With over thirty years’ experience in architectural studies and the management of major projects in Africa, Guillaume Koffi believes that the rapid growth of African cities is an opportunity to develop new urban forms and type of dwellings designed as an invitation to live differently, in a sustainable environment adapted to local cultures.
A graduate of the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture de Paris, Koffi is the founder and President of the Board of Administrators of Koffi & Diabaté Group. From 2006 to 2014, he served as President of Côte d’Ivoire’s National Order of Architects (CNOA) and, in 2014, was appointed as a Member of the Economic and Social Council of Côte d’Ivoire. He is a Knight of the National Order, a Knight of Cultural Merit, and a Member of L’Académie des Sciences, des Arts, des Cultures d’Afrique et des Diasporas Africaines (ASCAD).
In a challenging professional environment, where roles and regulations are not always clearly defined, Koffi believes that it is up to architects to position themselves as leaders in the development of the built environment.
“As architects, the main issue we face is an ambiguous definition of the role of each actor in the building process. For an efficient functioning of the construction industry, the challenge ahead is to define a precise distinction between the roles of the ministries, local authorities and architects, along with all other actors working in the building industry.
“It is up to architects to redefine their place in the production chain by positioning themselves as ‘conductors’ of the building process. To do so, we must invite ourselves to public debates and put forward proposals on all aspects of urban planning. We must then surround ourselves with multidisciplinary teams capable of working from conception to realization. This would create a real opportunity for us to be innovative and become key actors in the production of a project.”
Koffi observes that the lack of regulation experienced by many African countries can either be seen as a disadvantage and constraint, or perceived as an advantage and an opportunity. He says, “In an environment where everything has to be built or rebuilt, freedom can enhance innovation around architectural creations. Indeed, recommending innovative solutions means inviting people to discover new approaches.
“Nowadays, especially in our local African environment, it is up to the architect to systematically integrate notions of sustainable development into a project. This includes the introduction of new production techniques for artisans and other stakeholders, maximizing construction from local materials, introducing the concepts of natural ventilation and lighting, and developing solutions around efficient energy and water consumption.”
This approach is what led Koffi & Diabaté to make the transition from practising as traditional architects to ‘Architect Developers’, with the creation of Koffi & Diabaté Group in 2013, a holding comprised of different entities that specialise in architecture, real estate development, and construction. The intention is to have a more direct impact on the local environment by being able to put forward new concepts independently.
With this approach in mind, Koffi feels that this type of innovation and evolution of the practice of architecture in our local environment, is particularly important with regards to housing. Two recent projects undertaken by his firm have explored new processes for development, as well as new design solutions that respond to an evolving market.
Les Résidences Chocolat is a high-end residential compound comprising 14 townhouses and 18 apartments that sought to introduce new dwelling concepts to the city of Abidjan. With a total of 32 units per hectare, the notion of densification was key, and an important design element was the emphasis on common space. Accordingly, cars are prohibited from entering the heart of the compound. Instead, an underground parking and central boardwalk have been created, freeing up 57% of the open space for activities such as jogging, roller skating and private gardens. An abundantly planted courtyard serves to protect the buildings from direct sunlight and creates a comfortable micro climate and eco-friendly environment.
Following the success of Les Résidences Chocolat, the firm is in the process of developing an ‘eco-neighbourhood’ of 185 housing units called Abatta Village. Both these projects have opened opportunities around setting up completely new concepts of living, and offering an independent approach to architecture adapted to the local environment.
Koffi emphasises that the key to an architect’s approach to any project must be innovation. His advice to students and young architects is the following: “Our first duty is to listen and respond to the needs of our clients, and to anticipate them as well. We work from an intellectual approach that leads to shaping matter and the environment, so we must be ingenious and creative.
“To innovate also means exploring the unknown. It is not easy to clear out all the paradigms and road-blocks that too often lead architects to conform to the status quo. You have to be able to look at things from different perspectives, and this is something that you learn with time and practice. The other imperative, as in every profession, is to work. The future generation of architects will have great challenges to meet, so the practice of our profession in the years to come will be that much more exciting.”
The work of Koffi & Diabaté Group in Assinie Mafia was driven by this approach to innovation, and illustrates how the firm applied principles of sustainable architecture locally, with a design intention to integrate the project holistically with its surroundings. Three key components of this work are two houses, Maison-Bois and Bambou Pavilion; and the well-known Assinie-Mafia Church.
Maison-Bois (Wood House) was designed as a project for Côte d’Ivoire’s architecture and construction exhibition, “ARCHIBAT”, and the project represents a vision of an eco-friendly coastal residence. Constructed from timber, the idea was to create a house that was functional, reasonable in cost and easy to build, all while having an appealing sense of aesthetic.
The Bambou Pavilion was inspired by the natural elements of light, space and air, and is a true representation of the firm’s “less is more” approach. The aim was to create a house that blends with the environment, while being resolutely modern. Key features of this pavilion are the use of bamboo from Assinie-Mafia for the house fence, and the fact that the house can become a truly open space, with glass sliding doors used as walls all around the building.
With the Assinie-Mafia Church, the goal was to go beyond the traditional in creating a building that conforms with religious norms, while simultaneously being modern, impressive and reflective of the spirit of the city. With an emphasis on natural ventilation, the building structure reflects local character, and is both simple and intricate in its design details.
As a member of the Africa Architecture Awards’ Master Jury, Koffi feels that the selection criteria (innovation, identity and implementation) are very much in line with ongoing reflections around the role of the architect. “These criteria fully integrate the specific features of our local contexts and thus offer a sense of direction for architects practicing on the African continent.
“This awards programme will also help to give visibility to new generations and to bring out new talents – all of which are essential to helping the profession evolve. We also hope that, through this platform, new relationships will be established with the media to shed light on the projects and achievements of architects living and practicing in Africa.”