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African Church Architecture: Celebrating Creativity, Sustainability, and Cultural Heritage

 

African Church Architecture

Robert Falconer was born and raised in South Africa and is a Theologian who holds degrees in architecture and theology. Following periods of practicing architecture in Scotland and South Africa, he and his wife spent time working as missionaries in Kenya before returning to make their home back in South Africa. Robert works at the South African Theological Seminary as the Head of Student Research and has a wide range of research interests and ideas, which he shares with the layperson through his series of blogs and sermons, in addition to publishing academic papers. Robert lives in St Francis Bay, South Africa, with his wife Catherine and their sons Ezekiel and Gabriel.

 

There is almost no vernacular church architecture in Africa, except for those few impressive churches carved out of red rock in Ethiopia. If contemporary award-winning architecture in West Africa designed by African architects makes use of local construction technology and materials, not to mention developing local stylistic motifs giving expressions to the local culture and its context, why can’t African churches do the same? After all, it’s sustainable and inexpensive.

 

This way we can honor God by preserving one’s heritage and culture. This includes local traditional building methods and connecting to the immediate environment. Sadly, globalization and other social factors have contributed to a decline in African vernacular architecture. By “vernacular” I mean, a design, technology, or style that is indigenous to a culture and region. Yes, the Christian faith is our greatest gift, but our culture and traditions are important gifts too that need to be celebrated, and in my view, there is no better way than celebrating it in church architecture as an act of worship.

 

Unfortunately, the trend in Africa is to despise African vernacular architecture in favor of European architecture and construction technology. Contemporary Africans generally prefer, what they might call, “modern” buildings rather than their traditional buildings which they say are old-fashioned and archaic. Yet, many European architects working in Africa employ African motifs for a number of their building projects. I know, I worked in two architecture practices in South Africa. If the wazungu (Kiswahili for white people) value African vernacular architecture, you must know there is something appealing about it! And did you know that it is the wazungu who document vernacular architecture in Africa?[1] One is tempted to suggest that it has tourist value, which is no doubt true, but the reality is that many wazungu architects in South Africa and abroad value African vernacular architecture because it’s an expression of the richness of African culture and social traditions. It also uses sustainable building techniques and materials that are sourced locally, not to mention local labor. This is a very efficient form of architecture that has little impact on its environment. It also meets the needs and challenges of the local community. Lastly, the aesthetic style expresses the creativity and innovation of the community that built it.

 

Considering African church architecture, I have found six typologies, most of which I have had an opportunity to fellowship and worship in while I was a missionary in Kenya. These are:

 

A simple rectangular church building with walls constructed from wattle and daub or concrete block with a grass or tin roof. Except for a cross above the entrance, nothing else marks the building out to be a church, and other than wattle and daub, there is little else that is vernacular about it.

 

  1. A shack clad with iron sheeting, typical of architecture found in shanty towns or informal settlements. This typology does not express African vernacular.

  2. A traditional English-styled masonry church building typical of a denominational church like an Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian church. These are colonial church buildings of the past.

  3. A shopfront church. The entrance of these shopfront churches is eye-catching with unusual, and sometimes amusing names on signage above the entrance, like Healing Tsunami Ministries; Run for Your Life Ministry; Open Heaven Ministries; The Resurrection Temple of God; Triumphant Church Inc., and so on.

  4. A tensile structure, a large marquee “peg and pole” tent, which is also often used for weddings and conferences. This kind of church structure is quick to put up and can be moved easily. It’s a practical and convenient option.

  5. A sixth typology in African Church architecture is the megachurch. I have written about this elsewhere. African megachurch architecture, as in most other countries around the world, is designed with a shopping center, conference center, or hotel typology—it’s anything but African vernacular.

 

I don’t believe we should necessarily be building church buildings like the temple of the Old Testament, or those rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia, or even great European Cathedrals, as magnificent as they are. However, we can take principles from a careful reading of the construction of Solomon’s temple 1 Kings 5–8 and apply the concepts to African vernacular Church architecture. This is what I discovered:

 

-        Hybrid use of local and outsourced skilled labor.

-        Hybrid use of local and outsourced materials.

-        The temple design was beautiful and sacred.

-        The temple incorporated decorative symbols.

-        The temple celebrated creativity and artistry.

-        The temple employed technology.

-        The temple entrance was celebrated.

-        The temple facilities and furniture were meticulously built.

-        The temple was worthy of God.

 

Gleaning from 1 Kings 5­–8, Solomon made use of local and outsourced skilled labor and materials. So as much as I am promoting vernacular church architecture, we should not be too dogmatic about it, there is space for a hybrid approach, when there is need. And I think when hybridity is used in innovative ways, solving complex problems, this is when we get exceptional architecture.[2] Churches need not be minimalist and bland. Church buildings offer us an opportunity to celebrate the beautiful and accentuate the sacred. This opportunity also includes celebrating the creativity and artistry of one’s culture, like mural painting, sculpture, architectural style, and typology. How might we express the best of our culture as worship to God? When reading 1 Kings 5–8, I was fascinated by the mention of a door hinge that seemed to have some kind of special technology. So yes, by all means, vernacular church buildings can also employ modern technology. Talking about the door, the entrance of the temple was celebrated, and so too should the entrance of any church. And it should be welcoming. The temple facilities and furniture were meticulously built. So too should we take extra care and pride in the way we construct the furnishings, like the Lord’s table, the pulpit, the pews, the baptismal, the window frames, the doors, and so on. Lastly, but most importantly, the church building is a place for believers to meet for worship (after all, we are the church), but they also should tell others who we are, what we believe, and about Jesus, whom we worship. And so, like the temple, our church architecture is to be built for “the praise of his name,” because he is worthy!


 

*Image of African church from “Country Squire Magazine” Available here: https://countrysquire.co.uk/2023/02/05/a-prayer-for-the-developing-world/


[1] See Sojkowski, Jon. 2017. “African Vernacular Architecture.” African Vernacular Architecture: Documentation for Preservation. https://www.africanvernaculararchitecture.com.

[2] See Diébédo Francis Kéré’s architectural designs in West Africa.

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