I studied architecture at Columbia. But I didn't truly understand it till I visited West Africa

One of the first African Americans to get a Columbia architecture degree found his architectural identity in Mali

Published November 19, 2017 5:30PM (EST)

 (Getty/Francois Xavier Marit)
(Getty/Francois Xavier Marit)

Carl Anthony was one of the first African Americans to receive a degree in architecture from Columbia University, but his travels in West Africa shortly after graduation taught him what he couldn’t have learned even in one of the most prestigious American architecture programs. Excerpted from The Earth, The City, and the Hidden Narrative of Race by Carl Anthony (New Village Press, October 2017, paperback). Reprinted with permission.

In January of 1970 my partner, Jean, and I embarked on a tour of West Africa that would take us through four countries and last the better part of a year. At the heart of my decision to make the journey to Africa was the gnawing problem I had tried to solve during my final years as a student of architecture, urban design, and urban planning: in my formal education and training, there had been little or no reference to the experiences or history of Africans or African Americans in planning, shaping, designing, and living in the built environment.

I wanted to arrive at a deeper understanding of the relationship between my chosen profession and the African and African American communities that I aspired to serve. I hoped that through my travel to the villages, towns, and cities of West Africa, I would be able to achieve a kind of beginner’s mind about these things. My goal was to unlearn everything I had learned at Columbia. I needed to begin again and to learn what I had not been taught in the nine years it had taken me to earn my professional degree in architecture. In short, I wanted to find my roots—as an architect, black man, and human.

I chose West Africa because most ancestors of African Americans came from this region of the continent. I was particularly drawn to the cliff dwellings of the Dogon people in Mali, whom I had heard about from Aldo van Eyck in Peter Pragnell’s studio class at Columbia.

A highlight of our trip was the Bandiagara Escarpment, where the Dogon people live. From atop long sloping cliffs overlooking the desert, we made drawings and took photographs of the granaries and compounds of rugged Dogon villages carved out of the sandstone cliff faces.

The villages along the escarpment proved to be every bit as magical as I had imagined. Standing in the field below the Dogon village, far away from European influence, I could see hundreds of granaries and dozens of houses shimmering in the sun and tucked neatly into the cliff. Gradually, my eye grew accustomed to a profound order in the patterns of rock, mud, and thatch with which the village was constructed.

Each granary and compound rested on a rock foundation. The erratic jumble of sand-colored stones laid without mortar arose willy-nilly from the ground between clumps of greenery to make a solid horizontal bed for the modest buildings above. The granaries and houses were constructed of mud brick and plastered with banco (a smooth stucco-like compound made by fermenting mud, grain husks, and, occasionally, cow dung). If you looked closely at the surface of these buildings, you could see a fine texture, revealing the discipline with which the banco was laid in with the arc-like motion of human hands. No windows or doorways look out over the cliff, and we learned from the Dogon man who was our guide that openings were oriented away from the fields to avoid the driving rain that always came from the north.

Villagers took advantage of the landscape features by constructing their housing on the escarpment where the sun’s powerful rays were cut off each afternoon at two o’clock by the cliff edge above. The relief was immediate, and people could work in comfort. The flat lands below were divided into garden plots for individual families.

The Dogon elder Ogotemmêli, in conversations in the 1930s with the French anthropologist Marcel Griaule, explained that the layout of a Dogon village was always anthropomorphic. The village plan would take the form of an androgynous being lying on the ground with the men’s council building at the head and the original family compounds at the breasts. Other functional elements like the specially constructed houses for menstruating women, blacksmith’s forge, and sanctuaries and altars would be located variously at arms, hands, legs, and feet. People would enter and leave the village through a gate that represented genitals. This village-wide pattern would be repeated at a smaller scale in the compounds and individual houses.

You could see the anthropomorphic pattern of Dogon architecture most clearly in the layout of the houses. Every house in the village had the same plan and orientation: a courtyard entry in the south, raised beds for sleeping flanking the east and west, and kitchen with a chimney-like structure to let the smoke out through the roof in the north.

Above rock foundations, granaries rested on a floor of branches with a sealed mat to keep rodents out and contents dry. Each granary revealed the gender of its owner: a man’s granaries were tall and narrow while a woman’s granaries were shorter and slightly squat. The thatch roof, which covered each granary, was shaped like the woven hat that men or women wore, performing a similar function of protection from rain and hot sun.

In traditional villages, the activity of human cycles is tied to natural rhythms as materials become available seasonally. We had come to Bandiagara from Manhattan, where real estate values primarily govern the design and layout of buildings and where most apartments and offices are located by a numerical address on a rectangular grid. It was striking to be in a place that was, by contrast, so obviously and entirely constructed in the human image.

It was equally remarkable that all the materials for the buildings are gathered within a few hundred yards of the construction site. All building and building repair work begins each year after the harvest and before the rainy season. Both men and women perform the necessary tasks with an easy division of labor: men do the heavy lifting of stones and women work at lighter tasks while carrying small children on their backs. Men might also plaster the walls with fresh banco or gather millet stalks to be woven into thatch roofs. Near the desert, walls are built thicker for better regulation of the temperature. At the end of the rainy season, the cycle of planting begins again.

We observed over and over how well the traditional architecture of West Africa was adapted to its ecological context. In West Africa, there are four main zones, running from west to east, that reflect variations in temperature, seasonal rainfall, and vegetation. Each zone’s traditional architecture responds to local conditions, in many ways exhibiting what Lewis Mumford called ecological regionalism.

The largest zone is the Sahara, a desert extending from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and Algeria to the Senegal River. Historically, its vast dunes and extreme temperatures have formed an impenetrable barrier to all except the nomadic tribes. The nomadic tent structures of the Tuareg people and other Berber groups are often built of straight and curved saplings with supporting coverings of goatskins, light screens, and rugs that can be carried by camels and quickly assembled or dismantled.

South of the Sahara is a band of semi-arid country with intermittent vegetation of scrub and occasional small trees known as the Sahel. Given the region’s daily extreme temperature variations, the mud buildings here have thick walls to capture and hold the heat, keeping structures cool inside during the day and then reradiating the heat during night when it is quite cold. A system of flat roofs, scuppers, and cisterns capture and store the limited supply of rainwater.

Below the Sahel is the savanna, an area with a rich growth of grass and plentiful seasonal rainfall. Structures here have wattle and daub walls, which are more permeable than the mud walls in the Sahel. Moisture-resistant grass, reed, and thatch roofs carry away the rainwater.

Further south, near the coast, is the dense rainforest region. Due to the year-round heat and heavy rainfall, structures here are more like pavilions. Steep thatched roofs supported by timber structures allowed the rain to run off. Instead of walls open structures permitted the humid air to circulate throughout the buildings.

Everywhere we went, Jean and I noticed that building materials were gathered near construction sites, often within a few hundred yards. Traditional sub-Saharan villages give shape and meaning to life by relating human activity to the natural world. Building would begin each year after the harvest and before the rainy season. The buildings were exquisitely designed for practical tasks and supported a shared vision of social life. They reflected a profound spiritual orientation toward the ancestors and the natural world and reflected the social and cultural values of the people who lived there.

The months that we traveled in Africa away from urban centers were the first extended periods of time I had spent outside a city in a world dominated not by human creations but by forces of nature. In sharp contrast to our experience of industrial cities in the United States, in the West African villages we visited, both in the savanna and the rainforests, everybody—men and women, young and old—participated in the design and construction of the places where they lived. Later, I learned that when a couple gets married, the whole village participates in building a new compound for them. I was deeply moved by the carefully woven thatch roofs, the round earthen structures, and the larger-than-life granaries markedly sculpted by human hands. These buildings, constructed by people seemingly without professional training, were beautifully adapted to the available resources, the climate, and the spiritual life of the people.

It was clear that the indigenous African people had drawn from an enormous well of creativity. With few resources, they built elegant surroundings that embodied their practical, social, and spiritual needs. I began to wonder what had happened to that creativity and that sense of agency when Africans became enslaved and what restoring a viable relationship with the natural world might look like for African Americans.

The juxtaposition between Africa’s many settlement types was visually spectacular: the colonial and modern cities, urban shantytowns, traditional indigenous villages, ancient Islamic towns centered upon the mosque and the market place, and slave-trading fortress towns. Yet beyond whatever insights I picked up about the marvels of vernacular architecture, I had no theory to address and comprehend the true complexity of the built environment in Africa. For the task of learning about African architecture, I had brought the tools I had honed in the architectural design studio at Columbia University; however, while these tools gave me access to many insights about spatial organization and design solutions, they failed to give me the deeper insights I sought into the ways social organization impacts human habitat.

The journey also raised important questions about my identity, as well as the historical geography of the African American community. As a black American searching in Africa for my architectural roots, I faced a certain paradox: a house in the black ghetto of North Philadelphia has more in common with a wealthy residence on Society Hill in the same city than it has with a Dogon dwelling or an Ashanti shrine house. A study of traditional African architecture carried me far away from the familiar rooms, porches, streets, and alleys of my childhood. Ironically, these intimate places that had helped form my perceptions of the world were designed and built by people who had no understanding of my community, and we appeared to have no shared social values. Nothing in my professional education prepared me to examine such paradoxes.

One could say that I was learning what James Baldwin had learned two-and-a-half decades earlier, as he described in his famous essay, “The Discovery of What It Means to Be American.” I learned, in short, that I was not African. A key next step in my journey would be to confront what Baldwin (1961, 17) called “the complex fate” of being an American. If I wanted to understand my roots, I would have to come to terms with the experience of slavery in America. In short, I needed to understand how Africans had become Americans.

When Jean and I were in the dungeon of the Elmina Castle, a slave-trading fortress on the coast of Ghana, I decided that I would visit and write about the old plantations of the American South. I hoped by that research to unlock the mysteries of my heritage as an African American. “My search doesn’t have to make me feel proud,” I thought. “It just needs to uncover what is true.”

We crossed the Atlantic Ocean, returning to the United States from Ghana on a freighter from the Black Star Line. As the ship navigated about five miles out of the Port of Philadelphia, we crossed a clear line in the ocean where a dirty oil slick began. As we approached the shore, the backyards of the tiny brick working-class row houses came into view. In contrast to the places we had visited in Africa, Philadelphia seemed old and worn.

The buildings in Africa were made with natural, biodegradable materials and repaired and renewed each year. When not repaired, they were left to decompose and be rebuilt elsewhere. If you could get a satellite to take a photograph of the same African village from the same point every six months, I imagine the village would appear to breathe.

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Excerpted from The Earth, The City, and the Hidden Narrative of Race by Carl Anthony (New Village Press, October 2017, paperback). Reprinted with permission.

By Carl Anthony

Carl Anthony is an architect, regional planner, and social justice leader. He is currently co-founder of the Breakthrough Communities Project and Visiting Professor at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change. Anthony is revered as the founder and former executive director of Urban Habitat, one of the country's oldest environmental justice organizations, known for pushing the mainstream environmental movement to confront issues of race and class. He still serves on its board of directors. Anthony has taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture and Planning and the University of California Colleges of Environmental Design and Natural Resources. He has been an advisor to the Stanford University Law School on issues of environmental justice. Mr. Anthony has a professional degree in architecture from Columbia University. In 1996, he was appointed Fellow at the Institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

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Architecture Book Excerpts Carl Anthony Dogon Dogon People Mali Urban Planning West Africa