A dive into the vernacular architectural inspirations behind the stunning depictions of Wakanda in the Marvel film and comic, Black Panther. 



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Buildings are the physical manifestation of a culture.

As 'Black Panther' winds down it's historic box office run, becoming one of the highest grossing films of all time, extensive explorations of its cultural impacts are underway. Much of the critical dialogue has focused on the film's vivid depictions of the Afro-futuristic Wakanda civilization.

This society is understood to be a union of various tribes from throughout the continent, and the portrayals of Wakandan fashion, traditions and architecture span the breadth of the cultures represented. The writers and designers of 'Black Panther' carefully researched the aesthetics and practices of real world cultures throughout Northern & Sub-Saharan Africa to weave together an extrapolation of how these civilizations would develop technologically, and architecturally, given the parameters set within the Marvel Universe. 

This exploration is in response to their efforts, which also focuses on the architectural vernacular and social traditions present throughout various regions of Africa. During this dive, a few surprising convergences of building and social traditions emerge, wherein nearly every culture studied valued similar things from buildings in ways different than other places in the world. This heightens the aesthetic value of the many differences which are also evident. 

Below, the journey begins from the northern-most points of the African continent, then moves south in latitudinal order, to Southern Africa. It takes a look at historic building traditions of homes, religious structures, food storage facilities and community organization.

Ghorfa Granary

Granaries of the Ghorfa style were multi-story, vaulted rooms, constructed primarily of stone and mud with wooden structures. They were mainly used for the storage of grains, but were often hosts to living quarters and the storage of other items.

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Important early Islamic buildings in this region are often rectangular in plan with larger, somewhat conical turrets extruding beyond the occupiable base. The extrusions usually reference the cardinal directions with the main extruded "volume" representing the most sacred direction (toward Mecca). Mosques of this style are constructed with earthened materials, in addition to wood, straw & fibers. 

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Ginna House
Dogon, Mali

Ginnas house the spiritual leaders of each village of the Dogon people of Mali. The buildings are constructed of local cob. The facades contain many niches, representing the ancestors to the village and their desendants. The living area is raised and accessed via tree trunk. The lower level is often reserved for altars and a shrine paying homage to revered spirits of the clan. 

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Musgum Family Compound
Northern Cameroon

The Musgum people often lived in compounds of tall, conical or domed huts constructed from adobe & thatch. They were decorated with inverted v-shaped extrusions on the exterior. Each building housed either a different family member or acted as storage. The center building usually housed the head male of the family while his wives and children lived in the periphery.

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Upper Volta (current Burkina Faso)

Similar to the mosques in nearby Mali, the religious buildings rely on extruded (albeit less dramatic) turrets from the occupiable base to reference cardinal directions and sacred orientations. The building materials were often made with local soil, wood and fibers. 

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Hausan House
Northern Nigeria

The intricate facades of these urban homes were meant to express a multi-layered political & status statement to the public from the family inhabiting it. Generally, the wealthier or more powerful the head of household was, the grander the art commissioned for the facade. The homes were built as compounds with a high degree of privacy, with few openings in the exterior-facing facade. They were expanded over time as the family accumulated wealth and grew in numbers. The buildings were constructed with adobe with a clay finish, which were molded by skilled craftsmen intent on showcasing their skills to the public. This style of building also made use of crenelated parapets & pointed merlons.

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Ubangi-Shari Granaries & Houses
Central African Republic

In areas prone to flooding and animal intrusion, some structures were elevated, often built on raised column foundations. Construction techniques for homes and grain storage in this region were the same. The buildings are made with earth and thatch. The small entries also helped with privacy & security from animals and other intruders. 

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Tata Family "Castles"
Western Africa

These rural family compounds were constructed with earth and thatch, with each turret housing the room of a different member of the household or the storage of grain. The compound was organized around a central courtyard, which was used for social and utility purposes. 

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Tata Family Enclosures
Central & Southern Africa

This very common kraal housing typology borrows from other family compound types: built from earth & thatch, organized around a courtyard, each space housing a different family member or nuclear household or grains, and was expanded over time.

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Zulu Kraal iQukwane Homes
South Africa

Constructed with sticks, reeds & thatch, these domed shaped homes were organized in a circular formation to enclose space for livestock to roam. The structures were commonly supported by tree-trunk in the interior. Between the homes, were wooden fences. 

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Again, buildings are the physical manifestation of a culture. From this exploration, we can infer many of the values elevated through the architecture of the cultures explored:

  • Importance of the social interaction of the extended family. Nearly every region's housing typology focused on a family compound, organized around a central, circular courtyard. Each family member was afforded a high degree of privacy within the compound, but had the expectation of frequent encounters with the rest of the family. The family compound itself afforded privacy from the greater community, yet the main structures were meant to communicate a message to neighbors. 
  • Residences were generally more rounded in form, which is the most economical and optimal use of material and structure. On the other hand, the religious architecture tended to have more rectangular plans, with a focus on architectural elements paying homage to culturally significant orientation, which were more expensive endeavors. This calcifies the importance of religious and communal gathering spaces. 
  • Food storage was the second most significant driver of architectural development. In nearly each culture is a dedication to allocating a lot of space to the storage of grains, which takes up as much space as any family member's quarters would. The entire community itself acted as storage for livestock within the fenced courtyard.
  • As with any locale, the building materials and construction techniques were reflective of readily available resources. Due to the climates and abundance of certain materials, many buildings had no need to move beyond the techniques of earthened & thatch structures. While this required frequent maintenance of structures, there was the security of never running low on building supplies, and added another layer of social cohesion and activitiy.

Many techniques shown are still occasionally employed. However, it has become clear that much of Africa is currently in the midst of an economic revolution, which is resulting in the emergence of a more international, contemporary architectural tradition. It is with these changes, combined with the impact of 'Black Panther', that many are reviving traditional architectural styles and combining them with modern construction methods. Perhaps this is what is needed for the various societies of the continent to strongly assert their identities on the world stage in aspiration to what the real Wakanda can be.

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