Dencity 2017: Special Mention

Resistance Through Form

Entry by: Mohamed Ismail


Worldwide, there are ongoing efforts to reimagine the possibilities of earth-based construction in cities. This is not a new phenomenon; in Architecture for the Poor, Hassan Fathy explored the use of mudbrick beginning in the 1930s (Fathy). Fathy referenced traditional and vernacular architecture to inform the contemporary design of rural housing. Today, architects like Wang Shu and Francis Kere, and institutions like the Earth Institute of India and CRAterre of France, are learning from centuries of vernacular architecture while pushing traditional material use further than ever before. Soil is the most widely used building material in developing countries, nearly half of the world lives in earthen buildings (Rael). It is cheap, widely accessible, cost-effective and climatically comfortable when used responsibly. Yet there is an increase in urban development that abandons the use of local materials in favor of an international modern reliant on imported materials (Zami and Lee).

With the proliferation of global trade, materials are not a limiting factor for construction in developed nations. This is not the case in developing nations, where the use of imported materials significantly adds to the cost of construction, making 50 to 80% of its total cost (Nwoke and Ugwuishiwu). The high costs of the international modern are largely due to lacking competition from locally produced materials, insufficient production, low quality, and high manufacturing costs. Thus, this proposal asks how local materials can inspire a new form of urban architecture, beginning with Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.


Formed at the meeting of the Blue and White Nile, the metropolitan area of Khartoum grew from 750,000 in the 1970s to 6.5 million people today (Eltayeb). Since its independence from British rule in 1956, Sudan has endured decades of instability with two civil wars between the north and south, a war in Darfur, and the secession of South Sudan in 2011. With one of the highest urbanization rates in Africa, at 4.3%, per anum, nearly half of the country lives in its cities. Two-thirds of that urban population lives in slums or otherwise informal settlements, and the construction industry and housing policies do not meet their needs. It was estimated that the demand for urban housing in Sudan was more than 540,000 units in 1985, rising to over 920,000 by 2012. Over 60% of that need is in the Greater Khartoum area alone. By 2020, this need is expected to reach 2,000,000 units (Pantuliano, Assal and Elnaiem).

Khartoum has experienced rapid horizontal sprawl due to various circumstances: the abundance of flat land, the cheap cost of local building materials, the government policy of land allocation to each acceptable family head, and an assortment of environmental and social-cultural conditions (e.g. sleeping in the open air due to hot weather, separation of spaces by gender, extended families and the high frequency of guests). About 90% of residential buildings only consist of a ground floor, and 73% are made of brick and mud. Additionally, 93% of the population of Khartoum lives in homes made through individual labor, and 43% of these are shacks of non-durable materials (Eltayeb). The residential zones of Khartoum are divided into three categories: first and second class (6% of total residential area), third class (40%) and squatter settlements (54%).

The high cost of land ownership, construction, and housing policies affect each residential class differently. Despite the high percentage of plots sold in first and second-class neighborhoods, the plots developed rarely exceed 20%. Due to the inability to build “appropriate” permanent homes and pay for their plots during resettlement periods, more than half of the urban poor in Khartoum have been forced to relocate between one to three times since moving to Khartoum (El-bushra and Hijazi).

Research Questions

There is an opportunity for architecture that responds to the housing needs and material availability while reflecting local housing traditions. The potential impact of an architecture that consists of local materials is clear: construction materials alone make up 58-60% of building costs in Sudan (Elkhalifa and Shaddad). Speculatively, synthesis structures are structures informed by their material understanding, process of construction, and inform their interior space and texture (Corrao and Pastre). Masonry synthesis structures may potentially overcome perceived cultural and performative limitations of earthen construction. This research explores the latent possibilities of masonry synthesis structures in the design of a new urban residential architecture in Khartoum, Sudan.

To begin with, the following questions must be addressed:

  • What defines the Sudanese home? Moreover, what construction practices developed because of this definition?
  • Can synthesis structures stimulate interest in the construction of earthen homes at varied socioeconomic levels?
  • Is the application of form-finding techniques and free-form masonry structures informed by an economy of means practical in a context like Khartoum, Sudan?

Sudan has no identifiable urban vernacular architecture suited to its material and immaterial context. For those that can afford it, construction materials are imported from abroad for buildings that mimic a “western” architecture of glass, concrete, and steel buildings ill equipped for the harsh climate and lack of skilled labor. For those that cannot, informal and semi-permanent buildings are made from cheap material and construction techniques leaving the buildings vulnerable to natural disasters and the ravages of time.

The “idealized” house asks for materials that have no industry in the Sudan; 85% of cement and finishing materials are imported and steel for construction accounts for 5-8% of the Sudan’s total import expenditure (Elkhalifa and Shaddad).  However, raw materials and the labor needed for sunbaked and fired clay masonry are plentiful in Sudan, especially in Khartoum at the clay-rich riverbeds of the two Niles. Between 1994 and 2000, the number of brick-laying companies rose from 650 to 2,000, accounting for 88.5% of Sudan’s national brick production (Alam). Unfortunately, earthen construction suffers the stigmas of poverty, structural insufficiency, and deficient technical knowledge (Osmani and Hadjri).


This proposal is a retooling of long-existing building practices with universal materials and burgeoning technologies in a context familiar to the designer, intentionally limiting the scope while engaging in the larger issues of form-active structures and housing insecurity in sub-Saharan nations. There is precedence in Heinz Isler’s elegant concrete shells, Felix Candela’s economic doubly ruled surfaces, Rafael Guastavino’s versatile thin-tile vaults, and Eladio Dieste’s graceful brick vaults. In the end, this proposal explores the connections between structural analysis and architectural design in a context that is poorly understood. Research is lacking in the potential application of advanced form-finding technologies and material explorations to the widespread issues of housing insecurity. Moreover, although there is a significant body of work dedicated to housing insecurity in Khartoum and policy suggestions, it often overlooks the fact that most homes in Sudan are built through individual labor. Ultimately, this proposal seeks a solution to Khartoum’s housing crisis by starting with the solitary masonry unit. Rather than investigating the benefits of widespread policy reform, this proposal looks at the assemblage of an earthen home and asks how it can better serve populations like that of Khartoum. This involves an understanding of thermal performance, climactic comfort, structural capacity, housing traditions, and more.

About the entrants

Mohamed Ismail is a graduate architecture student at the University of Virginia. His father was a Ph.D. student in California, the first in his family to leave Sudan. From age eight onward, Mohamed was raised in Los Baños, Philippines, in an international community of scientists working towards global agricultural equity. Consequently, he realized how fortunate he was, surrounded by hard-working professionals affecting positive change. He realized that he could do the same. Each new project and course allows him to explore a new dimension and approach to architectural design. Owing to his family from Sudan and his time in the Philippines, he gained a unique perspective of multi-cultural conditions and global systems. This cognizance allows him to approach problems with an open-mind, constantly challenge his own assumptions and biases, and to appreciate the value of diversity when affecting change.

Mohamed believes in the transformative potential of architecture, where the design of the built environment affects the entire human experience. This places architects in a dual position of authority and servitude, so the responsible architect learns all they can while conveying their skills and knowledge into design for others. This belief drives him to approach each new challenge with excitement.