The ubiquitous influence of Swahili architecture

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The ubiquitous influence of Swahili architecture

The African continent has, throughout history, been a major player in the ever-evolving history of human migration. As a result of this population movement, cultures and customs have been shared, adapted and reinvented, and architectural styles are no exception. In a way, the diverse architecture in Africa is a lens to look at to understand the intricacies of migration. There are ancient indigenous and building typologies on the continent that have emerged from the organic assimilation of cultures. There are also remnants of colonial architecture, a legacy not of voluntary migration but of forced colonial imposition.

Swahili Dreams Apartments / Urko Sanchez Architects.  Image © Javier CallejasAerial view of Lamu, Kenya.  Image © Javier CallejasStone Town, Zanzibar.  Image © Wikimedia user Adam Jones under the Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.Lamu, Kenya.  Image © Wikimedia User Erik (HASH) Hersman under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.+ 17

However, there is a part of the continent that is home to a uniquely rich architectural tradition – the Swahili Coast. A narrow strip of land stretching along the eastern edge of Africa from Mozambique in the south to Somalia in the north is home to so-called Swahili architecture, an architectural representation of a cultural combination of influences from mainland Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia.

Southeast coast of Africa.  Image © Matthew Pawlowicz
Southeast coast of Africa. Image © Matthew Pawlowicz

The basis of this Swahili culture can be found in a loose amalgamation of old city-states on the Swahili coast – Lamu, Zanzibar and Kilwa, all of which have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In the 13th century the states existed as Commercial centers with the golden kingdom of Great Zimbabwe in the deeper interior of the continent. The ivory and food trade made the city-states prosperous – but that wealth was also borne by the dark undercurrent of the slave trade in the Indian Ocean.


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A defining element of Swahili architecture is the widespread use of limestone, which gives the streetscapes of Lamu Old Town in Kenya and Stone Town in Zanzibar their distinctive appearance. The Coral stone is built into masonry with a mortar made of lime, sand and red earth, which protects the interior from the coastal heat. Mangrove stakes found on site were used to build the roofs, an example of the defining feature of Swahili architecture – that of a style that is a distinctive amalgamation of cultural influences.

Height of a Stone Town house.  Image © PC Harris in The Arab Architecture of Sansibar ', Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 1925
Height of a Stone Town house. Image © PC Harris in The Arab Architecture of Sansibar ‘, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 1925

In contrast to the smooth, white-colored exterior walls of buildings on the Swahili coast, the one is rich in detail Decorating doors is also a central element that expresses the Swahili architecture. The designs of the intricately carved wooden doors go back to a long tradition of craftsmen from the Swahili coast – who in turn saw influences from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Doors with rectangular frames and straight lintels are emblematic of an older Swahili style, with arched lintels not becoming more common until the late 19th century, with greater Middle Eastern influence. There were carved Arabic inscriptions in the lintel – mostly either a quote from the Koran or information about the respective homeowner.

Ornately carved wooden doors of Swahili architecture.  Image © Magdalena Paluchowska via Shutterstock
Ornately carved wooden doors of Swahili architecture. Image © Magdalena Paluchowska via Shutterstock
Ornately carved wooden doors of Swahili architecture.  Image © Ehrman Photographic via Shutterstock
Ornately carved wooden doors of Swahili architecture. Image © Ehrman Photographic via Shutterstock

At the urban level, Swahili cities are divided into districts separated by city walls, with religion playing an important role in urban planning. A neighborhood mosque was the center of every community, with every city also hosting Friday mosques. A standard Islamic plan was the basis of this design, with a large central mosque and main roads running north, south, east and west from its surroundings. These streets are characteristically narrow, a defining urban feature of Stone Town and the old town of Lamu.

Aerial view of Stone Town, Zanzibar.  Image © Gideon Ikigai via Shutterstock
Aerial view of Stone Town, Zanzibar. Image © Gideon Ikigai via Shutterstock

Inside, the typical Swahili house was designed around a self-contained central courtyard. The living room is separated from the public space and an inner porch is based on an empty wall that blocks the view of the inner courtyard. Wooden shutters be present, half open to daylight, together with artfully sweeping balconies and concrete benches attached to the main building facade. The inner courtyard, which is not visible to the public, serves to cool down the internal structure and at the same time serves as a key element for maintaining privacy.

Throughout history, Swahili architecture has evolved in connection with migrants who settled on the Swahili coast. The relatively young, UNESCO-protected status of Kilwa, Lamu and Stone Town has the emergence of local design guides – like such one for Stone Town outlines the harmonious methods for working with the historical stone architecture. There were also firms like Urko Sanchez Architects with projects in the old town of Lamu – buildings in a modern style that pays homage to the principles of Swahili architecture.

Excerpt from the Sansibar Stone Town Design Guide.  Image © Martin Norvenius
Excerpt from the Sansibar Stone Town Design Guide. Image © Martin Norvenius
Swahili Dreams Apartments / Urko Sanchez Architects.  Image © Javier Callejas
Swahili Dreams Apartments / Urko Sanchez Architects. Image © Javier Callejas

The influence of Swahili architecture is widespread – and a look at its architecture shows the lasting ability of the building methods passed down through generations and how human migration acts as a catalyst not only for cultural exchange, but also for changing the way of building .

This article is part of the ArchDaily topic: Migration. Every month we research a topic in articles, interviews, news and projects. Find out more about our monthly topics. As always, we at ArchDaily welcome our readers’ contributions; If you would like to submit an article or a project, please contact us.





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