Fekete_Essay II

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Fekete_Essay II Powered By Docstoc
Erzabeth Fekete
March 29, 2010
Prof. Eglash

        The most prominent evidence of fractal geometry in African culture is found in African

settlement architecture. Although many other geometric algorithms that can be found in African design

are fractal, the self-similar scaling used to construct many African settlements is the strongest evidence

of conscious fractal activity. The high level of planning and intentionality in the design of the settlements

illuminates the importance of the presence of African fractals. The cultural and mathematical complexity

of the fractal architecture contradicts the common conception of Africa being a primitive culture. The

fractals found in African settlement architecture prove that the Africa is a developed and intelligent

ethos capable of advanced design.

        Various forms of fractal design have been discovered within the African culture. Fractal patterns

found in artistic design, household furnishings and cultural and religious artifacts are often categorized

as intuitive esthetic design. Even though these designs are intentional, there are no mathematical or

geometric techniques used when creating them, and therefore only lightly contribute to the fractal

design theme in Africa. The clearest evidence of African fractals is the complex plans of settlement

architecture seen across the continent. Settlement plans are intentionally constructed by the peoples of

a nation to represent their most valued physical, cultural, spiritual and religious African practices. These

representations display some of the fundamental concepts of fractal geometry such as self-similar

scaling, recursive iteration and symmetric geometry between different scales. These basic principles are

exhibited in the three main styles of African settlement design: rectangular fractal architecture, circular

fractal architecture and branching fractal architecture.
        Rectangular fractal architecture in African settlement design demonstrates self similar scaling

and recursive iteration. This type of settlement composition makes use of a single rectangular pattern

reiterated numerous times at different scales. The settlement of the Kotoko people in the city of

Logone-Birni along the Logine River in Cameroon demonstrates a rectangular fractal architectural

pattern. The settlement is made up of large rectangular buildings made from thick clay. Within each

rectangular building are smaller rectangular complexes. The largest complex is the chief’s palace located

in the middle of the city. The smaller rectangles within the palace are the royal chambers. The Kotoko

settlement was purposefully constructed in this specific manner based on kinship, defense and politics.

The strong family values of the nation often lead to a son building the walls of his house on the sides of

his father’s house, expanding upon the self-similar recursion of the settlement. The large, thick walls act

as a defense mechanism against intruders. The location of the chief’s palace in the middle of the city

provides extra protection for the royal family. The spiraling rectangles also represent social ranking.

Each reiterative scale inward toward the center of the city requires increasing politeness until one finds

him or herself shoeless and talking with the utmost formality upon reaching the chief’s throne. Proven

by the complexity of this design, “the fractal scaling of the architecture is not simply the result of

unconscious social dynamics; it is a subject of abstract representation, and even a practical technique

applied to social ranking” (Eglash, 24).

        The Bamileke settlement of Cameroon also exhibits rectangular fractal architecture. Located in

the grasslands region near the Nigerian border, the Bamileke people utilize their fertile land with a

spacious fractal design to optimize agricultural production. Bamboo mesh is used to construct houses,

small enclosures that surround single gardens of a dozen different plants, and large enclosures to the

smaller enclosures to encompass larger agricultural plots for rows of corn and other large scale farming.

The reiterative nature of these rectangular bamboo structures proves the settlement to be self-similar

and fractal.
        Circular fractal architecture in African settlements exhibits the same self similar and reiterative

fractal characteristics as rectangular fractal architecture but with circular or spiraling geometries. The

Ba-ila settlement in southern Zambia illustrates circular fractal architecture with its ring of rings design.

The fractal scaling is based on livestock, specifically a circular livestock enclosure called a krall, social

ranking and political practices. The settlement is comprised of numerous rings that make up a single

large ring. The front of the large ring is open to allow livestock to move in and out of the settlement. The

peoples inhabiting the small housing quarters at the front of the ring are low in social status. The rings at

the back of the large ring make up the larger houses for the peoples of higher social status. Each smaller

ring in the large ring is made up of even smaller self-similar rings creating a reiterative design at every

scale of the settlement. At the back end of the settlement, a single ring is detached from the larger ring

of smaller rings. This separate ring includes the chief’s house, the houses of his extended family and the

sacred alter. Spiritual ideals connect the chief to the Ba-ila people through the practice of kulela,

meaning to nurse and cherish, rather than to rule. The chief is viewed as the father of the community.

This sense of spiritual family is found inside each ring, at every successive scale, within the large ring

settlement. The structural mapping of this philosophy is represented by the self-similar, circular fractal


        The Kirdi people of the Mandara Mountains in Cameroon use circular fractal architecture

through a spiraling geometry based on defense, agriculture, religion and politics. Replications of castle-

like stone buildings swirl around a central location, or attractor point. The buildings proportionally

increase in size with the distance the spiral travels away from the attractor location. Within the whole

large scale spiral shape, small granaries spiral within each enclosure, creating structural coherence

between two scales. The protected central attractor holds the sacred alter and is the location of the

highest religious and political authority within the settlement. The spiral shape was constructed with

planned intentionality on the basis of agriculture and spiritual representation. The number of granaries
and the size and shape of each spiral was quantitatively based on precise knowledge of agricultural

growth. The scaling architectural spirals also represent the spiritual iterations of life cycles, such as

agricultural fertility and ancestral succession.

        Circular fractal architecture does not have to have a central location or attractor point to be

considered fractal. This type of settlement, decentralized swirls of circular buildings, exhibits the

fundamental concept of symmetric geometry between different scales and is therefore a fractal. The

Nankani complex within the Burkina Faso settlement in West Africa is an example of decentralized

circular fractal architecture. The Nankani complex is a dense circular arrangement of circular enclosures

based on gender and spiritual tradition. The outermost perimeter of the complex is socially viewed as

male. Each successive iteration inside the perimeter increases in association with the female gender

until the dego, a circular women’s fireplace, and the zalanga, a nested stack of circular pots, is found at

the innermost point of the complex. The smallest pot in the zalanga is the kumpio which holds a

women’s soul. When a woman dies, her kumpio is broken and her soul is released into eternity. The

scaling architecture also holds spiritual traditions regarding birth. A newborn child can only exit the

innermost enclosure when it can physically crawl out by itself. Each successive entrance into the next

circle is considered a spiritual rite of passage representing the next iteration of the child’s life.

        Branching fractal architecture is not as prominently seen in African settlement as the two other

types of settlement design. Furthermore, branching fractal architecture is the combination of

rectangular and circular fractal architecture. It is most clearly represented by the conscious design of

successive additions upon an original form that architecturally transition from circular to rectangular

shapes. Branching fractal architecture is heavily based on fractal algorithms and is commonly found in

North African settlements in Banyo and Cameroon, as well as in the mapping of city streets in Cairo,
Egypt. This North African architecture applies fractal principal through “’cylindrical rhythms’ producing

an ‘indefinitely expandable’ structure” (Eglash, 38).

        Fractals in African settlement architecture are consciously constructed by the peoples of a

nation to physically model African cultural beliefs. Because most settlements typically use the fractal

concept of self-similar scaling by replicating the same form at different sizes, the architecture is

sometimes viewed as simple design, contributing to the stereotype of Africa being an unintelligent and

underdeveloped culture. However, the fractal geometries found across the continent are

mathematically intentional, and “Is it unfortunate that this African structural characteristic is typically

described in terms of a lack – as the absence of shape distinctions rather than as the presence of a

scaling design theme” (Eglash, 55). The planned mathematics of African settlement through fractals

strives to contradict this stereotypical claim. African fractals do not mimic pre-existing forms like the

fractal designs of large state societies often do. Modern Europe is considered a highly developed and

educated society, yet their fractal designs merely strive to replicate nature, therefore “The fact that

African fractals are rarely the result of imitating natural forms helps remind us that they are not due to

‘primitives living close to nature’” (Eglash, 53). African fractals matter because they attempt to critique

the incorrect conception that Africa is a primitive culture. Africa is a mathematically complex, intelligent

and developed society with strong cultural beliefs and traditions that are skillfully represented through

its physical settlement architecture.

Terrific essay, beautifully organized and written. One thing I would change: “Although many other
geometric algorithms that can be found in African design are fractal, the self-similar scaling used to
construct many African settlements is the strongest evidence of conscious fractal activity” – I don’t
think the architectural examples are necessarily the best ones; the best to me are the lusona, because
you get very specific algorithms. But I agree that the architecture examples are really helpful. Overall
grade = A

Eglash, Ron. African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers
        University Press, 1999.