The key developments surrounding the political and economic setting of the East African coast have influenced the form and evolution of Swahili architecture and particularly that of the residential typology.
While the history and origin of the Swahili stone house remains contentious, scholars of culture and house form have in the past acknowledged that there is an obvious difficulty in attempting to transfer ideas and concepts from one culture to another. Swahili culture and its subsequent architecture is seen to display a myriad of influences producing an integrated mix that is different from its antecedents, something Deetz (1977), a historical archaeologist and anthropologist, termed as creolization. Historical archaeological studies of the East African coast are relevant in providing a solid ground for the concept of hybridity or creolization in material culture.
Much of the literature concerning Swahili architecture is hinged on the work of early archaeologists, anthropologists and historians visiting the East African Coast in the 19th and 20th centuries. As regards the Swahili stone house, conclusive published literature that has commanded authority and continues to be referred to today is based on the earlier works of Prins (1961); Chittick (1974); Garlake (1966); Ghaidan (1975); Allen (1993); Horton (1994).
The controversy that surrounds this debate and from which arguments have stemmed is the shifting paradigm between academic imperialism and afrocentrism. This study does not attempt to determine who introduced stone and mortar (a material that already existed in the coast) to the East African building technology; without scientific evidence, such debates have proved futile. In an attempt to take the debate forward, this paper considers the concept of transculturation, which is the antithesis of the notion of acculturation, as introduced by Hernández et al. (2005), an architect specialised in translation theory and translational architectures.
Swahili architecture is characterised by grandeur stone houses on one side and earth-and-wattle houses on the other. By considering the concept of transculturation as introduced by Felipe Hernandez et al. (2005), and employing hermeneutic research methods in the critical analysis of historical data, this paper explores the factors that contributed to the transformation of Swahili material culture and the perceived dual nature of the urban morphology. Key findings point towards a broader range of socio-cultural issues namely; trade, market competition among merchants, increased population densities, practices of sponsorship, involvement, and the adoption of immigrants as the motivations for the transformation from earth-and-wattle to stone building technology. The author recommends an analysis of Swahili architecture that extends beyond the widely-accepted traditional symbols in order to uncover the underlying intangible heritage.