By Jean-Paul Bourdier and Trinh T. Minh-ha. London and New York: Routledge, 2011, 192 pages, $75.

Jean-paul Bourdier, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, has published several books on vernacular architecture, particularly in Africa.

Vernacular Architecture of West Africa: A World in Dwelling

His latest, co-authored by Trinh T. Minh-ha, also a professor at UC Berkeley and a filmmaker, looks at dwellings designed by hundreds of ethnic groups in Africa, with the premise of helping to resolve the tension between Western architects who wish to step away from modernization and non-Western practitioners who need to square traditional building practices with the benefits of technology. Using cinematic photo spreads and engaging drawings, the authors devote nine chapters to African architecture’s direct relationship to spirituality; each house is both a living thing and a metaphor. The next 12 chapters dissect the structures and plans for different types of dwellings, such as those on the northwest bank of Lake Nokue in southern Benin. These houses on stilts have straw roofs and permeable walls and floors to combat for the area’s humidity. Bourdier and Minh-ha state that “given the great diversity of rural dwellings in Africa, as well as of beliefs and practices, nothing seems more difficult than speaking of ‘African architecture’ or treating it as an undifferentiated whole.” The authors wisely limit their study to dwellings in West Africa south of the Sahara in order to say more about less.