Domestic Architecture In Benin City: A Study Of Continuity And Change

Project and Seminar Material for Architecture

Domestic Architecture In Benin City: A Study Of Continuity And Change


The culture of people determines and shapes the domestic space in their domestic architecture. Subsequent modifications of the idea have focused on more precise revelations of how the spatial arrangements of material culture are culturally patterned. Through a topological analysis of house plans and patterns, collected from the City of Benin, this study detects a transformation in the house-type aspired and developed by people during the last five centuries.

A group of 1054 houses, located in four residential zones in Benin City, Nigeria, has been analysed by means of frequency distribution, Space Syntax categories and factor analysis. The research is determined to find out how the use, organization and meaning of space in Benin have changed and whether or not there are continuities over the years across the entire City. The Space Syntax approach is used to measure the varying degree of change at each stage of the evolution. Here, the „space-activity‟ interaction is the main idea that enables us to see what underlies the process. As the old spaces take different names and functions in the new design, they bring about the recombination of their activities, and when this occurs repeatedly at each stage, it leaves behind „topological paths‟ from which the direction of the evolution can be measured. Further examinations reveal that the space-activity interaction arises both at each partitioned space and at the collective space that is closely related. The analysis of the attitudes and responses of the residents using factor analysis revealed that both socio-economic and socio-cultural factors are responsible for the change and continuity in the domestic space.

Finally, it is concluded that even the domestic culture that is engaged in a fast and intense transformation process still tries to preserve, underneath its surface, its old hereditary value and in the course of change there exist efforts to direct it.

Chapter One


1.1 Background

The architecture of a particular place should reflect the culture, beliefs and traditions of the people. That is why Denyer (1978) describes housing as symbolic of the socio-cultural heritage of a people and culture; culture thus exercises a strong influence on the types and forms of houses. Many societies today seek ways to project their cultures and ideals through their architecture. The ancient Benin Kingdom architecture was amongst the types of architecture in the West African coastal region which drew on indigenous traditions, utilizing earth, wood and other locally available materials. The domestic architecture in Benin inhabited largely by the Edo, Nigeria, is the primary focus of this study.

Dmochowski (1990) affirmed that the Kingdom was respected for its social organization and cultural traditions. Consequently, amongst the complex of ancient kingdoms and empires which form the present day Nigeria, the kingdom of Benin tries to retain its cultural individuality. However, certain factors have led to some changes in its cultural elements, while other elements still continue. Accordingly, this study intends to examine change and continuity in architecture in Benin, arising from socio-cultural factors.

Studies have been done by architectural historians on Benin architecture, its technology, spatial organization and history. Historians and archaeologists have tried to study continuity and change in Benin arts and crafts, the people and history. These studies do not however provide an in-depth analysis of the changes and continuities in domestic architecture over time in Benin. For the purpose of this study, architecture can be generally defined as the human organization of empty spaces using physical materials (Hooker, 1999)

The definition implies that architecture can be “read,” that is one can discover how a culture organizes itself socially, materially, and metaphysically by examining its architecture. Architecture is like a book that a culture “writes” for other members of that culture; it is a culture talking to itself about the meaning and organization of the life of that culture. Therefore looking at architecture is about understanding the world view of those who created the architecture. This means that whenever a member of a culture looks at a work of architecture, he/she understands that it has meaning which governs the actions of the members and their understanding of the world.

For instance, Platt (2006) viewed architecture as a complex structure communicated by the use of abstractions and model. Others such as Prussin (1978) analysed it firstly, as the building process or as a product of construction technology; secondly, as the enclosure of space with an analytical emphasis placed on form and function; thirdly, as it is approached in this study, as a “material manifestation of a culture’s symbolic system … quantification, graphically and formally, of the system of values inherent in a culture” (Prussin, 1974). Prussin pointed out that all the three perspectives presented earlier are necessary for a full understanding of architecture. Having examined what architecture is from various perspectives, it may be correct to describe domestic architecture, the area of this study, as ―a group of organized spaces including the residential family compounds and residential units in the proposed study area and will range from traditional architecture through vernacular architecture to contemporary architecture‖. The study will examine the organization, use and meaning of domestic spaces in Benin, changes and continuities.

Historically, human beings have continuously developed their built-environment to meet essential needs imposed by factors that change from one period to another. It is very likely that change in the dwellings affects the human environment socially and culturally. It can be assumed that the determination to change arises from the desire by the individual to improve his/her surroundings, however improvement is defined. Taking into account the physical characteristics of the buildings in which they live, the issue of change can have far reaching socio-cultural implications, since change in domestic architecture can be assumed as being the result of cultural change. Rapoport (1989) asserted that the development of either new or traditional components and characteristics of built environments can be seen as equivalent to cultural change. Braudel (1992) complemented this view by affirming that building, the material form of a dwelling is shaped by culture and in turn shapes social action.

Admittedly, with the assumption that socio-cultural change results in domestic architectural transformation, it may be right to view culture in this study from the anthropologist‘s perspective which is quite similar to that of the sociologist. The anthropologist believes that culture involves at least three components: what people think, what they do and the material objects they produce (Cohen, 1985). Thus, mental processes, beliefs, knowledge and values are parts of culture. Some anthropologists would define culture entirely as mental rules guiding behaviour, although often a wide divergence exists between the acknowledged rules for correct behaviour and what people actually do. Consequently, some researchers pay greater attention to human behaviour and its material products.

In attempting to identify the various meanings attached to the word “culture,” Geertz (1973) referred to Kluckhohn’s Mirror for Man and suggest the following meanings: ―it is the total way of life of a people, the social legacy the individual acquires from his group, a way of thinking, feeling, and believing, an abstraction from behaviour, an anthropologist‘s theory on how a group of people behaves, a storehouse of pooled learning, a set of standardized orientations to recurrent problems; learned behaviour; a mechanism for the normative regulation of behaviour, a set of techniques for adjusting to the external environment; for others, it is a precipitate of history, a behavioural map, sieve, or matrix‖.

Williams (1958) defined culture in two broad ways. Firstly, he identifies culture as ordinary with known meanings and directions which its members are trained to know; new observations and meanings which are offered are tested. Every human society has its shape, purposes and meanings which it expresses in its institutions, arts and architecture. The making of a society is the quest for common meanings and directions and its growth depends on an active debate and revision under the pressures of experience, contact and discovery as well as writing into the land (Raymond, 1958). Secondly, it reflects the nature of a culture through the people and it is always traditional and creative which means that it has both collective or common meanings and individual meanings. Arnold (1962) viewed culture as having no better motto than the words of Bishop Wilson: “To make reason and the will of God prevail!”

The specific cultural concept that particular anthropologist works with is an important matter because it may influence the research problems they investigate, their methods and interpretations as well as the positions they take on public policy issues. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to the question of what culture is. Culture is a complex phenomenon. It is both distinct from but clearly associated with society. It may be observed that the different definitions of culture reflect different theories or levels of understanding.

Generally, the following elements of social life are considered to be representative of human culture: stories, beliefs, media, ideas, architecture, works of art, religious practices, fashions, rituals, specialized knowledge and common sense. Yet, examples of culture do not in themselves present a clear understanding of the concept of culture; culture is more than the material objects or behaviour. It also includes norms, values, beliefs or expressive symbols of a people. Norms are more or less the way people behave in a given society, values are those things they hold dear while beliefs are how they think the universe operates; expressive symbols are representations, often of social norms, values, and beliefs themselves.

Since culture encompasses objects and symbols, the meanings given to those objects and symbols, the norms, values and beliefs that pervade social life, its definition is understood to include two elements: ―that which differentiates one group or society from others and the concept of acquired or learned behaviour” (Gusfield, 2006). Culture can therefore be conceived of as material and non-material. For the purpose of this study, material culture will be considered in relation to domestic space. Material culture has some of its aspects reflected in historical buildings, monuments and artefacts that form essential parts of domestic architecture.

It may therefore be emphasised that domestic architecture is a product of culture specifically material culture. Material culture includes objects and symbols as observed earlier, domestic architecture is one of these objects. The meaning given to those objects and symbols and the norms, values and beliefs that saturate social life is what differentiates a particular architecture from another. It is understandable that some parts of this culture change while other parts remain unchanged or continue. Hence change in socio-cultural factors as well as continuity may be associated with domestic architecture. Attempts were accordingly made to provide an enhanced understanding of these factors and the response of the people of Benin to these factors of change and continuity over the years. Related theories and concepts that underpin the essence of the study were analysed in later chapters.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

There are various researches that have examined culture and built form, traditional architecture in Benin, from different perspectives. Some have looked at it from the perspective of culture and built form, others have looked at the physical characteristics including the impluvium design. Also, a few have examined the built form and culture of Benin from the historical point of view.

For instance Foyle (1953) talked about Benin houses, Dmochowski (1990) also wrote about the Benin architecture, largely dealing with what is described as traditional architecture Agbontaen et al (1996) on their own described the Impluvium-Courtyard (Oto-Eghodo) in indigenous Benin architecture, while Dark (1973) described Benin technology in houses. Nevadomsky (1986) examined architecture in Benin by focusing on Idah house. However, none of these studies closely examined the domestic architecture in Benin from the point of view of continuity and change across the entire City. Yet the social and cultural characteristics of the Edo of Benin have changed over time. The expectation therefore is that architecture, particularly domestic architecture would have also changed in line with the new realities of life.

Generally, a lot of work has been done on domestic architecture from different perspectives. Most of it has focused on settlement improvement, provision of infrastructure and affordable housing while there is little work on the use of space and how it affects spatial qualities and how people view housing modernization. Despite the extensive researches on the various forms into wide varieties of houses in the domestic built environment, there is very little documentation on the organization, use and meaning of space of domestic architecture in Benin over time. Given the paucity of writings on the different periods of Benin architecture, and considering the cultural and physical changes over time, there is need to examine the meaning, use and organization of space across the city. The study will accordingly examine holistically the factors that influence architectural change and continuity so as to document the nature of change in the ancient city of Benin. There are studies on continuity and change in Benin generally, but none is devoted to the subject from the architectural point of view. Therefore the study will be an in-depth examination and assessment of the changes in the houses across the length and breadth of the City of Benin.

1.3 Research Questions

Considering the various issues raised above in relation to the statement of the problem, certain questions need to be raised. The following are the questions that the present study will seek to answer/investigate;

  1. What are the socio-economic and culture characteristics of residents in Benin?
  2. What are the different house-types in Benin?
  3. What are the social, physical and cultural characteristics of house-types and domestic space in Benin across house built at different times?
  4. What are the people‘s attitudes and responses towards to these house types?
  5. How have characteristics of Benin house-type in domestic architecture changed or continued over time?

1.4 Aim and Objectives

The aim of the study is to examine the transformation of the domestic architecture in Benin in order to determine the social and cultural factors affecting change and continuity.

The specific objectives are to:

  1. Examine the socio-economic and cultural characteristics of the residents in Benin.
  2. Identify and document the house-types in Benin.
  3. Analyse the social, physical and cultural characteristics of house-types and the domestic space in Benin over time.
  4. Examine the people‘s attitudes to different house-types.
  5. Determine and analyse the changes and the continuity in house-type characteristics over time in Benin.

1.5 Scope of the Study

It has been observed that while a lot of research has been carried out on the history, culture and the people of Benin, less attention has been paid to the domestic architecture in relation to the study of social and physical changes over time. So the study has three major objectives which define the scope of this research.

First, an attempt has been made to analyse from an architectural point of view, the major factors of change and continuity in the domestic architecture in Benin City from the pre-colonial era to the present day. Obviously there are many dimensions to the process of development over a long period of time. A number of historical, cultural, social, economic and political variables must have influenced the process of change in Benin. Therefore for the purpose of this study, historical, cultural and social variables require detailed examination.

Second, the study analyzed the characteristics of house-types and the use of domestic space as dictated by the socio-cultural element resulting in change or continuity in Benin. An attempt has been made to examine the major social and physical patterns which have evolved over the years within the contemporary landscape of Benin City as consequences of change. Basically, the study attempts to answer some central questions like ―what were the major factors that influenced the growth of Benin as a pre-colonial West African city‖; ―What were the socio-economic and socio-cultural factors responsible for the transformation of Benin during the colonial era‖; ―What are the physical and spatial patterns which evolved in Benin as a result of architectural development over the years‖ and; ―Where are we today in terms of domestic architecture and development in Benin City?

Finally, the study attempted to describe the factors of social and cultural change. In other words, it tried to explore the causes, patterns and results of these changes, whether socio-cultural, socio-economic or physical. It is also possible that the time-line established would help to categorize the various architectural transformations by periods. This process and pattern of transformation in a traditional African city would undoubtedly contribute to the theory of change and continuity.

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