What is nomadic architecture? When discussing this topic with friends, many reply ”I didn’t know there was any”, or ”Don’t they just have tents?”.
This is not only due to ignorance, but also a product of our western architectural history, so influenced by the Vitruvian tradition of “durability, propriety, beauty”. Durability translates into fixity and permanence, but permanence is not necessarily synonymous with sedentarism. The tokens of nomadic architecture – canvas, leather, and mats are often more durable and permanent than a wood structure or an earthen structure that cannot be repaired or maintained in the same way. Likewise, we tend to mistake mobility with temporarity. Something that moves mustn’t be unstable or transient. In fact, one could argue that a movable and renewable structure is more permanent than an eroding stone monument.
So what defines nomadic architecture? According to Labelle Prussin, author of African Nomadic Architecture – Space, Place and Gender, there are three basic elements that distinguish nomadic
architecture from its sedentary relatives – mobility, gender, and ritual. Mobility is a given, as almost all nomads lead a pastoral life style, following their herds for grazing. This is not only a practical matter, informing lightweight structures with parts no bigger than a camel or a horse can carry, but also something that deeply affects the sense of space and environment, as near-constant movement dictates a close relationship to the landscape and forces of nature.
Nomadic architecture is in general the product of women. Guillan, a 19th century explorer says about Somali women: “all the work rests on the women: the care and education of the infants, the maintenance of the house, the preparation of food, the cutting of wood, the supply of water, up to the construction of the house are in her department.” The men? They herd the cattle and oversee the women. Women’s labour is not considered part of the productive cycle, but instead the reproductive cycle. How unfair this may be, it’s still an important aspect of the architecture, as the creation of a house and its furnishings are part of the dowry institution: it occurs in the context of marriage. In many languages the words for tent, marriage and woman are similar if not the same. This also leads us to the third element: ritual.
The nomadic building process is a ritual process. It is part of the marriage ritual, which in many African nomadic cultures is a slow process in progressive stages that take place over various places and spaces. The marriage tent is put up and taken down and moved several times over the course of a month, in a highly ritualised context, where men and women play different parts. A man can own a tent, but a single man cannot live in a tent without shame. The tent is a product of marriage and the marriage ritual, but the marriage is also a product of the tent. The marriage ritual culminates with the bride finally letting her groom in her tent.
There are a variety of different kinds of tents and structures used by nomads, all very different, but most of them share very similar traits, especially among the African nomads. A key feature is the dual usage of the building components that serve not only as house but also as the interface of transportation. The mats, screens, structural poles and armature ribs that constitute the tent are reassembled and transformed into th
e palanquins that the women and children ride in. The manner in which this is done differs according to geography and means of transport, but the principle stays the same; a streamlined economical system in which few elements have only one purpose.
Nomadic tents can be broken down into two basic types: tensile structures and armatures. A tensile structure consists of either a centre pole or a syst
em of poles put into compression by stretching a fabric or membrane tightly over it. The African tent rests on the structural interdependence between the poles and the membrane: the poles will not stand up unless the velum or membrane is pulled tautly over them; the tautness of the velum is a function of the poles below it. These structures work better with a woven membrane, as felt or skin does not have sufficient stretching qualities and are also too heavy. The armature used by African and Asian nomads is an independent structure, covered with mats, which are neither in tension or structural. There are of course combinations and gradients among these categories, with leather velum and palm leaf armatures as interesting examples.
The Hassaniya-speaking nomads, Tekna, Trarza and Brakna
These tribes extend from the Senegal River through Mauretania and Western Sahara into southern Morocco. There are cultural and architectural differences between these societies, but for simplicity I will refer to them all as Tekna. The country in which the Tekna move is hot, dry and coarse. There are occasional oases, but in general the landscape is semi desert, a transition from the Atlas to the Sahara. The little pasture there is is quite evenly spread. The northeast winds dominate – hot and unpleasant, and the temperatures can reach 45 degrees in the summer.
Their tents are small, simple and rather low, consisting of two tapered poles, with a low mouth always facing the south, away from the wind. The roof is th
e whole form, tilting in each sweep of the surface. This is the quintessential and most simple tensile structure tent, and all the other nomad tents including the Bedouin are in essence variations of this one, just getting bigger and more elaborate depending on economic and geographical parameters. The Teknas tents are usually grouped in twos, threes and fours, roughly in line and about twelve meters apart. These camps can in turn form part of a larger group, if the pasture is good. The distance between tents is enough to keep
herds apart when they are brought close to each tent at night. The velum is made up from parallel strips of densely woven goat hair cloth, which act as shade from the sun, a screen against wind, dust, and unwanted glances. In winter an extra lining of bright cotton cloth is used to insulate against the cold.. The mistress of the tent does the weaving alone, but the sewing together of the strips is a festive occasion with 15 to 20 women working together.
Perhaps the best-known nomadic people of Africa. Founders of Timbuktu and Agades, with berberian heritage, they once controlled most of northwest Africa. Nowadays, oppressed in many of their former countries, they inhabit the sparse lands in the intersection of Mali, Niger and Algeria. They have a very complex social hierarchy
consisting of nobles, religious officials, vassals, intermediaries, slaves (!), and artisans, who are outside the hierarchy. The Tuareg employ two types of tents: skin tents and mat-covered tents, depending on access to the dum palm.
The northern Tribe Kel Ahaggar use a goatskin velum tent, supported by a single pole capped by a ridge piece. This single structural pole is the only one under the velum, all the others sit outside. The Kel Tennet tribe use a similar tent, but with the addition of a wall mat and four poles connected to the central pole via ropes, creating a rectangular space in the middle of the tent.
The tents of Kel Ferwan belong to the wives. When a daughter marries, a woman gives her part of the components of her own tent and keeps the rest, the missing components are then made again by slaves and blacksmiths. The tents are made of mats attached by cords to a quite heavy wooden armature. Slaves prepare the leaves, but the actual plaiting is performed by women of all social levels. The arches of the armature are
made from acacia roots, stripped and heated over fire, bent, and then dug down in the sand to cure for several days. Again, slaves do the grout of the work, but the owner of the tent oversees the bending. If the family is rich and can afford to carry a large tent, there can be more central arches. This tent is interesting because it is not only an armature form, but it also has post and beam elements.
The odd bird of the trio, the Arish palm leaf houses are found on the Arabian Peninsula, mostly in the UAE. These huts were not built to be mobile, but its inhabitants spent the summers in it, fishing for pearls, returning to either their tents or their sedentary dwellings for winter. The primary structure is a post and beam system of palm trunks, covered with mats of branches and leafs from the date palm. Several layers of mats make up the walls and the domed roof of these houses, to buffer the sandy winds of the Arabian desert. In Dubai the sedentary dwellers built an Arish house in their backyard to live in for the summer, complete with an Iranian wind tower, that was rebuilt every year.
The nomadic aesthetic
Le Corbusier once said that “Every product of the spirit or of the hands carries the imprint, the mark, the stamp of a concept of beauty.” I feel that this is also something that defines nomadic architecture, the architect is the inhabitant and the master of the dwelling, and the buildings grow and evolve through a communal creative process. I believe there is much to learn from this process. Even though our way of life differs, being involved in any aspect of your dwelling connects you not only to your home, but your community, something that is becoming more and more scarce in our days of urbanity.
Links and References
All information, images and analysis about african nomads comes from “African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender“, by Labelle Prussin.
All information, images and analysis about the Arish comes from “Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture” by Sandra Piesik.
Cover Image: Photo credit: Hamed Askari, for Tinariwen