By Abimbola O. Asojo, Ph.D, AIAaasojo@umn.eduDepartment of Design, Housing and Apparel,College of Design,University of Minnesota,240 McNeal Hall, 1985 Buford Avenue,ST Paul, MN 55108,USAUniversity of Minnesota
The notion that African cultures demonstrate principles of rational planning has often not been widely accepted. This paper discusses fractal geometry in Yoruba and Benin Nigerian spaces. Fractals are swirling patterns for modeling in biology, geology, and the natural sciences. The five components of fractal geometry are recursion, scaling, self-similarity, infinity, and fractional dimension. Fractals occur in a loop, the output for one step is the input for the next step. Fractals also consist of similar shapes in different scales.
Eglash in his book African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design notes “while fractal geometry can indeed take us into the far reach of high science, its patterns are surprisingly common in traditional African designs, and some of its basic concepts are fundamental to African knowledge systems (p. 3). Eglash finds the self-similarity of fractals in what is characterized as “circles of circles of circular dwellings, rectangular walls enclosing smaller rectangles” were the basis of planning in many African ethnic groups.In Yoruba settlements, fractals are seen in rectangular walls enclosing rectangles with streets that branch down to tiny footpaths with striking geometric repetition.
Fractals are also seen in carvings, architecture, ornamentation, jewelry and women’s hairstyles. In Yoruba cities, houses are grouped in compounds according to lineage, occupation, and position in town. The center and the most important part of every Yoruba town is the afin, Oba's palace (King's palace). Yoruba traditional dwellings consist of four rectangular units facing a central courtyard, this style is commonly referred to as Impluvium style. The entrance facade is defined by a series of columns. Several rooms surround the central courtyard. A set of grandiose columns emphasizes the entrance facade. The courtyard is surrounded by a large verandah for congregation.In the Yoruba and Benin monarchial system, the Oba's (king's) palace was designed as a larger version of the impluvium style house. This configuration consisted of rectangular walls enclosing smaller rectangles.
The palaces also included elaborately carved columns that supported gable roofs along the courtyard perimeter. Yoruba palaces sometimes had as many as a hundred courtyards that were often larger than an ordinary house. The largest palace in the Yoruba Oyo Empire was larger than a football field. Each of its courtyards was reserved for special functions.
The largest was for public assemblies or dancing at festivals, the smaller ones for private activities of the king. The Impluvium style dwelling in traditional Nigerian architecture illustrates some aspect of fractal geometry, which is also more evident in the Yoruba and Benin palace architecture.
The palaces are larger scale versions of the dwellings and have been described as rectangular fractals, which possess self-similar patterns of different scales occurring recursively. The palace design illustrates various shapes, volumes, and planes assembled together to create the form of the palace.
These elements can be characterized as vocabularies of form from traditional Yoruba spaces. The shapes, volumes, and planes are organized around a courtyard and/or entrance axis in varying scales and fractional dimension.