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Talking about the power of the traditional with Issa Diabate

Published at: 22 July 2015

4Tomorrow spoke with architect, founder and Managing Director of the groundbreaking Ivorian firm Koffi & Diabaté Architects.

4Tomorrow caught up this week with architect, founder and Managing Director of Koffi & Diabaté Architects, based in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast - a pioneering firm spearheading some of the continent's most progressive sustainable initiatives. After completing a Master's in Architecture at Yale University in the United States, Diabaté decided to return to the Ivory Coast and his hometown Abidjan, where he co-founded Koffi & Diabaté Architects with Guillaume Koffi. The practice dedicates itself to finding solutions to the issues of rapid population growth and its effect on urban planning.

Does green architecture in Africa mean the same thing as it does in Europe or America?

Not quite. In America and in Europe, green buildings are more focused on the performance of green technology while in my part of the world, the most traditional buildings are de facto green. What we refer to as traditional architecture are buildings built with traditional techniques and materials such as wood, rammed earth, leaves, hay, etc. The climate is responsible for this major shift in our approach. Here (in our tropical humid climate), we rely more on passive systems to achieve comfortable temperatures inside a building (cross ventilation, insulation with earth blocks…) whereas in Europe and America, the nature of buildings is more technological, partially due to the climate (winter, namely) and lifestyle (high consumption of electricity). However, things are changing fast and we find ourselves requiring increasing amounts of electrical power, similar to those living in the West in order to cool our buildings (when badly designed) or to satisfy our more and more global lifestyle.

In what ways can the West learn from Africa's approach to sustainability?

In my opinion, the best way to do so is to go back to the root of the word sustainable illustrated by this phrase: “It is more about what can I bring to the planet than what I have taken away from natural resources”. I once heard this professor of botanics talk about the sacred forest in these terms: “I cannot guarantee that a forest holds mystical powers, but what I can tell you is that the sacred forest has enough natural substances to cure more illnesses than one can imagine.” The European sustainability approach could learn from that philosophy.

This month ground broke at Tatu City, the controversial 'Smart City' outside of Nairobi. What are your thoughts on the project and others of its ilk on the continent?

I am not too familiar with Tatu City. From what I can see, it seems that it has included the basic principles of sustainable planning (live work and play on a compact surface). I like the idea that the buildings are relatively low and that their collective nature seems to allow for a lot of green space. Creating new cities usually takes a long time for them to become effective as living organisms. It usually takes decades before we can witness a certain cohesion and natural flow. It is probably too early to have an opinion.

How has the architectural landscape changed in Africa since you started practicing?

Well, that’s a very interesting question. I’ve been working for 20 years now and what I have been witnessing in the Ivory Coast is a degradation of a number of long-standing buildings. We have a rich body of modern constructions here that were built during the 60s and 70s that are architecturally very interesting. This degradation has also taken place in other African capitals, which makes me think that the reason is not solely local but regional. In the sense that many African capitals exhibit the same challenges - fast growing populations and very little care for urbanization on the institutional side. The result is often overpopulated cities and too little means (logistical and intellectual) to absorb that growth. More efforts are done now in the light of future “smart cities” with the ambition to integrate precepts of sustainability, but none of them are functioning yet and therefore hard to evaluate.

Do you agree with the term African architect as something that would apply to you? Is the work you produce African architecture?

Yes. If it is produced by Africans (those living on the continent regardless of nationality) for Africans (to be used by local population), then the work is considered African as it is immersed in the local ecosystem. African architecture has very little to do with form but rather, with the ability to provide novel local solutions. Though I build with modern contemporary materials, my architecture is African as it’s driven by local concerns with regards to the social, technological and climatic conditions - the same process can be witnessed with contemporary Asian architecture.

Who, in terms of your approach to sustainability, do you look up to in the field of architecture?

People like Rural Studio (for architecture), Edgard Pieterse (for urbanism) but I draw most of my inspiration from “traditional architecture”. Those architectures which have layered thousands of years of knowledge with regards to the local environment. They are like gold mines for technical responses to cross ventilation, water drainage and insulation…

Do you think enough is being done by policymakers to drive change on the continent?

No. Way too little. Actually, they are not the only ones to blame. I believe that architects are also responsible to trigger changes. As architects, we are responsible for:

1. Initiating the idea,

2. Making it happen using various creative solutions (when policy makers are not proactive, we architects need to be inventive).

In a sense, we need to redefine our role and go back to our initial task which is to provide solutions using our designing minds.

What are you working on that we can look forward to seeing soon?

We are currently finishing our first development program where we have changed a number of paradigms with regards to the way people traditionally live here. For instance, no personal garage (underground parking space that allows us to free up to 57% of the land for common occupation), water collection, cross ventilation, 32 luxury units laid out in a pretty dense fashion…. the idea here is that beyond the building, we are designing a lifestyle that must suit the new aspirations of the local population, even beyond their imagination.

What advice would you offer other designers looking to build sustainability into their projects?

Look at the traditional stuff. If it has survived, it’s probably because it’s doing something right.

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