Appropriations - Germane Barnes - What We Once Were

What We Once Were

Germane Barnes

Western architectural pedagogy often reduces, some going as far as eliminating, the contributions of Africa to the architectural canon. This map resizes and reorients landmasses to accurately depict the scale of each country. By presenting Africa in its accurate size compared to other countries, we can see the depths of erasure that have occurred.

May 2023

What does it mean when the second largest continent in the world is reduced to an afterthought? How does one accept an erased legacy when much of the built environment was developed and built by descendants of that continent? Anti-colonial discourse has presented an opportunity to better understand the legacy of Africa as it pertains to the architected environment. One such area is that of classical architecture and the legacies of North Africa.

While columns are an obvious point of departure, given Egypt’s role influencing Greece and thereby Western ideologies, there are two other Roman processes rooted in Africa. The first is Opus Sectile, an African mosaic technique that differs from traditional mosaics by combining stones of varying sizes into a larger image or pattern. The African influence of this technique has often been erased, such as in the following definition, attributed to Encyclopedia Brittanica:

opus sectile, type of mosaic work in which figural patterns are composed of pieces of stone or, sometimes, shell or mother-of-pearl cut in shapes to fit the component parts of the design, thereby differing in approach from the more common type of mosaic in which each shape in the design is composed of many small cubes (tesserae) of stone or glass. Although portable stone mosaic works of similar technique were produced in the Near East as early as about 3000 BC, the term opus sectile properly refers to an art that began in the Hellenistic world, perhaps first in Italy, and continued as a European decorative tradition. Opus sectile first appeared in Rome in Republican times (before the 2nd century BC) as pavement in simple geometrical and floral designs. From the 1st century AD there was also a regular production of small pictures of the opus sectile type.1

A reference to archeological texts, however, would have provided clear information about the earliest found examples of Opus Sectile in Egypt, such as Excavation at Germa, the Capital of the Garamants by M. S. Ayoub (1962), Promenades Archeologiques, Rome et Pompei by Marie-Louis-Antoine-Gaston Boissier (1880), or The North African Stones Speak by Paul Lachlan Mackendrick (1980).2

Roman occupation of North Africa was lengthy and messy. Culture, processes and people were pillaged and reappropriated as their own. This timeline provides a chronological order of their spatial relationship.

The second unique feat of architecture and engineering present in ancient Roman architecture that comes from Northern Africa is Opus Africanum. Loosely translating to “made in the African style,” it was imported from Carthage during Numidian times (202–40 BC). As a form of masonry construction, it is a building technique that uses vertical stone pillars topped with horizontal stone pillars, with the pattern continuing to the full height of the wall, with stone fillings placed between the horizontal elements: the smaller the stones, the more ornamental. As such, the number of stones often were a signifier of one’s wealth: the more stones along the wall, the more labor the erecting owner could afford.

An example of Opus African found within a wall of Pompeii, an ancient Roman city that was destroyed by volcano.

Locating this information is unfortunately difficult within the field of architecture. Their narratives were suppressed through conquering and historic liberties. The texts used to discover these two ways of designing and building were not found within a library of architecture books, but in the field of archeology. Blatant disregard for alternative trajectories is quite common within the discipline, but one can hope that a continued expansion of canonical history will reveal even more accomplishments.


Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia, “opus sectile,” Encyclopedia Britannica, February 5, 2008, .


During my time at the American Academy in Rome, my search for entanglements between North African and Roman architecture were often empty. It was not until I switched departmental archives and began browsing the archeology section that I find the necessary information. These books are critical to understanding the built environment and how it was formed.

Appropriations is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and CIVA Brussels within the context of its exhibition “Style Congo: Heritage & Heresy.”

Architecture, Education
Africa, Archeology, Knowledge Production, Academia, Style
Return to Appropriations

All images courtesy of author.

Germane Barnes is an Associate Professor and the Director of The Community Housing & Identity Lab (CHIL) at the University of Miami School of Architecture, a testing ground for the physical and theoretical investigations of architecture’s social and political resiliency.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.