A Konnect Africa Interview with Architect Jon (Twingi) Sojkowski: Advocate of African Vernacular Architecture

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Hello Friend, How are you?

It’s another Konnect Africa interview and today, we bring to you a unique personality, a registered architect with a passion for African Vernacular Architecture. You might be wondering, what on earth is African Vernacular Architecture? Verily I say unto you, you will find out today.

Welcome on board as you read our very interesting conversation with Jon (Twingi) Sojkowski.

 

Jon Sojkowski in Fango village

With a name like yours, the odds of you being an African are quite reduced. What is your ethnicity?

I agree that my last name is quite a mouthful, people have a lot of trouble pronouncing it. I am American but my heritage is Polish, Lithuanian and Italian.

How long have you lived in Africa and what was your initial reason for visiting the continent?

I lived in Zambia for four years being a volunteer in the US Peace Corps. The first two years I lived in a village working on a WASHE (Water, Sanitation and Health Education) program. The final two years I taught architecture at the Copperbelt University in Kitwe, where I taught studio to fifty first year students.

Would it be presumptuous to suppose you are an Architect?

I am a registered architect as well as being LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). My focus is on sustainability and it really does not get any more sustainable than African vernacular architecture.

Has Architecture always fascinated you? Why?

I first became interested in architecture because I loved to draw. There is a unique satisfaction of drawing an idea on paper, adjusting and tweaking the design and then seeing your vision actually being constructed. Even though now the drawing is done on computers instead of drafting tables, it is still the same.

When did your quest to document African architecture begin? What was the inspiration?

My idea to document came when I started teaching architecture at the Copperbelt University. I was surprised that there was no documentation on Zambian vernacular architecture, especially at the University level.

This was in 1997, a time when the internet was just exploding. The possibility of placing this research on line, free to everyone in the world, instead of publishing a book was just such an exciting concept.

Zambia Granary Under Construction
Zambia Granary Under Construction

Some would say that those modes of building are outdated and obsolete?

The majority of people would say that, there exists the problem. There are many negative perceptions that are associated with African vernacular architecture. People believe that it is an architecture which is temporary, sub standard, the past or for the poor.

On the flip side people feel that western architecture is correct, the future and for the affluent. In Malawi, over 70% of the population live in a home with a thatched roof so I would not consider vernacular architecture obsolete.

African Vernacular Architecture is your special project: what do you hope to achieve with it?

Right now there is very little information available on line regarding African vernacular architecture. People outside of Africa just do not know or understand it. I am hoping when people see the diversity, beauty and practicality of the architecture there will come appreciation.

When something is appreciated then there is a value placed on it. Once a value is placed on African vernacular architecture then possibly there will be more interest in documentation.

In a world where glass and skyscrapers rule supreme, why would you advocate for thatch and mud?

I do not see a skyscraper being constructed in rural Africa any time soon, but I understand your point. The most obvious reason is that mud and thatch are sustainable materials, they are obtained locally. Take the argument between metal panels and thatch, in my recent research in Malawi it was obvious that metal roof panels were desired.

The main reason stated was to prevent leaking and to alleviate the need to maintain the roof every year. The trade off is that because the metal panels conduct the heat, unlike thatch, the interior space becomes like a sauna. If a roof was thatched thicker than what is currently done, it could last 40 years without being fixed and would not leak.

An outdoor kitchen in Malawi.
An outdoor kitchen in Malawi.

How many countries have you traveled to so far, and how have you been received?

I have been to Africa on three different occasions. The first was living in Zambia in which I visited Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa. In 2006 I attended a conference on vernacular architecture in Kano, Nigeria which was very different than Sub Saharan Africa.

Most recently was my research trip to Malawi in which I also traveled to Swaziland. In every country I was very well received with people being very friendly and hospitable, especially in Malawi which is called the “warm heart of Africa” and I now can see why.

Have you had the opportunity to ‘live’ in any of these ‘vernacular’ buildings?

My first posting in Zambia was in Twingi village, a very remote place. I lived in a mud hut with a thatched roof for two years with no running water or electricity. It was a very simple life style but one that I thoroughly enjoyed.  I was surprised at just how comfortable the structure was.

In the day time the mud walls and thatch roof  absorbed the heat of the sun making the interior space much cooler than the exterior temperature. At night the heat that was captured was released into the interior making it warmer than the cool nights outside.

In capturing these images, has it also given you a feeler into the culture of the indigenes?

Without a doubt it did. The nature of the research was to travel roads, some very less traveled, and to stop at a homestead or village that was of some interest. We would park the vehicle, walk up to the home, go through formal greetings, explain our project and ask permission to take pictures.

The response was amazing. Many people were just so surprised that we chose their home to document and they were very proud of their homes and wanted to show them off and talk about them. It was incredibly up close and personal.

Why and how can others participate in your project?

My project is counting on individuals living and working in Africa. In this day and age of technology and communication it is quite easy to take a picture and send an email. That really is all it takes to contribute to the project. I have also created an app for the I phone to make it even easier.

The data base was launched in April and already there have been pictures submitted from Zambia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Malawi, South Sudan, Swaziland, Benin, Lesotho, Namibia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, South Africa and Rwanda.

In a world plagued with many challenges, what part does the preservation of Africa’s architecture play?

There are many components that make up a country’s culture including language, music, arts, food and customs. Architecture is the most visual of these components. A castle in Europe, a yurt in Asia, a mosque in Iran, skyscrapers in New York, all convey a unique image.

This is called “genius loci,” the “spirit of a place”. Every country has its own genius loci, its own uniqueness. Yet this uniqueness of African vernacular architecture is disappearing, being abandoned for western materials and building techniques.

In Cameroon
In Cameroon

Kindly inspire a budding African Architect in one sentence.

Africa is a diverse continent composed of many cultures and styles of architecture in which vernacular architecture has strong ties to the land, it is unique to Africa, embrace this, there is no need to create or copy western architectural styles.

Find out more about Jon (Twingi) Sojkowski and his work on African vernacular architecture here.

Hope you enjoyed the interview? Do you have any questions for Mr Jon? What are your thoughts on his Project? Share with us in the comments section below.

Cheers.

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© 2015 – 2017, Jennifer Nkem-Eneanya. All rights reserved.

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