Djenné – Behind the Facade

Posted on April 6, 2010

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Another talk on Djenne, this time by Charlotte Joy, an anthropologist at Cambridge, offering something quite different to the architectural perspective I have occupied so far. The many talks I have been to invariably open with an introduction on Mali, where it is etc, as one tends to to avoid any presumption of knowledge. Immediately the alternative intentions of this talk are established as I’m presented with the fact, among others, that Mali stands as the 175th poorest country in the world. Out of 193*. It’s the first time I have come across this basic fact and suddenly I feel blinkered. That’s not to say that the talk was one of doom and gloom just that this time the emphasis was on the people and how they benefit from restoration etc. You may well think, ‘of course it was, it was an anthropology talk!’. The reason that it was notable to me is that, these are the things that I think architecture can and should address. Perhaps we need to see more cross- disciplinary activity.

It’s a delicate situation when western architects/organisations decide to ’help’ less prosperous countries. We approach the scene with aspirations & priorities based on our own values.

UNESCO bestowed the whole of Djenne town with listed heritage status, protecting the wonderful architectural culture from potentially destructive development. Naturally the negative impact of this is the limiting factor. Locals are restricted in what they can do to their own homes because of our perceptions of beauty and established conceptions of importance. For instance, many inhabitants have taken to tiling the exteriors of their houses to protect the mud from the elements, tiles being much cheaper than repairs to the earth works (the work of masons is becoming, relatively, increasingly expensive due to their employment on the restoration projects and international interest in West African architecture), in some cases the tourist board have manage to prevent the use of tiles for obvious aesthetic reasons, but at what cost? It’s a bit of a dilemma. From an ethics point of view, should we even be involved at all? The idea of ‘world heritage’ is an interesting one, a building or site that procures status as a world heritage site becomes a kind of world property. Whilst I appreciate the ‘one-peopleness’ of this creation, and I do of course want to see the rich culture maintained, does this mean that the local people are in someway losing the site? Maybe not in a direct sense but we have to be careful that they are not losing some freedom in regards to development. Any kind of imposed inertia would be detrimental to the health and future of the town.

I am truly glad to see the conservation and restoration of such architectural wonders and the associated traditional techniques and knowledge. But at the same time I think it is crucial to be mindful of our approach and try to work from the inside out, from the perspective of local people, giving priority to their most pressing needs and making these projects work for them.

*These figures appear to be based on the value of produce and services of a given year compared to population. Several organisations compile these data sets the these particular figures (175/193) seem to be taken from the CIA World Factbook. Other lists, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, portray a similar account.
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