Tectonic Agency in Africa: Reinvigorating collective making through repair

Michael Louw, Daniel Keith Elkin

Research output: Chapter in book / Conference proceedingConference article published in proceeding or bookAcademic researchpeer-review


In Africa, as an act of collective making, sympoiēsis can be read in relation to the concept of ubuntu . Complex and difficult to define, ubuntu is often described as “humanism or humaneness” . Its emphasis on the relationality between people can be extended to include the relationality between people and the environment through the concept of ukama , or “the relatedness of everything” . In terms of repair, this relationality is evident in traditions like the Sesotho practice of litema, and ritualized events like the repairing and rebuilding of the Great Mosque at Djenné in Mali. Though romanticization of these practices sometimes glosses over the tribulations related to deterioration, they can foster a form of social cohesion that is a direct result of their materiality, which in turn is rooted in specific contexts.

The relationality between people and the environment has undergone numerous transitions, especially since the turn of the previous century, and this has had a significant impact on the making of architecture. In Africa, industrially produced materials that form part of global supply chains and technological networks often co-exist with materials that are locally produced on a smaller scale through social collectives. The former are typically produced in the pursuit of homogeneity and predictable performance requirements (although this is not always the case where planned obsolescence and short-term economic gain are the primary motivators), while the latter usually demand a more dynamic mode of fixing where transience, variation, and impermanence are accepted, if not embraced. This comparison often resolves itself into a false binary between the global and the local, but the realities of this comparison reveal more consequential differences in repair practices, and the social collectives surrounding them. In this paper, we review contemporary projects in Africa by Active Social Architecture, Atelier Masōmī, CS Studio Architects , MASS Design Group, Toshiko Mori Architect and others, where the architects grapple with the dichotomies between different ways of making and their inherent repair practices.

The paper explores the potential of tectonic agency through consideration of the practice of repair in design and making. By investigating the use of both global and local materials material use in a number of contemporary works of architecture in Africa, it aims to show that socio-environmentally conscious material selection can catalyze the restoration of the relationality between people, and people and their environment, particularly through the act of repair. Where in the past the social collective enabled material repair, we suggest that these contemporary works demonstrate that material tectonics can now be used to reinvigorate the social collective, which in turn can enable material repair once again. We argue that tectonic agency and the establishment of local tectonic networks can reinvigorate collective making (sympoiēsis) through a more critical consideration of making, repair, and re-making (anapoiēsis).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInterstices 21
Subtitle of host publicationFixing
EditorsSimon Twose, Carl Douglas, Julia Gatley
Place of PublicationWellington, NZ
PublisherStout Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 23 Apr 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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