The Magic of Mudbrick
Text: Garry Benson
I built my own mudbrick house 20 years ago on 10 acres and as an artist have added mosaics, sculpture & murals. I’ve also delighted the Welcome Swallows & Paper Wasps who build their nests with gunk from the mud walls. But why mudbrick? I was inspired by two events – reading the large format book ‘Shelter’ and my trip to West Africa in the 1970s…
In the south of Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa, near the border with Ghana lies a small, circular village of about 1.2 hectares, called Tiébélé.
This is home of the Kassena people, one of the oldest ethnic groups that had settled in the territory of Burkina Faso in the 15th century. Tiébélé is known for their amazing traditional Gourounsi architecture and elaborately decorated walls of their homes.
Burkina Faso is a poor country, even by West African standards, and possibly the poorest in the world. But they are culturally rich, and decorating the walls of their buildings is an important part of their culture as a very ancient practice that dates from the sixteenth century AD.
The Kassena people build their houses entirely of local materials: earth, wood and straw. Soil mixed with straw and cow dung is moistened to a state of perfect plasticity, to shape almost vertical surfaces.
Today this technique is replaced by the use of mud brick moulding walls with foundations resting on large stone. Tiébélé’s houses are built with defense in mind, whether that be against the climate or potential enemies.
Walls are over a foot thick and the homes are designed without windows except for a small opening or two to let just enough light in to see. Front doors are only about two feet tall, which keeps the sun out and makes enemies difficult to strike. Roofs are protected with wood ladders that are easily retracted and the local beer (dolo) is brewed at home.
After construction, the woman makes murals on the walls using colored mud and white chalk. The motifs and symbols are either taken from everyday life, or from religion and belief. The finished wall is then carefully burnished with stones, each colour burnished separately so that the colours don’t blur together.
Finally, the entire surface is coated with a natural varnish made by boiling pods of néré, the African locust bean tree. The designs also serve to protect the walls themselves.
There are many examples of mud brick construction in Africa, most notably The Great Mosque of Djénné, a large banco or adobe building that is considered by many architects to be one of the greatest achievements of the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style.
Image 1 © 2014 Garry Benson, Dragon Design
Images 2-7 © 1990 Margaret Courtney-Clarke
Image 8 © 2012 Meyoko Illustrations