As a contribution to the decolonisation debate, we need to develop theoretical frameworks that are better suited to diverse contexts, specifically Africa, and we need to elevate local knowledge systems, thinking that originates from the African continent and architectural theory from African scholars. It also demands a shift from documentation (which we tend to do when studying Africa) to interpretation and the development of new theories and new methodologies of research and practice.
This paper therefore explores why societies build and what governs the building processes, acknowledging that societies build for reasons, including and, beyond the need for shelter. The layers of meaning that make up the building process include status, power, social convention, values and ideas on aesthetics. This inherent layering of meaning through building ensures that every built work is a deliberate act – consciously or unconsciously – which communicates meaning and gives shape and identity to those that build.
Architectural history traditionally deals with individual buildings, yet historically building and spatial expressions are almost always collective forms of expression. Architectural history tends to focus on the ‘monumental’ rather than the architecture of the ‘everyday’. It is therefore expected that to develop this alternative theory which sheds light on the ‘collective’ or ‘community’, would rely heavily on texts on residential architecture, the domestic scale and residential neighbourhoods. These are explored and interpretative models developed through analysis and adaption of various theories and texts.
It is proposed that the ‘community’ or the ‘collective’ should be considered as the basic architectural unit of design, embracing complexity, uncertainty and allowing for multiple voices to emerge and multiple actors to intervene in the built environment while ensuring minimal conflict. This approach is at odds with current practice and education which favour the individual over the collective.