The Pervasive Influence of Swahili Architecture

The African continent has been – throughout history – a key player in the ever-evolving story of human migration. Cultures and customs have been shared, adapted, and re-imagined as a result of this movement of populaces, and architectural styles are no exception. In a way, the varied architecture present in Africa is a lens one can look at to understand the intricacies of migration. Present on the continent are ancient indigenous and building typologies born out of the organic assimilation of cultures. Also present are remnants of colonial architecture, a legacy not of voluntary migration, but of forced colonial imposition.

There’s one slice of the continent though, that houses a uniquely rich architectural tradition – the Swahili Coast. A narrow strip of land that stretches along the eastern edge of Africa from Mozambique in the south to Somalia in the north, the area is home to what is termed as Swahili Architecture, an architectural representation of a cultural combination of influences ranging from mainland Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia.

South-eastern coast of Africa. Image © Matthew Pawlowicz
South-eastern coast of Africa. Image © Matthew Pawlowicz

The basis of this Swahili culture can be found in what was a loose confederation of ancient city-states on the Swahili coast – Lamu, Zanzibar, and Kilwa, all of which have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The 13th century saw the states exist as centres of trade with the gold-rich empire of Great Zimbabwe located in the deeper interior of the continent. Trade in ivory and foodstuffs saw the city-states grow in wealth – but this wealth was also sustained by the dark undercurrent of the Indian Ocean Slave Trade.

A defining element of Swahili Architecture is the widespread use of limestone, which is what gives the streetscapes of Lamu Old Town in Kenya and Stone Town in Zanzibar their distinguishing appearance. The coral-stone is built into masonry walls with a mortar of lime, sand, and red earth, which protects the interior from the coastal heat. Mangrove poles, found locally, were used to construct the roofs, an exemplification of the defining characteristic of Swahili Architecture – that of a style which is a distinctive amalgamation of cultural influences.

Elevation of a Stone Town house. Image © P.C Harris in The Arab Architecture of Zanzibar’, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 1925
Elevation of a Stone Town house. Image © P.C Harris in The Arab Architecture of Zanzibar’, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 1925

In contrast to the smooth, white-coloured exterior walls of buildings on the Swahili Coast, the extensively detailed ornamentation of doorways is also a central element that expresses Swahili Architecture. The designs of the ornately carved wooden doorways can be traced from a long lineage of craftspeople from the Swahili coast – which in turn saw influences from the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. Doorways with rectangular frames and straight lintels are emblematic of an older Swahili style, with arched lintels only becoming more prevalent in the later nineteenth century, with greater influence from the Middle East. The lintel of the door would carry carved Arabic inscriptions – most of the time either a quote from the Quran or information on the respective owner of the house.

Ornately carved wooden doors of Swahili Architecture. Image © Magdalena Paluchowska via Shutterstock
Ornately carved wooden doors of Swahili Architecture. Image © Magdalena Paluchowska via Shutterstock
Ornately carved wooden doors of Swahili Architecture. Image © Ehrman Photographic via Shutterstock
Ornately carved wooden doors of Swahili Architecture. Image © Ehrman Photographic via Shutterstock

On an urban level, Swahili towns are organised into wards divided by city walls, with religion playing an important role in urban planning. A neighbourhood mosque was the centre of each ward, with every town also housing Friday congregational mosques. A standard Islamic plan was the foundation of this design, with a large central mosque and main streets running off north, south, east, and west from its vicinity. These streets are characteristically narrow, a defining urban feature of Stone Town and Lamu Old Town.

Aerial view of Stone Town, Zanzibar. Image © Gideon Ikigai via Shutterstock
Aerial view of Stone Town, Zanzibar. Image © Gideon Ikigai via Shutterstock

Internally, the typical Swahili house was designed around a self-contained central courtyard. The living space is separated from public space, and an inner porch is oriented towards a blank wall that blocks the view of the inner courtyard. Wooden shutter windows would be present, half-open for daylight, together with ornate extending balconies, and concrete benches attached to the main building façade. The internal courtyard, not visible to the public, would serve to cool down the internal structure, while serving as a key element in maintaining privacy.

Throughout history, Swahili Architecture has evolved in conjunction with migrants who have made their home on the Swahili Coast. The relatively recent UNESCO protected status of Kilwa, Lamu, and Stone Town has seen the advent of local Design Guides – such as one for Stone Town which outlines harmonious methods for working with the historic stone architecture. There has, too, been the emergence of firms such as Urko Sanchez Architects with projects in Lamu Old Town – building in a modern style that pays homage to the principles of Swahili Architecture.

Excerpt from Zanzibar Stone Town Design Guide. Image © Martin Norvenius
Excerpt from Zanzibar Stone Town Design Guide. Image © Martin Norvenius
Swahili Dreams Apartments / Urko Sanchez Architects. Image © Javier Callejas
Swahili Dreams Apartments / Urko Sanchez Architects. Image © Javier Callejas

The influence of Swahili Architecture is widespread – and looking into its architecture reveals the enduring capacity of building methods passed down through generations, and how human migration acts as a catalyst not only for cultural exchange but for changing how people build.