Part 10 of 13 in our journey from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo
(Connecting Landmarks in Michigan and African History)
|Philadelphia row houses|
|The Home of Orsel & Minnie McGhee|
|The Home of Dr. Ossian Sweet|
The American Four Square was a home you could literally order from a catalog. Sears and Roebucks, Co. offered the dream for $1,995.00 plus shipping in its 1908 catalog. Its layout is, as its name implies, in a square. Typically 2-1/2 stories high, it usually includes four large, boxy rooms to a floor, a center dormer, and a large front porch with a wide stairs. Other common features include a hipped roof, arched entries between common rooms, built-in cabinetry, and Craftsman-style woodwork. Character was created by dressing the home in an architectural style like Tudor, Prairie, Queen Anne or Craftsman.
Detroit Bungalows were typically built in the Craftsman architectural style. They are typically 1-1/2 stories, with sweeping low pitched gabled or hipped roofs that extend over a front porch that matches the width of the home. The first floor is typically raised a half story to allow for perimeter windows to bring light into a full basement. Dormers bring added living space and light into the attic story and provide an opportunity for the architect to design distinctive front elevations. The chimney also rises along a side elevation, and again provides an opportunity for creative designs frequently done in brick or stone.
These were the housing prototypes of yesterday's Detroit. But today's Detroit struggles with how to reinvent itself. With huge swaths of land sitting vacant, how should the City rebuild itself? Even more importantly, what types of architecture will complement efforts to rebuild community?
Thousands of mile away, in the African country of Ghana, one can find the few remaining remnants of an ancient building tradition. Though its examples are few, attempts to preserve the forms and decorative motives of traditional Ashanti architecture continues since the early 1960s. The tradition provides an African example of how to intergrate building design with the community of people who use them.
The best examples exist around Kumasi in central Ghana. This was once the capital of the great Ashanti Empire that ruled independently from 1670-1896. The surviving buildings are today typically used as religious shrines. The buildings consist of four rooms around a quadrangular courtyard. Three of the rooms (those for drumming, singing and cooking) are open, while the fourth (the actual shrine) is closed to all but the priest and his assistants. The inner courtyards are usually littered with fetishes (objects believed to have magical powers).
The buildings themselves traditionally have steep thatched roofs. Their lower walls are painted orange/red, and the upper walls are whitewashed. The walls are formed from clay or surface loam soil mixed with water and kneaded to a malleable consistency of 9"-10" in thickness. Over this base layer, a final layer about 3"-4" thick is formed to allow mural decorations to be directly carved into the walls.
These traditional "Adinkra" symbols represent the key characteristic of Ashanti Architecture. These symbols are extensively use in not only their architecture, but also fabrics and pottery. Each symbol conveys a distinct meaning, many linked to traditional proverbs. Fifty-three were recorded by Robert Sutherlan Rattray in his book, Religion and Art in Ashanti, published in 1927.
For me, the lesson to be learned from Ashanti architecture is how well these symbols, embedded in its architecture, connect the building to the people living within it. The designs are not only art, but also literally speak to the user. What better way to connect the architecture with the people who use it?
My suggestion is not to say that in Detroit we build new housing with painted Ashanti symbols (graffiti has already accomplished this), but that we must find ways to connect whatever we build with the people who use it. For African Ashanti builders, their connection was through symbols. As Detroit explores new building patterns, weaving new with old, finding new uses for vacant land, it must connect with its people. They must buy into the notion that this new vision is a benefit to them. It's essential that the architecture compliment the need to build community and directly connect with its users. Perhaps it's a Hip Hop style of architecture as explored by Professor Craig Wilkins of the University of Michigan or a Prefabricated Architecture as explored by Kieran Timberlake Associates. If a building revival is to begin for Detroit, it must find a similar manner to connect its buildings to its people.