Gabriella Okeno

Archtivating African Heritage 🛖

In this episode, we introduce Gabriella Okeno, one of the founders of Archtivate Africa—an initiative dedicated to showcasing African architecture, with a particular focus on its vernacular expressions. Her organization aims to visually represent vernacular architecture, particularly from pre-colonial Africa, through the integration of AI technology and various tools.

Gabriella's passion for rural landscapes, coupled with her fascination with the dynamics of rural-urban migration, has guided her on this journey. She advocates for a forward-looking approach that involves reconsidering elements that may have been overlooked due to the erosion of cultural practices.

This is the 31st episode under the ‘Shifting Narratives’ program supported by the British Council SSA Arts.

*For the best experience, please use a headset/earphones.

Instagram: ⁠archtivate_africa⁠

LinkedIn: ⁠Gabriella Okeno

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Gabriella Okeno: Some communities that because they came into close contact with colonial rule, their vernacular architecture was completely eradicated and the other communities that had the closest or the first contact to colonial rule, yet they have managed to get to UNESCO level of like maintaining their heritage and culture through the architecture.

[00:00:24] [Ident]: [Afrika Design Ident]

[00:00:27] Gabriella Okeno: So Nairobi design, it was my first time and it was so cool because I was like, I'm around creatives, which is interesting because I study architecture and you'd think that you'd be around creatives, but it wasn't in the same way. And like Nairobi Design Week, I think was such a success.

[00:00:46] And like, I can't wait for the next one because I'm like, Oh, we have to be physical exhibitors.

[00:00:53] Adrian Jankowiak: Awesome. Can't wait for that.

[00:00:56] Gabriella Okeno: Yeah. Always like a pleasure to be a part of such a creative and useful initiative and gathering people of like minds. That's cool.

[00:01:07] Adrian Jankowiak: Wow, thank you. That's what we do it for right? We always say to everyone who's involved, it's about the community that you build at events such as that one because we bring people together, right?

[00:01:19] Gabriella Okeno: Yeah.

[00:01:19] Adrian Jankowiak: take it from there.

[00:01:20] Gabriella Okeno: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

[00:01:22] Adrian Jankowiak: So tell us, first of all, welcome, we went straight into the conversation. So tell us about Archtivate Africa?

[00:01:29] Gabriella Okeno: Okay. Okay. So Archtivate Africa is an initiative that I founded with Enoch who's my business partner. And it's centered around highlighting African architecture especially in its vernacular form, and currently we're doing this by creating AI images of African vernacular architecture and seeing the different results.

[00:01:54] I think it's interesting because The results are always new. Yeah, I think it's just new. I wouldn't call them unique. I think it's just new because of the scarcity of information and research and even practice of African vernacular architecture or African architecture that borrows from cultural and traditional influences.

[00:02:21] So that's basically what we do. And yeah, we plan to start with the AI renders and then grow from there.

[00:02:31] Adrian Jankowiak: I noticed on your feed, I really like when prototypes are numbered, so it's really good that you've got numbers for every single concept so people can refer to them very easily. I wonder if there are any that we can come back to, I'll let you think, but maybe there are some we can, we can have a look through your feed and you can refer to some with specific examples and then we can add those to the post so people can refer to them.

[00:02:55] Gabriella Okeno: Yeah.

[00:02:56] Adrian Jankowiak: So, how would you describe vernacular architecture then? And why is it so important?

[00:03:01] Gabriella Okeno: It's important to me as a Kenyan because I've grown up always going to the countryside, which we call Ushago. And the whole concept, it's really interesting growing up and seeing the things that are related to the whole concept of Ushago and what it means to be in Ushago or how it's viewed by people.

[00:03:25] And so I come from a community known as the Luhya community and when you look at the type of jokes associated to that community, like people are always saying how we always look for any opportunity to go to the countryside. You know, like we go there and provoked. And so I started questioning myself.

[00:03:46] Why is that? And even generally, like people normally go to shags like during Christmas, even they're like songs about going to shags because life in the city is hard. So you just start to appreciate and acknowledge how people view shags. And so it's obvious that people appreciate it because, you know, of what it is.

[00:04:10] But then you also start to ask yourself. If people appreciate it so much, why is everyone migrating to the city, right? And are the people migrating to the city satisfied with the living standards or would they prefer to live in like an environment like shags? And if that's the case, then what's keeping everyone in the cities because, you know, rural to urban migration and the influx of population in the city is something that's really beginning to press on Nairobi as a city.

[00:04:40] And I'm sure even other developing African cities. So I think it's an interesting phenomena to investigate, hence my interest. So that's why I'm so drawn to it. I personally really like going to shags. I think it's such a beautiful landscape. It's such a beautiful context. There's so much interesting energy wherever you are across Kenya.

[00:05:06] And so I think it's important to look at the people. There's the environment and then once you start looking at the people who are in that environment and how they responded to that environment in its most, I'd say, intrinsic form, which is like traditional practices.

[00:05:24] You start seeing how people were living and you can start borrowing some things that were overlooked as a result of like an erosion of culture or an introduction of like a new system of living. That's why it interests me. It's very undervalued.

[00:05:42] Adrian Jankowiak: And for those not familiar with the term, how would you describe vernacular and architecture, but really some of its features, because the features will vary depending on the vernacular, on the culture.

[00:05:55] Gabriella Okeno: Yeah.

[00:05:55] Adrian Jankowiak: So, in your cases, perhaps, what is it and how does it extend to how you're designing?

[00:06:01] Gabriella Okeno: Okay. The exhibition that I just mentioned, Labianal. There was someone who attended, and it's someone who is from a very highly regarded architectural firm, internationally.

[00:06:14] And he wrote an analysis of the exhibition strongly tying it to the expectation that he wanted to understand African architecture. And his remarks were, he didn't understand it because there were not as many like architectural models or, you know, materials relating to architecture.

[00:06:34] According to my understanding of what he wrote, he was unable to really understand African architecture or like vernacular architecture. And, in my opinion, the reason why that was the case is because a lot of the exhibitions didn't really showcase architecture or like delivery outputs associated to architecture, but they showcased African culture.

[00:06:57] And I think that's strongly tied to African vernacular architecture because it's a number of things. First of all, it's like a progression of things because it's not, stayed constant. Before it could even be defined, it had really morphed into something else.

[00:07:14] So it's very difficult to define it as one thing. And I'd define it as a progression of architectural styles that were heavily influenced by the cultural practices in the countryside before pre colonialism because after that is when things started changing rapidly and significantly across a lot of communities in Kenya.

[00:07:41] There are some communities that because they came into close contact with colonial rule, their vernacular architecture was completely eradicated and the other communities that had the closest or the first contact to colonial rule, yet they have managed to get to UNESCO level of like maintaining their heritage and culture through the architecture.

[00:08:06] Yeah. So I think in terms of like what vernacular architecture means to me, it's just the progression of cultural influences expressed in spatial form.

[00:08:17] Adrian Jankowiak: That sounds, nice. You mentioned some cultures that were less impacted, some that were more impacted. Can you give examples of any of those cultures?

[00:08:26] Gabriella Okeno: Yeah, so through our study right now, because we went to Nyeri, and the main objective of the trip was to look for vernacular typology, so basically there are vernacular typologies that are associated with certain communities because they have unique characteristics.

[00:08:46] And we didn't want the ones that are at Bomas of Kenya or the museums because that's you know, it's for display. We wanted the ones that like that people living there and using them and in Nyeri we couldn't find and the locals would tell us like, it's really hard to find that. So we just had to use what was in Mukuru Kwanya Gadhanga, which is like a shrine in Central Kenya. And then we also went to the museum in Nyeri. I'd say from our study, that's the only place that we found material on that.

[00:09:15] But if you look at places like Western Kenya, which I went to when I was conducting my pre visits for the study. I found the vernacular typologies that you are looking for close to where my grandmother was living. I would ask more and more people from that region and they would explain to me, yeah, they're there.

[00:09:36] But they're there in communities that are considered in very remote areas, especially towards Uganda. I remember I was talking to an Uber driver there and he was telling me, you know, in Uganda, they're not as developed as Kenya. So that's so that's which is so interesting. So that's where you find them.

[00:09:59] So from that situation you can conclude that, the more remote areas or the more remote you go, the higher the likelihood of you getting vernacular typologies. However, if you look at communities in the coastal area, which is what I was talking about, they had the first contact with traders, explorers, and like, you know, the colonial rule.

[00:10:22] Towns like Lamu are like in the world heritage thing and they've been able to retain so much and even like communities next to coast, like Giriama still managed to retain so much of their material culture. And you find that Giriama, which is the community I mentioned last, recently, there was some news of... they're called Vigango and they're basically like head posts that they would use for the area that they would bury people. So those artifacts were returned because they were in some museum in like Western country. And it was such big news because people are starting to acknowledge how advanced they were in like the material culture. And so it's interesting to see this different dynamics.

[00:11:12] And of course, I think with the Kikuyu community, you find that you also need to acknowledge the history, especially the role in the independence of this country and what we had to go through and the settlement camps that were present that were being called villages, but they were really modeled just as a typical African village.

[00:11:35] And then how you'd hear cases of such camps being burnt down. And so once you start understanding like the history, and I think the stigma that came with it, you begin to sympathize and empathize with like the locals who don't see the need of retaining such aspects of their culture.

[00:11:58] Adrian Jankowiak: Yeah, absolutely.

[00:11:59] Gabriella Okeno: Yeah.

[00:11:59] Adrian Jankowiak: It's important to keep uncovering how everyone, each of the tribes was actually affected by colonialism. There was a lot of differences. Something that I'm just looking around, but we have a book from the 60s. And it's I'll have to find it as a reference, but basically it's a education book about Kenya, but it's written by the brits by oxford press and it was published I think either just Pre independence or just post independence. So very much the brits preparing to indoctrinate the next generation while they leave

[00:12:33] Gabriella Okeno: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:12:34] Adrian Jankowiak: There's a lot of stuff there that very much you can see how it caused conflicts between tribes afterwards, but it was by the brits, yeah.

[00:12:43] Gabriella Okeno: Yeah. And it's interesting to see like the impact of the narrative that you put out on like the people who read the material that you provide and the importance of providing narratives that are a reflection of... or like a true representation or an honest representation of the people.

[00:13:02] So that's one of like our core objectives.

[00:13:05] Adrian Jankowiak: Brilliant. So maybe talk about those core objectives and how they come across in the work that you're doing? Again, coming back to maybe some of the specifics of what you're creating.

[00:13:18] Gabriella Okeno: I'd say our core objectives are just to highlight the possibility within appreciating and using material like cultural influences or like material tied to our traditions because you find once you start providing spaces that people relate to on that level, it becomes something very special.

[00:13:44] Adrian Jankowiak: Mm

[00:13:44] Gabriella Okeno: That I think is our core objectives and also to show people that it's not like an architecture thing. Studying architecture has allowed me to realize that we design for people. And if you're designing for people, you need to understand people. You know, it's like an expectation in architecture.

[00:14:05] There's user analysis which I think is not deeply practiced. Hence the type of some of the typologies we have and hence some of like the full architectural practices that are present. People are not sensitive about it and I think it's important to be sensitive because humans are very sensitive.

[00:14:25] Adrian Jankowiak: What are some of those practices then that are common in African architecture that you're not maybe seeing in modern architecture that we could learn from? Rather than we're not seeing, we need to see more of in modern architecture.

[00:14:39] Gabriella Okeno: Yeah. African vernacular architecture paid like a lot of respect to cultural norms, so you find that spaces within houses had specific activities and norms associated with them which in turn you know, helps with the whole living and how people were... first of all, African vernacular architecture is found within contexts that are very social and that's very healthy for communities. So if your spaces facilitate that, of course it enhances the whole community dynamic. Another thing is also like when you look at materials used, they're very basic but functional materials.

[00:15:27] So there are materials that respond directly to their environment. And this is a big factor when it comes to sustainability, especially with today's buildings and the realization that, a lot of the practices that we have within the architectural industry are very harmful to the environment, especially with materials like cement, which is something that I feel like is overlooked.

[00:15:50] The amount of damage that cement does. I don't think people understand. So yeah, use of sustainable material. Start also learning how to build according to the different microclimates within the country. And what they suggest, which is something that I think is not practice in modern day architecture. With modern day architecture it's more of like a capitalistic venture, especially in the city.

[00:16:17] Like space by the square meter and how much it costs and how much you're getting from that and how much profit it is.

[00:16:26] And, you know I'd say that African vernacular architecture is a more grounded approach to architecture, which is something that I think is really being craved by a lot of people right now.

[00:16:39] Adrian Jankowiak: Thanks for those examples. We just see people put air conditioning, whatever the temperature, right? When we could design far more effectively.

[00:16:47] Gabriella Okeno: Yeah.

[00:16:48] Adrian Jankowiak: So what about your designs then? Tell us about some of your designs and how they've developed? What inspired them? What makes them interesting to the outside perspective?

[00:16:59] Gabriella Okeno: I just think of spaces. As random as it is, you know, the more random the better, but I just think of spaces that I interact with or that I've interacted with that people would relate with and then have like ground them in African vernacular architecture principles, or just with the context, you know, if it's not borrowed from like cultural influences, then at least respect the context.

[00:17:26] In as much as you know, we're focusing on African vernacular architecture, it's important to remember that we're living in like a modern day world. It would be, I'd say futile to expect people to go back to some of the standards of African vernacular architecture.

[00:17:45] So, the goal is to find a way to suit African vernacular architecture to modern day demands. And so that means you have to be very at par with like contemporary trends and what people like. And so that's what I try. That's how I try and blend the two.

[00:18:05] Adrian Jankowiak: Mhmm. When you're doing that when you're prompting the AI, are you more... I know it can be a trade secret as well. So feel free to tell us as much as you want. I'm curious whether you're more form driven or feature driven, right? Is it create a house in the shape of a mushroom, right?

[00:18:24] Which we've seen or is it create a house that doesn't need to be heated right or something or how maybe you can give us some some inspiration into how to prompt AI?

[00:18:38] Gabriella Okeno: Actually that now that AI is becoming more and more popular, they're like a lot of formulas out there that like people could follow such that it's kind of predictable. There are a lot of different formulas that I could share of like what you put to get like a certain outcome.

[00:18:57] But also it's interesting and it's something that we've noticed with AI, you get as much as you give, so the more detailed you are, not in terms of like word output, but in terms of like specific reference points, the better the outcome.

[00:19:16] So you find that topics and subjects that have been explored and have a lot of material on the Internet, it's easier for the AI to have like a wide spectrum of reference points, right? So when it comes to architecture, people have come to agree that if you want a certain architectural style, you should mention like a certain architect, right?

[00:19:46] But of course there are like it's disadvantages. Also to answer your question, when it comes to like our designs, it's very visual. So normally because of the platform that we used to share our current designs. So you want something that is going to first of all catch the attention of your audience as quickly as possible.

[00:20:11] So you want something visual and highly detailed because even with like Instagram the more the detail, the better. Those are just some of the things that I personally consider when coming up with my designs. Also it depends on the use of like the material, if it's going to go on Instagram, then it will be very hard to start showcasing or highlighting the functionality of it that you'd require maybe audio visual content type or like a video but because our designs are mainly just pictures, then it's the visuals.

[00:20:50] Adrian Jankowiak: You mentioned AI and you go beyond that because you're more about vernacular architecture. So what are some of those other things, other tools that you might be using other projects you're creating or forms and mediums of exploring that? I'm curious as well about your research trips that you mentioned.

[00:21:08] Gabriella Okeno: Okay. I use Midjourney primarily, which is like a text to image AI tool, powered by Discord. I've used DALL·E and stable diffusion, but I personally like the quality of Midjourney and how it works. I like the interface. I just prefer Midjourney. However, you find that as I had mentioned earlier, briefly, sometimes because of the scarcity of information on African vernacular architecture, the output isn't as good as if you'd ask for popular style of architecture. So sometimes I might have an idea and I feel like it's better if it's modeled. And then there are now certain tools, like you can also use Midjourney again, such that you upload like a certain picture or a certain model, and then it's just gives you different like renders or like post production.

[00:22:09] So what would be like the post production aspect of like a image? Either like model using SketchUp or ArchiCAD or Revit and then now send it to Midjourney when you have like the basic structure of what you want the output to be. Or you can use now advanced softwares like Cinema 4D, and now other like architectural softwares that are used for videos and architectural visualization.

[00:22:40] Adrian Jankowiak: And what about some of those things outside of the AI space that you're doing or looking into?

[00:22:47] Gabriella Okeno: Yeah. So, I had mentioned earlier that we're working with Goethe under the Art Mtaani project. And so because we've realized that there's not much material on African vernacular architecture, yet it's rapidly eroding.

[00:23:02] So it's important to carry out, first of all, an investigation and record the current conditions so that now you can use that material to kind of now like, you know, maybe create like a database.

[00:23:20] Such that you have more information. But yeah, so that's basically what we are doing. We're going to different communities across Africa. Looking for information that could have been documented better or just enhancing the documentation of African vernacular architecture.

[00:23:38] Adrian Jankowiak: I'm really looking forward to seeing that database and to seeing some of those insights you've gathered.

[00:23:44] Gabriella Okeno: I'll let you know when we hit a milestone.

[00:23:46] Adrian Jankowiak: Have you got another, I know you've told me about a couple, have you got another favorite that you can pick so far from your research that you've really liked?

[00:23:54] Any way that vernacular architecture stands out, could be any particular community.

[00:24:00] Gabriella Okeno: I don't have favorites

[00:24:03] Adrian Jankowiak: Okay, standouts, yes, of course, yes, they're just examples, right? Yeah.

[00:24:09] Gabriella Okeno: because they're all so different and they're all so interesting and unique from each other. Some are the same.

[00:24:16] It would be hard, like a favorite.

[00:24:18] Adrian Jankowiak: By favorite, I didn't mean the best. I meant just something that you enjoyed discovering, that you didn't know about. Maybe it was like a pleasant surprise, or maybe you thought this could be useful in modern buildings.

[00:24:31] Gabriella Okeno: We've just done one community and like we are in the middle of doing two other ones and what I enjoy is learning because I have an idea of like all the architectural types and how they work, but just like going to these places and understanding, why they work the way they work is what is really interesting.

[00:24:52] When we were in Nyeri we were being told by an elder the positioning of the man's hut, because they had a man's hut woman's hut and the woman's hut was the house because it was the main structure in the homestead. And so you call the woman's hut, a house and the man's hut, the man's hut.

[00:25:11] The door of the man's hut would be positioned such that he can see whoever is walking into the woman's hut. So that's what I really like... there's meaning to everything, you know? And then the woman's hut is positioned in such a way that when she comes out, it faces Mount Kenya and the man's hut faces the West as a reminder of the sun rising and setting.

[00:25:36] And, you know, they start talking about the duality of life. Just like learning all this, that's like my best parts. Yeah.

[00:25:45] Adrian Jankowiak: Yep, thank you for that. So, one last question we like to ask people is you've mentioned your heritage. Does your name have a meaning or reason behind it, your personal name?

[00:25:58] Gabriella Okeno: So it's interesting because the other reason why I was drawn to doing what I'm doing now is because I was born in the city and for people who are born in the city sometimes, and unfortunately, what that means is you have really little knowledge on like your culture and that's puts you in like a type of identity crisis, which is what I was in before I started.

[00:26:23] So I don't even know how to... I could kind of like here or rather that's what I lied to people but like I can't understand like my mother tongue. Of course I know Swahili, but like when it comes to my mother tongue, I don't understand my mother tongue. I know my name, which like my cultural name is Okeno, but I was named after someone. I was named after my grandma.

[00:26:50] And so I'm still like in pursuit of investigating because I think that naming is different from just like your name having a meaning if I'm not wrong. So I have to investigate the person who had the name. And unfortunately she passed away before I was born or I think when I was really little, but yeah. The fact that I have a name that I would struggle to define is something that pushes me, pushes me in my pursuit.

[00:27:21] Adrian Jankowiak: That's really interesting. And yeah, that's why we ask actually reason or meaning because you gave me the reason. You may not be aware of the actual reason yourself and that's good. Maybe we can follow up on that in future. Let's see.

[00:27:34] Gabriella Okeno: Yeah. Yes. .

[00:27:36] Adrian Jankowiak: Great. Well, Gabriella, is there anything else you wanted to share with the community? Before we wrap up?

[00:27:42] Gabriella Okeno: I'd like to tell people, first of all, thank you for taking the time to listen to this podcast. If they've reached this far, it's always such a pleasure. I have a YouTube channel, so I know the whole intrigues of content creation. So I'm so thankful for everyone who watched this episode. Thank you to you people for setting up such a space where people like me could talk about what we talked about today.

[00:28:11] And also just to check out Archtivate. It's Archtivate. A R C H. Archtivate Africa. Yeah. Check us out on Instagram. Check out Afrika design, Nairobi design on Instagram. And yeah, I'm just so grateful that you considered us and I really enjoyed it. I know there were some few hiccups, but I'm glad that we pushed through.

[00:28:38] Adrian Jankowiak: Exactly. We always have hiccups and we can edit them out anyways. Haha.

[00:28:42] Gabriella Okeno: Yeah, yeah,

[00:28:44] Adrian Jankowiak: These people will be sitting here for a bit longer than the final episode length.

[00:28:48] Gabriella Okeno: Mm hmm.

[00:28:49] Adrian Jankowiak: Yeah. Cool. Awesome. Well, thank you. This has been great. Really interested in where the work's going to take you as well. And really impressive to see what you guys are doing.

[00:28:59] So, congrats.

[00:29:00] Gabriella Okeno: Thank you. Thank you. We'll keep you guys updated. I'm sure, of course, with Nairobi design coming up, we'll be seeing each other soon.

[00:29:09] Adrian Jankowiak: Great. Looking forward to it.

Episode Credits

Produced by Nairobi Design

Host: Adrian Jankowiak

Producer: David King'ori

Shorts & Artwork: David King'ori

Music: Ngalah Oreyo (@ngalah_oreyo) and Mercy Barno (@merc.b_)

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