Ghanaian architect, Kuukuwa Manful, hopes her work re-evaluate the discourse and study of African architecture: ‘I hope my work reframes how we talk about and study architecture across the continent through a concept I call unformalization. I am looking to challenge dichotomies around formal and informal architecture by arguing that many African architectures were deliberately unformalized.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I read anything I could lay my hands on—beginning with storybooks and moving on to fantasy fiction, romance novels and biographies. Occasionally this eclectic collection even included some not-very age-appropriate texts such as The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka and Kitty Kelley’s Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorised Biography.
In your earliest days as an architect, what books or kinds of books were foundational to your practice?
To name just a few of the outstanding texts:
African Architecture: Evolution and Transformation by Nnamdi Elleh
Architecture in Northern Ghana: A Study of Forms and Functions by Labelle Prussin
Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Construction Technology for a Tropical Developing Country by Hannah Schreckenbach
What’s a common misconception people have about African architecture?
There are a lot of misconceptions about the histories of architecture in Africa. A common one is about historical materials and forms. People assume that our ancestors only built ‘mud huts with thatched roofs’ and that these were not ‘advanced’. Although there’s nothing wrong with building with earth, a variety of materials were used in the past, including the stone that is associated with being ‘advanced’. These misconceptions persist because many of our historical architectures across Africa have been lost to neglect, decay, and deliberate destruction during colonization.
People assume that our ancestors only built ‘mud huts with thatched roofs’ and that these were not ‘advanced’.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
I recently read a post on Animation Obsessive titled ‘How to Paint Like Hayao Miyazaki’, which changed my mind about buying an expensive set of watercolour paints. I hope it lasts!
What’s one thing that excites you about how architecture is evolving?
I am excited by how many more people are interested in studying the architectures of Africa, whether as part of academic research, as points of departure for contemporary architectural design, or for video games. I’m incredibly excited about the critical approaches that academics are taking and how expansive some of the work I see is.
You have a PhD from SOAS, University of London and your doctoral research examined nation-building, social class, and modernity in Ghana. What inspired this research topic?
My PhD research was driven both by my being a Ghanaian citizen who is curious, hopeful, and confused about my nation; and by my intellectual curiosity as a scholar interested in the history and politics of architecture in Africa. Ultimately, the study came together as an account of the making of and belonging in Ghana across a long period of the country’s history told through the analytical and narrative lens of the architecture of schools.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
A first draft is a first draft.
(It fits very well with this series!)
You also manage Accra Archive, a digital archive of historical records, architectural drawings, images, and artefacts from Accra, Ghana. Take us through your work here and the significance of this project.
Accra Archive started with a project to digitize a collection of material concerning architecture, urban regulation, and construction in Ghana from when it was the Gold Coast. This material was in a very precarious state, literally disintegrating into dust when I first came across it. Now, because much of it has been digitized, it will be available in perpetuity for people in Ghana and beyond.
My PhD research was driven both by my being a Ghanaian citizen who is curious, hopeful, and confused about my nation.
What three books by African authors would you suggest should be on everyone’s bookshelf?
I’m eagerly anticipating some books that are coming out this year. The Year of Return by Ivana Akotowaa Ofori. Yepoka Yeebo’s Anansi’s Gold: The Man Who Looted the West, Outfoxed Washington, and Swindled the World, and Peace Adzo Medie’s Nightbloom.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I’m doing some reading about historical mapping and surveying which is fascinating.
What are you currently working on?
In my current research project, I’m analyzing material from the endangered archive that I digitized. I hope my work reframes how we talk about and study architecture across the continent through a concept I call unformalization. I am looking to challenge dichotomies around formal and informal architecture by arguing that many African architectures were deliberately unformalized.
In my current research project, I’m analyzing material from the endangered archive that I digitized.
Question from David Adjaye: How do you see the future of the built cultural infrastructure of the continent?
I imagine and hope for a future where it’s natural for people to draw inspiration from African pasts to create built environment solutions to the challenges we face or just for the joy of creating. It is a future driven by fairness and caring for one another and for the earth on which we live.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What seemingly small thing has made you smile/be happy recently?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].