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Pr Oussouby Sacko / Interview Alix Koffi

« To us the transition to modernism requires shedding our culture. And yet space is created by the person occupying it. Culture is indissociable from the person. In Africa we create spaces that have no cultural belonging to people. In Japan, practices exist ensuring that space adapts to the culture of the person. Some pre-modernist buildings have been preserved in their vital state and some modern buildings still have tatami bedrooms, installed for their symbolic value. »

– Oussouby Sacko

Pr Oussouby Sacko

President of Kyoto Seika University, Oussouby Sacko explains his vision of Malian and African architectural modernity anchored in the vernacular building. It highlights the similarities between Asian and African cultures and the research potential they allow.

Anna-Alix Koffi : Tell us about Sahelian architecture

Oussouby Sacko: It’s a great source of inspiration for us. Personally I do a great deal of research into Sudanese architecture, a style found in the north of Mali. It has much to inspire us in terms of space but also in terms of its methodology and architectural aspects.

In Africa, we don’t think of simplifying and finding sources in what we have. We systematically look further afield. Some foreign architects have been inspired by African agglomerations, like the Japanese, Hiroshi Hara, who works on African agglomerations and villages. Unfortunately architecture in Africa seeks much further afield instead of looking at what we have right beneath our noses. We give no value to the immense source of inspiration to be found in traditional forms and materials. 

Your research concentrates on the relationship between constructed space and culture, on spatial transitions and transformations. After your first visit to Japan, you said you were impressed by the way traditional spaces in Japan were integrated into modern spaces. How does this space/culture relationship and its application to public and private spaces in urban planning and architecture form the basis for your practice and research? In Japan, space is very cultural and hierarchical. Everyone who goes into a house knows exactly where to put their shoes. They are then asked to go upstairs or downstairs. There are stages related to the relationship between the host and the visitor. I think that space translates cultural practices. We may establish a parallel with cultural practices in Mali; the main problem though is our incomprehension of what modernism means: we don’t know what we expect of modernism and what modernism expects of us. To us the transition to modernism requires shedding our culture. And yet space is created by the person occupying it. Culture is indissociable from the person. In Africa we create spaces that have no cultural belonging to people. In Japan, practices exist ensuring that space adapts to the culture of the person. Some pre-modernist buildings have been preserved in their vital state and some modern buildings still have tatami bedrooms, installed for their symbolic value. The idea is not to make a wholesale switch to modernism but to improve the functionality of the space while retaining a certain authenticity. 

You advocate flexibility and fluidity between Japan and Mali. What is the current state of affairs? How do you explain your conclusions to the recalcitrant? How would one go about building a house that respects Mali’s cultural practices? In Japan and Mali, the idea of vital space is very dynamic; the same space can have several functions. Modern architecture sets out to make space functional, i.e. attached to its function. 

In concrete terms, during my research in Mali, I have discerned an evolution in the function of the courtyard. In modern constructions, as an activity space, the courtyard is supplanted by interior living rooms. The dynamism of the Malian courtyard leads me to think that, in Malian houses, the courtyard offers possibilities that don’t exist in modern architecture. In modern architecture function is defined by space: the kitchen is for cooking, the living room for receiving guests, etc. The Malian courtyard allows for a whole range of activities in one space. Take a look at how activities and their associated objects are distributed. A Malian courtyard is a space for cooking (kitchen), eating (dining room), drinking tea and chatting (living room). It is a space that has several functions, which does not exist in modern architecture. We don’t have to compartmentalise space to give it function. The courtyard has such dynamism because it can contain so many people. In a modern house, it isn’t possible to accommodate twenty-thirty people in the same courtyard. The courtyard is very important to Malian architecture. Yet modern buildings have a tendency to remove them, even if they bring people together and create contact. It is one aspect of modern architecture that requires improvement; likewise, the relationship to spaces. There is this desire to integrate modern living even if we have a completely different idea of life, an idea that is not translated into the reality of architecture. I try to encourage clients to incorporate de-centralised intermediary courtyards but they often refuse, even if this has no bearing on their way of life. They then feel uncomfortable in a living room and use their small courtyard spaces to compensate, whereas they could have incorporated a large courtyard all along. I try to find an improved form of existing architecture. 

Pr Oussouby Sacko

You said: « I think that Japan could be a source of inspiration for us Africans because their journey is not dissimilar to ours and their social system is not so foreign. » Could you explain? From a Western point of view, Japan is thought to be a complex culture. A great many similarities exist between its social practices and life in Africa. In particular, they have a respect for others, for their elders and for nature, etc, attitudes ever present in traditional African life. These beliefs come from animism, which is also the basis of Japanese Shintoism. We have great difficulty combining modernism and traditional civilisation. Japan used its tradition as a basis for development and for building a modern society. Such an approach is important and could provide a great source of inspiration for us who have an unacceptable tendency, when is comes to constructing modern systems, to reject tradition. 

You have developed conduits for communication between Mali and Japan. Please expand? My intention was to get a feel for this similarity between our two cultures by showing Japanese architecture. I set up a program where, each year, ten Japanese students are housed by families in Mali for five weeks. They have a week of language initiation then three weeks researching their host family on a theme relating to society or the family, before one week travelling. In the wake of this exchange, they organise an exhibition about what they have learned and explore their use of Africa as a mirror for self-discovery. In parallel, I have been setting up communication platforms and associations in Japan to examine our common foundations and talk about Africa. The Japanese only know what they are told about the continent, so they know little about its cultures and traditions. It is important to build bridges on both sides. Many students come to see me, interested in traditional religion or organisation. This enthusiasm is relayed by universities where there are number of centres for African research. Hence we have some way of reassuring young Japanese students who are uncertain about studying in Africa by demonstrating the advantages to them. 

You have studied in both China and Japan. Back then there was already the school in Lomé (EAMAU), founded in 1976, and more recently the Bamako school (ESIAU) founded in 2006: are we developing a more African school of architecture? We do a need an architecture school teaching the potential of our architecture to kids. I don’t refute the methodology and teaching of modern architecture – it is indispensable. But it is also important to promote the local architecture that slips beneath the radar even in the architecture world. Schools today have a tendency to teach an approach to constructing buildings that is foreign to us and that is essential for young people’s sense of creativity. But we also have to acknowledge, analyse and become familiar with resources closer to home, people’s homes themselves. Several studies have looked at African architecture but few Africans specialise in the area. I think we should create a school that works like this, a school in the figurative sense of the word, because today we don’t have a classified methodology in the architecture repertoire. The schools you cite are important, but we also have to create a space for African architecture to give young people the tools to develop and improve it. It is a difficult campaign to get going, especially because some African architects aren’t convinced of the merits of getting back to our roots. I use my various projects to try to convince people of this approach. 

Young Pr Oussouby Sacko in China

Who are the main African and Diaspora architects? David Adjaye and Francis Kéré spring instantly to mind, because I’ve seen them and talked to them. The problem of architecture in Africa is that we were so swift to launch ourselves into commercialisation that we skipped straight from the creation to the management of projects. An architect follows the client whereas an architect should be able to lead clients, take them into spaces they couldn’t imagine themselves. Of course, some colleagues do have this approach, but many are chasing their daily bread, lining up projects back-to-back. We don’t focus enough on research because we instantly dash off quick solutions for clients. I think even China operated this way to begin with but, as their economy boomed, they started looking for the potential of their existing heritage. We see this in recent modern architecture in China. I think Africa is following in the same direction. Francis and David’s work is exemplary but they should try to do more to inspire people in Africa. 

Are there still great practices on the Continent? I know of a whole host of practices like Goudiaby in Senegal and others in Ivory Coast and even Mali. They provide some solutions, but I don’t really feel they have the influence they should have. 

There are some impressive buildings, like the Kenyatta conference centre in Nairobi, La Pyramide in Abidjan, some of Yaoundé’s architecture, etc. Is there any uniformity in Africa, a kind of African « Haussmann »? There is no uniformity. Architecture responds to client demand but the buildings don’t teach us anything about architecture. When you see them, you don’t feel they’ve been inspired by a village in Kenya, say, or that they translate a particular ethnic group into a modern language. We are talking commercial, modern architecture; that’s why it’s so disparate. There isn’t an African Haussmann.

The case of China illustrates my point. The architect Wang Shu, a graduate from South-East University – the same university where I studied in China – and the first Chinese architect to win the prestigious Pritzker prize, learned basic architecture in an attempt to create an architectural form which was modern but also relevant to his region. This is architecture with something to say. So many buildings are pretty to look at but have nothing to say. I think we need more architecture that has something to say, to the people who occupy it, to the people who look at it and the people who live around it. Today « profit » is the operative word. There are architects who only chase projects for money, even though we have a different role to convey. 

Are there any creations that do respect tradition? I see creations responding to norms that draw on materials from, what we call in architecture, “the vocabulary of essence”, or the vocabulary of traditional spaces.  I saw some in Ghana, in Dakar and in Mali. Unfortunately, they get lost in the urban fabric or in their ambient context. They do exist and do respond to a certain vocabulary of what we have as traditional architecture or that could be improved here but the very context of architecture isn’t visible. That’s not to say I refute these creations! Every time I visit a new town in Africa, it is either extremely modernised, or there are buildings that have no real sense in being there. It’s a shame because we need to stop and observe the tradition of spatial forms around us in order to project ourselves into the future. But we don’t give ourselves the time, because in the race for projects we are staring at a future without a past. 

Beyond architecture, what other cultural bridges between Japan and Africa have you seen? As I said earlier, it’s the similarities between our cultures and traditions. The basis of Japanese society is how they integrate their traditional foundations into daily life, something we tend to forget. Their school system and teaching, for example, is modern and highly developed, but it is still inspired by Japanese society, its modes and forms of living. The same could apply to Africa but unfortunately we only have two approaches to education: the traditional or ethnic model within families and neighbourhoods and the modern, colonial, western model in schools.

In Mali, we have difficulty combining the two and there are taboos between the two models. At school we are told, « Don’t speak your language, you have to speak French, you have to think… » and we are asked to perform completely imaginary tasks. At home, the opposite is the case. We live this contradiction which could provide great advantages, but unfortunately some take sides, favouring modernity over tradition. We haven’t taken advantage of our similarities with the Japanese and Asian system in general.

In your entourage, are there any African artists working between Africa and Japan? Have you come across any others since you been in Japan? There’s one young African who works in fashion, a group of young photographers at university, a young South-African manga illustrator. There’s another Malian, Aboubakar Fofana, who has spent some time in Japan and who has taught, exchanged and even collaborated with Japanese artists. He was part of Documenta 14. African artists are increasingly making a name for themselves in Japan, whereas before they had no access to art, learning and exchange. When you try to tap into the potential that Japan has in African art, or vice versa, it’s something that builds progressively over time. Back in the 1990s Japanese and American museums were asking the question of the legitimacy and validity of African art: « Can African art be considered art? » It was difficult for contemporary African artists to get themselves recognized, especially in Japan. Now, when Africans come here to create and the Japanese encounter their talent, of course, it’s tough to begin with, but once they start getting known, their reputation spreads very quickly because the Japanese have great respect for art and its value. 

 The University of Kyoto Seika where you preside has a centre for African research. Is this common in Japan? What is the interest for the Continent? I try to promote contemporary Africa because, here in Japan, there are a lot of research centres interested in anthropology. I try to promote African art, African fashion and even African manga. In Japan we don’t have a specific research centre for the contemporary visual arts. I am currently in the process of setting up a research centre focussing on everything related to African popular and contemporary culture, including fashion and manga. I’m trying to bring everything together within one centre at the university that will hopefully open soon. There’ll be friends and associates in situ who’ll be able to promote Africa and provide a different image of it. It’ll also give African students a chance to visit and study certain techniques or exchange with their Japanese peers to try to produce something more interesting. The project is planned for 2019, and I’ve already arranged a series of conferences on the subject, on the theme of contemporary and modern Africa. A subsequent series of a dozen conferences will then invite Africans to also examine the issues. The Japan Association for African Studies (JAAS) also decided to hold their annual conference in the university. I shall be tapping into this momentum to launch the centre and use it as an opportunity to promote it.

You are a foreigner, you are black and you are the chairperson of a Japanese university. You once said, « I didn’t have equal opportunity, say SO. But I forced myself to block that out. » Can you explain what you meant?  [Laughs] Japanese journalists have asked me practically the same question. When people come to Japan, or Asia in general, they try to categorize us, to « frame » us as the English would say. It’s a frame for foreigners, which brackets and protects them; you’re allowed to do anything foreigners can do, but not what the Japanese do, because as a foreigner in a frame, you’re not capable. 

I tried to break out of that frame, telling myself: « Give us the chance to be equals and do like you, » because, as I say, they have had cultural foundations for generations that we naturally cannot master. It took me a great effort to adapt and work directly in their language, using their way of thinking and of approaching things, while at the same time making my own contribution. It took me three or four times the effort to manage to do something, but at the same this helped me create a place and hence integrate. Generally in Japan, people think you’ll never make it as a foreigner, but they don’t say it’s impossible. That sums up the Japanese democratic system. So you have to decide between playing the role of protégé in the foreigner’s frame or rising to the challenge. 

                                                                   In something we Africans got issue 4
                                                                   French version included in the copy
                                                                   in the PDF
                                                                   Alix Koffi
                                                                   April 2018