Living Heritage

As an architect, born and raised in Amsterdam and currently Architect Director of LEVS Architecten, I am all too familiar with the phenomenon of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over the years, the Amsterdam canals have grown into the nation’s pride and one of our most popular tourist destinations. At the same time, it continues to be a neighbourhood where real people are trying to live real lives and where the city seeks to sustain a normal local economy. That is not easy. What the example of the canals shows is that a UNESCO status is both a blessing and a curse: On the one hand it is a desire to honour a site of cultural historical significance and protect it against the temperaments of time and on the other hand there is a desire to be a living city that can develop and will not get stuck in say the 17th century. There are UNESCO sites around the world and each of these in their own way wilhave to deal with this dilemma. So too in Mali, West Africa, where I work in collaboration with the NGOs Partners Pays-Dogon (PPD) and Association Dogon Initiatives (ADI) on the restoration of architectural heritage.

In 1989 a large part of the area where the Dogon people live in western Mali was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Their architecture is a unique example of vernacular West African building traditions, which have been extensively studied and described over the past 60 years. The appointed area contains, as statically described, some one million buildings, dispersed over more than 1500 villages and small settlements, and in part consists of remnant structures from the time that the Tellem people still lived here some 2000 years ago. One institution, the Mission Culturelle, with offices throughout the country, has become the main caretaker of the conservation efforts. In collaboration with scientists and architects from predominantly western countries, the Mission Culturelle has initiated numerous research studies, resulting in professional publications and in the complete detailed technical description and drawing of several sites. I have no doubt about the uniqueness of Dogon architecture, but I do wonder about the best strategy to preserve this cultural heritage in a meaningful way. What does the status of UNESCO World Heritage mean for the daily realities of the people living there? What do they gain when informed that the quality of their built environment should be preserved? How is this conservation being organised, by whom and for whom? More than 30 years of experience with building and restoration projects has led me to believe that a forced western conservation mindset might in fact be the largest threat to Dogon heritage, because the main protagonists of this story, the actual inhabitants of the area, have been sidestepped.

Before the crisis in 2012, the Dogon area used to be a popular tourist destination and the Mission Culturelle was widely active. Regular publications came out on the Dogon and their architecture and collaborations were forged to develop funding applications for targeted restoration or conservation projects. Yet, hardly any restoration work was actually being done. Over a period of ten years, I know of two cases: the houses of the Hogon, a village’s spiritual leader, in Arou and Kani Kombole. Otherwise, two new cultural centres were built, which local

residents saw more as tourist buildings that did not cater to the needs of their life. Today, both buildings stand empty and unused.

Another example of an unsustainable conservation strategy from this same period is that of the village of Pah. The village, with its many characteristic buildings, has been measured and drawn out in wonderful detail. Due to its location high above the plains and among the rocks it has always been a particularly harsh place to live. Residents would have to climb down and back up to get water. To support the restoration works, facilities such as proper wells and shelters were built down below. Yet the main result of it was that after ten years not only had everyone moved down into the plains, the houses of the old village had collapsed. After all, who was actually going to take care of the restoration? The assumption amongst locals that financial support would be offered turned out to be false. It became painfully clear that outside the context of active village life, the old buildings had no value for the residents. When I visited Pah in 2011,  I stood amongst the rubble with the mayor  who, with tears in his eyes, asked if we could help them rebuild the village.
We also realised how important proper care for certain buildings in the villages actually was to residents
15 years we have been working on similar projects across the Dogon area, most of them also designated UNESCO sites. It is in working on these projects that we have tried to analyse what the most sustainable strategies are; strategies that lead to a meaningful and longterm conservation of the site.

One important discovery to this end was made in 2005, when working on the restoration and repurposing of an old mud-brick school from 1910 in the village of Sanga Ogol Ley. After having spoken to the local residents, our main conclusion was both unsettling and obvious: the younger generation was leaving town for the big cities and better jobs and knowledge and know-how was no longer being passed on from generation to generation. In fact, it was lost almost entirely. Lack of knowledge of production of high-quality mud plaster to strengthen the outer layer of the houses was a growing concern. Often the wrong kinds of sand, in improper proportions ended up in the mix, destabilising the renovated building. Our renovation project was an eyeopener. In order to properly preserve these kinds of buildings, we should develop a less purely technical and more integrative approach. We also realised

how important proper care for certain buildings in the villages actually was to residents. There is often a clear motivation for active maintenance, but the combination of UNESCO’s approach and the lack of proper technical knowledge has negatively impacted the conservation aim. In that same year (2005), the Dutch
professor Wolf Schijns, with whom we regularly corresponded, published his dissertation on The Evolution of West African Vernacular Architecture. His conclusion was that the only realistic way to achieve sustainable conservation of Dogon heritage sites is to rely on the participation of residents in both the initiation and execution of the work. It is they, after all, who must carry Dogon culture forward, if that is to happen at all. Since then we have realised numerous restoration projects with this conclusion in mind.

In the village of Yougo Dougourou, we have helped with the restoration of several granaries. It has been a long journey in this difficult-toreach village, a journey we have documented from 1980 till the present day and which gives a good understanding of the complexities involved. The project involved the construction of a water dam high above in the cliff, so that residents would not have to descend for two hours to retrieve small amounts of water. This has strengthened the belief in a future for the village among residents, and every year, they rework a selection of the buildings and of the nearby Tellem remains.

Elsewhere, in the village of Nando, residents have organised the yearly reworking of houses such that each year people in one neighbourhood together work on one house in that neighbourhood. The mosque is a collective project, as is the construction of a new road to the village. Trucks can now reach the village with high quality mud plaster produced elsewhere. The initiative for which particular buildings have to be restored must always come from the residents. When they find it important that something is done, we act merely in facilitating the process. Within this approach, education and training are crucial. A grounded understanding of the importance of cultural heritage runs through the generations. And so, we stimulate the involvement of motivated youngsters in the renovation projects wherever possible. For the schools, we have developed the teaching programme Les Mots Imprimés, in which animated stories teach children to look at their surroundings differently. We facilitate
the transmission of knowledge from older to younger generations by creating paid jobs and internships. Building traditions and community go hand in hand, as do employment and a new vision for the future of life in the Dogon area. A typical UNESCO view on heritage and restoration emphasises ‘kept as found’. As PPD and ADI, we shift the attention away from this view for two reasons. First, mud architecture is necessarily always changing. With each act of maintenance, because of the manual moulding of the plaster, changes in shape and structure arise. Family structures change or variations in the harvest demand additions be made to a building. Second, we see Dogon architecture as a living tradition of craftsmanship and of generational transformation of the shapes, techniques and local motives that arise. The real value of this heritage lies in the tradition of building that can support the community and carry it into the future. As such, heritage should not be seen as a question of mere material structures but as a cultural process.

This, in fact, is the same mentality that is used in thinking about the Amsterdam canals. The aim here is not to save the 17th century situation at any cost, but to preserve the gradual transformations through time that have occurred and that tell a meaningful story about the history of this area. While history has to remain visible, the canals should also remain a liveable environment and, within certain bounds, renovations should therefore be possible. When we think too narrowly about heritage, Amsterdam will run the risk of going down the same path as Venice: to become an uninhabited skeleton of the past with nothing but tourists. In Venice, restoration must be done in a very precise historical style, which is both very expensive and complicated. Residents often give up and move out of the city.

In Mali we have taken the first steps towards a more effective approach to heritage conservation in the Dogon area. Changes in the original states of buildings might arise and perhaps a substantial amount of them will even disappear altogether. But to a degree, that has always been the case. Slow adaptations in the built environment are at the core of what we are actually preserving. The valuable part of the heritage consists in knowledge and skill and their application to the present time. It is a living heritage that can only be meaningful in the context of a committed local community. We hope that through a loving engagement with one’s own past, a new architectural engagement can arise that will bring together the cultural baggage of many generations into an ever-sounique Dogon architecture.