The relationship with Africa and the Western world is a bittersweet one. The Westerners have always had such a huge influence on Africa. However, pre-colonial Africa still had its uniqueness that influences the present.
Architecture was a tool used by the colonists to show their dominance against the locals, which explains why the locals adapted their style and not the other way around. The British colonialists gained many from the locals such as gold, ivory and rubber however, architectural styles were not amongst them (Esri n.d.). This is even further evidently seen by how none of the African traditional styles and local construction techniques were taken back to Britain.
Traditional architecture is a style in reference to the pre-colonial times. Pure pre-colonial architecture’s style is a rarity in Ghana as many have adapted in a modern manner. However, many current buildings are still simple buildings constructed out of locally sourced materials. Indigenous architectural form found in Ghana was driven by the raw materials available for buildings such as thatch for roofing and mud and wood for walls (Adam 2017). Which we will go more in depth.
Colonisation built Ghana but what was it like before it. To understand, we must look at a typical house back before colonisation. Adam (2017) stated this about a traditional housing during that period, “the dynamic use of space which incorporates designs, motifs, colour and other symbolic accents, lends characteristics to the landscape.”
(Kumasi 19th Century. 2017. Image. Reproduced from EAUMF)
Houses were constructed with different combinations of few simple variants: variants in type of roof: flat or pitched and variants in wall and roofing materials: timber, bamboo, palm, grass or mud (UNESCO 1978). Combined, these variants have created a dozen major types of traditional architectural forms, each predominate in a tribe. But most tribes commonly shared having buildings be grouped together in a compound.
As you could guess, common typologies were courtyards where they were considered as the living area of the houses. It was there that arbitration occurred, with the area used as a place for music, cooking and religion (Marihellum 2012).
Figure 2: Courtyard Figure 3: Celebration in Courtyard
(Asante Traditional Buildings. 2021. Image. (Houses of Chiefs. 2013. Image. Reproduced from Skyscraper City)
Reproduced from UNESCO)
Only few original traditional buildings survived, and these are now part of the World Heritage Site. The few that did, reveals certain characteristics such as a formal rectilinear settlement layout which generally, indicates the status of the community and of its chief (UNESCO 1978). These are the houses that are grouped and gathered around one or more courtyards. The remaining few showed signs of recognisable iconography of symbols and ornamentations on high plinths as seen on Figure 4. The different meanings of the symbols also meant that it could be used to identify the prestigious families within the community.
Figure 4: Meaning of symbols on walls
(Patakro Temple. 2013. Image. Reproduced from Skyscraper City.)
The materials used in the typical buildings corresponds to the various climates and vegetation in the regions of Ghana. In the coastal areas, where the climate is less extreme, the common building materials are coconut branches, mud, fronds, bamboo and small sticks from various trees (UNESCO 1978). In the humid rain forest regions, similar materials are used as well as wattle and daub are predominantly used to form walls and palm thatch for the roofs (UNESCO 1978). In the North, where it is a hot dry savannah zone, the materials are limited to grass, mud and sticks (UNESCO 1978).
Houses in the Ashanti region, with a tropical climate, as seen in Figure 5 and 6 are constructed with vegetative materials as roofing (Manful 2019).
Figure 5: Roofs made out of palm thatch Figure 6: Close up of roof
(Palace of King Prempeh I. 2013, Image. Reproduced (Besease Shrine. n.d.. Image. Reproduced from
from Skyscraper City) WMF. (2021).)
The blend to the landscape is mainly the result of using materials found around. The use of natural resources allowed the built forms to appear as though it played a role within the landscape as opposed to being a foreign object. Figure 7 shows a temple with the mud like colour used on the bottom half of the building.
Figure 7: Built form plays a role in the landscape
(Adwinase Temple. 2013. Image. Reproduced from Skyscraper City.)
Unfortunately, very little traditional architecture survives. This is not only the result of environmental conditions but also due to the increase in improved communications and prosperity (UNESCO 1978). Additionally, globalisation and the ability to easily share knowledge and ideas have resulted in many being heavily influenced by exotic architectural styles. The ease of access to imported building materials have also modernised a lot of buildings.
These elements and features of symbolism are no longer used in modern day architecture however, the use of locally sourced materials and locally constructed buildings are still being practised. The courtyard typology is now commonly referred to as a compound typology. It is a wonder if colonisation never happened, if all these elements would have shaped the architectural style of Ghana.
Adam, Hakeem. 2017. “The Beauty of Ghanaian Architecture in Four Buildings.” Culture Trip. https://theculturetrip.com/africa/ghana/articles/the-beauty-of-ghanaian-architecture-in-four-buildings/
Esri. n.d.. “British Colonisation of Africa.” ARCGIS. https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=e8f24a9c56404e67b209dfcdfb37bc82
Manful, Kuukuwa. 2019. “Whose Style? Taste, Class, and Power in Accra’s Architecture.” The Metropole. https://themetropole.blog/2019/11/13/whose-style-taste-class-and-power-in-accras-architecture/
Marihellum. 2012. “A Short Brief About Archietcture in Ghana.” Kick off Ghana. https://kickoffghana.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/a-short-brief-about-architecture-in-ghana/
UNESCO. 1978. “Traditional forms of architecture in Ghana.” International Social Science Journal 3(3): 1-266. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/in/documentViewer.xhtml?v=2.1.196&id=p::usmarcdef_0000262190&file=/in/rest/annotationSVC/DownloadWatermarkedAttachment/attach_import_fb77ec2c-a180-4c7e-a90f-b37869d73e2c%3F_%3D029135engo.pdf&locale=en&multi=true&ark=/ark:/48223/pf0000262190/PDF/029135engo.pdf#%5B%7B%22num%22%3A58%2C%22gen%22%3A0%7D%2C%7B%22name%22%3A%22XYZ%22%7D%2Cnull%2Cnull%2C0%5D
“Adwinase Temple.” 2013. Skyscraper City. https://www.skyscrapercity.com/threads/kumasi-before-colonialism.1703778/
“Asante Traditional Buildings.” 2021. UNESCO. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/35/gallery/
“Houses of Chiefs.” 2013. Skyscraper City. https://www.skyscrapercity.com/threads/kumasi-before-colonialism.1703778/
“Palace of King Prempeh I.” 2013. Skyscraper City. https://www.skyscrapercity.com/threads/kumasi-before-colonialism.1703778/
“Patakro Temple.” 2013. Skyscraper City. https://www.skyscrapercity.com/threads/kumasi-before-colonialism.1703778/
“Kumasi 19th Century.” 2017. EAUMF. https://www.eaumf.org/ejm-blog/2017/11/14/november-13-1884-prince-owusu-ansah-methodist-missionary-and-ashanti-diplomat-dies-in-cape-coast