless creativity of Sahelian architects and communities. The publication will continue to serve as an archive for years to come. In their commentary on the photographs below, Kéré and Morris share their unique perspectives on the past, present, and future of Sahelian architecture.

Yaëlle Biro

Francis Kéré:
Architecture connects communities across time; buildings can survive far beyond the people who designed and constructed them. Whether intact or partially in ruins, ancient architecture directly correlates with building techniques used today because they have been passed down from generation to generation.

Finding parallels—intentional or not—between architecture that has existed in the Sahel region for centuries and my own contemporary designs highlights the constant evolution of my discipline. I don't mean "evolution" in a linear sense. Rather, I think that an appreciation of what came before must go hand in hand with an understanding of how modern conditions differ—whether climatically, communally, economically, or technologically. Doing so allows one to build in a manner that neither dismisses tried and tested expertise, nor simply repeats the past without honoring it and tweaking it to fit the present.

It is at this intersection that architecture has the best chance to withstand the test of time and, one day, to become the very buildings future architects look back on to find inspiration and similarities—just as we do now with the ancient buildings in these photographs.

James Morris:
Sahelian architecture is fascinating for its visually striking, highly distinctive forms and the way whole communities collaborate on buildings' construction and maintenance. Builders across the region have taken the same basic raw materials—earth, water, straw, and timber—and with creativity, knowledge, and skill, have developed buildings that are unsurpassed in variety. Many are vibrant works of art with their own distinct aesthetics, including bold, monolithic structures that play with natural light and use mud to emphasize shadow, texture, silhouette, and form.

While appreciating these rich veins of world culture, we should remain mindful that they are greatly challenged by economic, social, political, and climatic change. Countless are threatened; many have already been lost. Today there is a need for international participation to help assure Sahelian architecture's continued existence. You can't put villages and towns in museums, and they shouldn't be preserved only in photographs.

A black and white photograph of a village at the base of a mountain

[The village of Bamba photographed from the market], June 27, 1905, photographed by Louis Desplagnes, (French, 1871–1914), Musée des Confluences, Lyon, inv. 2009.18.2.12

Architecture that melts into the landscape it sits within and is surrounded by—it is a thing of beauty. Here is an image that makes it near impossible to see where human-made structures end and nature begins, or vice versa. But more than that, here is a snapshot of community members gathering in the shade of a tree, with buildings as their backdrop, nicely showcasing the interplay between interior and exterior in our collective existence.

It's amalgamations such as this that make architecture timeless and that connect what we create today in places like my native Gando, Burkina Faso, with what has been built for centuries prior to the practice of contemporary architecture.

A mud building with organic curves

Hogon House, Ogol Ley, Sangha, Mali, 1999–2000. Photograph by James Morris

Along a dramatic cliff in central Mali, known as the Bandiagara escarpment, Dogon peoples have evolved highly expressive architectural styles particular to their animistic belief systems. This picture is a detail of the house of a Hogon, a religious chief. It is a prestigious residence for a person of great significance.

The house's freeform style is unparalleled. Architects such as Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry only recently achieved comparable sculptural effects through the aid of computer design. Here, using material that is tactile, warm, and delicate, buildings have evolved organically and at one with their community. Though part of long traditions and ancient cultures, the buildings remain contemporary structures, serving a current purpose. For local people, maintaining and resurfacing buildings is part of the rhythm of life; there is an ongoing and active participation in their continued existence.

Left: A render of the Benin National Assembly building. Image courtesy Kéré Architecture Studio. Right: Interior of the mosque of Nando, 1999–2000, Mali. Photograph by James Morris

When built structures resemble patterns that occur in nature, they become capable of offering a sense of embrace and comfort, because one recognizes these elements from the outside world. Just as the enticing details of the Nando Mosque in Mali seem to have be honed by forces like wind, water, and organic growth, so has my team at the Kéré Architecture Studio taken cues from tree trunks and branches to design an assembly hall that conjures the protective cover of a magnificent kapok tree for the National Assembly of Benin. And just as with the inspiration, the seeming minimalism and simplicity belies the intricate complexity of such a structure.

A black and white photo of a simple mud building

House, Fortal, Niger, 1999–2000. Photograph by James Morris<

It would be easy to pass by this very simple house in a small, remote village in Niger without noticing it. For a reason I can't remember now, we had time to linger here. That's often what is required to see the special aspect of something seemingly ordinary.

The play of the sun's harsh light across this spare, vernacular building must have caught my eye, revealing its timeless qualities. I'm reminded of both the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius's ideas that a good building should be solid, useful, and beautiful, as well as the modernist mantra that form follows function. The house's sharp lines suggest recent construction, and a fresh coat of mud has dried into a web of textured cracks. The two shadows in the top left are gutters that direct rainfall away from the vulnerable walls. The stick leaning in the larger shadow could be a useful leg up onto the flat roof. Nearby, two small boys were playing a game, jumping off a wall as high as they could dare.

Left: Lycée Schorge, in Koudougou, Burkina Faso. Photograph courtesy Kéré Architecture Studio. Right: Friday Mosque of Jenne, Mali, 1999–2000. Photograph by James Morris

It is not an easy feat to design a building that stands in the landscape as a monolithic presence, yet is at one with its surroundings. It would be all too easy for such a structure to seem out of place. In the case of the fantastic Great Mosque of Jenne, part of its organic feel comes from its use of material: it is fashioned out of the very earth it stands on.

This endeavor to connect a lone building with the place it stands on—to merge the two without one disrupting the other—is one that Kéré Architecture attempts to solve at Lycée Schorge, in Koudougou, Burkina Faso, by planting vegetation. As the planted greenery becomes denser over the coming years, this educational facility (its wooden cladding evokes a tamed forest) will claim its rightful place in a manner similar to the Great Mosque, whose outline defines the cityscape of the town it proudly stands in. Alone yet part of the whole.

Left: Jenne, Mali, 1905, photographed by Louis Desplagnes (French, 1871–1914), Musée des Confluences, Lyon, inv. 2009.18.1.298. Right: Jenne, Mali, 1999–2000. Photograph by James Morris

Desplagnes's picture of a town square in Jenne is set against the imposing facade of a prestigious house, judging by its scale and striking ornamentation. I am reasonably confident it is the same house that I photographed 95 years later, which would make it home to the chief of Jenne. The distinct sculptural ornamentation speaks of the occupant's religious, marital, financial, and ancestral status.

Between the earlier picture and the latter, facade cones, columns, buttresses, and portals—all personal signifiers—have been altered, reflecting the change of ownership. Additionally an extension has been built and a neighboring building either obscured or demolished. New window openings have been added, with Moorish- or Moroccan-influenced painted-wood frames. Yet there is a striking sense of continuity in atmosphere and presence between the two pictures, despite the century that has passed between them.

Left: The Great Mosque in Timbuktu, 1904, photographed by Louis Desplagnes (French, 1871–1914), Musée des Confluences, Lyon, inv. 2009.18.1.234. Right: Friday Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, 1999–2000. Photograph by James Morris

Louis Desplagnes's image of the Friday Mosque in Timbuktu reminds me of a similar view that I took roughly one hundred years later. Together, they illustrate both the continuity and change that has taken place over time. My first impression was to notice how similar the scenes appear. On closer inspection, much of the structure has been subtly altered. Buttresses, wall heights, and rain water channels differ, as does the line of the wall in the center of my picture.

Earthen buildings are delicate and have to be maintained—new layers of mud render are applied annually—and over the years they gradually alter shape and evolve. This fluidity is one of their unique characteristics. The mosque was originally built in the fourteenth century, possibly by an architect from Granada in then-Muslim Spain. It reflected Timbuktu's international status and wealth. Over the years, the mosque has been battered by time and conflict, and then reconstructed afresh. The mosque now looks very different from when it was originally constructed; but evolution and change are part of the essence of Sahelian architecture.

Left: Friday Mosque at Agadez, Niger, 1999–2000. Photograph by James Morris. Right: A render of the Thomas Sankara Memorial in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Image courtesy Kéré Architecture Studio

Places of remembrance or contemplation comprise their own category of architectural conundrums. But there is something particularly enticing about the form of a tower that claims a quiet singularity to be seen from far away, that sends its message whether the onlooker is close by or at a distance. The age-old minaret of the Agadez Mosque, in Niger, is exemplary of architecture fulfilling such a function. It is a spiritual lighthouse, if you will, that guides and reminds believers of their faith.

Here, I draw a connection to the tower at the Thomas Sankara Memorial devised by my team. Though by no means religious, it is a landmark that, thanks to the flat cityscape surrounding it, can achieve the very exemplarity of the historic figure it represents.

A low mud mosque in the middle of an arid desert

A mosque in Kobe, Mali, 1999–2000. Photograph by James Morris

This mosque at Kobe, in northeast Mali, stands dramatically off the main road that runs from Gao toward Niger, a startling structure in an almost-desert landscape. I've never seen a building quite like it. A series of near-perfect geometric shapes combine to form its whole. Three staggered concentric cylinders rise to a gently pointed dome. Its lines were not yet softened by time. This economical but well-considered building projects a religious presence that can be seen from afar. Is it the work of an experienced architect or the inspired creation of a local community?

Around the mosque can be seen the transportable homes of nomadic Fulani herdsmen, who travel with their animals across large areas of West Africa. We believed that the mosque must have belonged to them, but wondered why nomadic people would build such a large and permanent structure. Perhaps it is a place of pilgrimage or annual gathering. Although my guide and assistant, Seydou Dolo, was part Fulani and spoke Fula, it didn't feel appropriate to approach with questions. So the story of Kobe mosque remained a mystery to us.

Marquee: Jenne, Mali, 1905 (detail), photographed by Louis Desplagnes (French, 1871–1914), Musée des Confluences, Lyon, inv. 2009.18.1.298

More from Learn about Exhibitions

A black-and-white photo of a man shrouded in all-white cloth

Visualizing a Sahelian Past

Five people smile and stand in front of an ivory wall with white text that reads:

Introducing New York to the Cultural Wealth of Medieval West Africa

Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, in blue, performs an acoustic concert with Cheikh Ndiaye (left) at The Met.

Baaba Maal’s Songs of the Sahel

About the contributors



Learn about Exhibitions

See all
A portrait of two men, one with his arm around the other's shoulders

Alice Neel: People Come First

A wooden mask decorated with stone

Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection

A New Look at Old Masters

Contemporary Artist Commissions