When most people go to the Island of Mozambique (the former colonial capital and slave-trading port from which the country derives its name) it’s to walk among centuries-old coral-and-lime fortresses, chapels, and mansions, and to breathe in the exquisite decay. It’s all very Fall of the Portuguese Empire; the sea air and the tropical latitude start breaking buildings down even before they’re finished, so that much of what you see appears to be in some state of ruin, even the more recent construction, and even the many buildings that have been restored. I imagine that for a preservation architect working on Ilha, it must be like trying to keep a sand castle in tip-top shape.
But a friend of mine, Norwegian architect Silje Sollien, is spending this year on Ilha mostly for another reason. She’s interested in the homes where the vast majority of Ilha’s 18,000 people live. Most residences are crowded into the southern half of the tiny island, in the cavities left by the coral quarries used to build the island’s northern half. The area is known as Macuti Town, so called because the roofs of most houses are thatched with macuti—dried palm fronds. Restoring buildings in the northern half, such as the oldest existing European structure in the Southern Hemisphere, may be a complicated undertaking. But conserving the building traditions of Macuti Town poses its own set of challenges. Should people without much to begin with be convinced to keep weaving those impressive palm-frond roofs, and to construct walls in mud and sticks, instead of simply building in metal panels and concrete blocks, potentially more convenient (and more lasting) solutions? And if you rigidly preserve the island’s built history, do you risk locking in place its patterns of segregation?
These are the kinds of things Silje is wrestling with, and you can follow her research on her new blog, Macuti. The great image above is from her site. With space on the island so tight, someone built a macuti-roofed house inside the remains of an abandoned old warehouse.