The Great Mosque of Niono is an example of such efforts. Lassine Minta, the master mason of the mosque, in conceiving and constructing the mosque, has reflected the deep and powerful tradition of vernacular architecture. Only when he introduced new fenestration has the work faltered stylistically if not functionally. Yet this ongoing process of change, reflecting life itself, deserves careful attention if we are ever to secure sufficient continuity—free of stylistic flaws—for the benefit of present and future cultural development. Hence the conscious volition of the master mason and community of Niono to continue their tradition in a contemporary building, thereby retaining indigenous cultural identity, deserves recognition.
The mosque occupies a central position in the residential area of the village, which has several long streets running parallel to the canals, intersected by streets crossing at right angles. The main entrance to the mosque is on one of the busiest avenues not far from the market.
Niono as it is constituted today is mainly a creation of the Niger Office from around 1937. This institution, at that time run jointly by the colonial authorities and the French Government, was established in 1932 to reclaim the land of the Upper Niger Delta with the object of using its agrarian and industrial potential in creating a huge agroindustrial complex to produce mainly rice and cotton. This ambitious project, aimed at reclaiming 900,000 hectares to be divided more or less equally between the cultivation of rice and cotton, swiftly ran into serious difficulties. First, there was a shortage of funds, and second, the type of soil in certain areas was not conducive to the growing of cotton, which had to be abandoned in favor of rice. The Niger Office, now an arm of the government of Mali, controls only about 60,000 hectares of reclaimed land. The inhabitants of the village, originally from a variety of regions, give the community a unique stamp.
The Niono mosque was originally constructed on a site of 119 square meters. In its original form it comprised eight bays placed crosswise and three lengthwise, with the mihrab, which indicates the direction of Mecca, situated on the axis of the fourth bay from the north. In 1955 the mosque committee decided to extend the mosque by adding six transverse bays on the south side. When in 1969 it became necessary to enlarge the mosque still further, the results were an extension of the main building to 726 square meters, the entire reconstruction of the original central part, the building of a separate prayer hall for women, and the construction of a long, narrow building of 140 square meters and several annexes, all of which were contained within the boundary wall. By 1973, the main work was complete. Since then, the building orginally used as the caretaker’s quarters has been turned into a sepulcher in which the first imam of the mosque, who died in 1983, is buried.
The architecture of the local houses is very basic, even when compared to houses in other towns of the same region, notably Djenn£, Mopti, and Bandiagara. The structural features, whose gentle lines help to minimize the effects of erosion, are made entirely by hand and serve purely functional needs. Since decorative features are extremely rare, their use in the decoration of mosques is particularly striking. With the exception of the colonial-type buildings found in the government quarter, all the other houses, most of which
do not have an upper story, are constructed of local materials: sun-dried clay; mortar rendering made from clay and hardened rice bran; and timber, especially palmyra. The layered system used for the roofs is both ingenious and decorative, consisting of a layer of clay resting on a ceiling of wooden beams, the latter usually twisted and short in length.
Modern materials, usually imported, are gradually gaining ground. Cement, for example, is sometimes used for foundations, for roof coping and for rendering. While corrugated iron is used both in joinery and for cladding doors and windows, steel sections are used for frames and also in joinery.
Although buildings constructed entirely from these “hard” materials are still rare in Niono, this situation will probably not continue for long. Unfortunately these buildings have a very commonplace character and their spread will not only lower aesthetic standards but, from an economic angle, drain local financial resources, since most of the materials will have to be imported. Already architecture in the style of the mosque is disappearing.
Situated in the center of the village a few dozen meters from the market, the mosque is easily accessible to all inhabitants. There are several points of entry opening onto the three roads surrounding the mosque, with the one on the southeast facade used only by women.
The most important consideration in planning the Niono mosque was that it should serve the religious needs of the Muslim community. It had, therefore, to provide suitable shelter for Friday and daily prayers, as well as for feast days and other religious occasions. Consequently the space requirements were fairly simple—enough room to allow the people standing in rows to offer their prayers and make the necessary movements that accompany the pravers. In addition space had to be provided for those not participating in the prayers to circulate freely. A prayer room exclusively for women was also planned, which although separate from the rest of the building would not be isolated from it.
To stress the significance of prayer as a central function of the mosque, it was considered important to create an atmosphere inside both prayer rooms that would be conducive to prayer and meditation. Maintaining a comfortable temperature indoors was also an important factor in the mosque’s design, since temperatures in Niono can be unpleasantly hot. At least one courtyard was needed to contain the overflow of people on days when the mosque had an exceptionally large attendance. The addition of accommodations for a caretaker was considered necessary because of the size of the mosque, and a storeroom was designed where objects to do with both ritual and the maintenance of the building could be housed.
Evolution of Design Concept
The Niono mosque as it is today is the result of an evolutionary process that lasted almos: 25 years—from 1948 to 1972. During the course of these years it was enlarged and transformed from its original size of about 119 square meters to 725 square meters. This evolution, a result of changing needs, ambitions, and increased funds, has created problems of space. The site of the mosque for example is small by comparison with the buildings sited on it, particularly in view of their large proportions. The present size of the mosque makes it one of the largest of its type, other examples of which are the mosques at Djenne and Mopti, which in fact served as models.
Since temperatures in Niono can be uncomfortably hot during part of the year, a system of electric fans, widely used for regulating indoor temperatures in the area, is installed in the mosque. For several months each year, however, both the humidity and temperature in the village are too high even for the fans to have much comforting effect. The only solution therefore is effective ventilation. In this respect the Niono mosque, unlike most of the other, older mosques in the area, is fortunate in having a large number of windows.
Response to User Requirements. The plan of the mosque, like the plan of any hypostyle mosque, is based on the bay as a unit. The size of the bay is determined by the structural limitations of the materials available and by the dimensions of a standard prayer mat, which accommodates one kneeling person. All this results in a very sober and functional area, with slight differences in dimensions gently stressing the east-west orientation of the mosque. This emphasis is absent in the women’s prayer hall, where the pillars are rounded and generally less well-proportioned.
The use of space is both simple and functional and follows patterns commonly found in the region. The entrances and corridors of the mosque do not offer enough room for movement and can become quite congested on festive occasions when there is a large gathering. The layout of the mosque adheres to the traditional pattern, with the main building (for the exclusive use of men) occupying the eastern part of the plot. To the west of this building is a courtyard, with the women’s prayer hall situated along its far side.
The main entrance of the mosque is on the south side, giving onto one of the main streets of the village. The western side has an entrance opposite the large minaret as well as an area reserved for private use such as funeral rites. The caretaker’s quarters, now the first imam’s tomb, consist of two small buildings situated at the southern limit of the site on either side of the main entrance. They make up two distinct outside areas—the courtyard of the main entrance and the large western courtyard—separated by the volume of the minaret on the west facade, with the ablutions area discreetly hidden in the southwest corner.
The massing of the buildings and their relation to one another are extremely simple. The external effect of the deep hypostyle plan, chosen in part for its traditional significance and in part to fit the site, is somewhat diminished by the disposition of the subsidiary buildings and the minaret on the western side, as well as by the vertical treatment of the facades. This treatment, characteristic of mosques of the area, is at the same time very personal and has to do with the architects idiosyncratic variations on a basic theme. One of these variations is the duplication of the internal arches on the facade. The pilasters are not linked by arches and do not extend the whole height of the facade in the usual manner. Nevertheless they are topped by sugarloaf pinnacles that pick up the rhythm, and even at the main doors this rhythm is continued rather eccentrically with pinnacles that do not correspond to the pilasters. The use of elements varies from mosque to mosque. Sometimes the pilasters and pinnacles match exactly and sometimes the number of pinnacles is a multiple of the number of the pilasters. At Niono this vertical rhythm is accentuated by the towers, those on the east facade being treated more conventionally than the minaret on the west facade. The dominant appearance of the latter seems unusual and suggests outside influences.
Another unusual feature of the Niono mosque is the large number of windows surrounded by reinforced concrete on the facades of the main building. This kind of treatment is, however, becoming increasingly common in more recently built mosques.
The windows of the large minaret on the west side and the women’s prayer room are more elaborate. These are double windows, each flanked by cylindrical portions of pillars. Above each window is an opening in the form of a segment of a circle. The only decorative elements used inside the mosque are the capitals of the pillars and traditional decorative motifs, probably pre-Islamic in origin, which are placed in a niche above the main entrance on the south side. The two distinct types of motif are curiously reminiscent of the white-ants’ nests found in the area.
The mosque’s structure consists of load-bearing walls and pillars of sun-dried clay bricks, from which arches spring along the longitudinal and transverse line of the hays. Over the arches, closely packed round wooden joists are laid diagonally across the corners, thus ingeniously reducing the span to suit the materials available.
The materials used include sun-dried clay bricks and clay mortar, with or without decayed rice bran; local wood for the roofing; imported wood and corrugated iron for the joinery; precast concrete for the window frames; steel sections for the enclosing doors; quicklime for the whitewashing; and tubular steel posts for the veranda. Traditional building techniques were used, with labor provided largely gratis by members of the congregation. Local artisans made the joinery in wood and metal in their workshops. Both the choice of materials and building techniques were appropriate to local conditions. While imported materials were kept to a minimum, which helped reduce costs and the flow of funds out of the region, the use of local wood for construction purposes has exacerbated the problem of deforestation in an area whose vegetation is already sparse.
The problem with sun-dried clay-brick construction is the need for annual repairs to the external rendering, as well as the regular maintenance of inside surfaces. The life expectancy of such a building is otherwise reasonable, and a sun-dried clay-brick house, if properly looked after, probably has the capacity to outlast buildings employing many more costly types of construction. Another advantage is the possibility of reusing the sun-dried clay bricks when the building falls into disuse. In fact the reuse of building materials, already a growing industry in some developed countries, is likely to find increasing favor in a world that is becoming more ecologically conscious day by day.
The appearance of the mosque is undoubtedly striking, particularly its eastern side. While the other facades maintain the exuberance of the design as a whole, they are not of quite the same quality. The upper part of the large minaret on the west facade, for example, is a comparatively weak and unconvincing design. Although the size of the mosque is large for the size of its site, the external spaces have been skillfully disposed. The interior spaces, while also somewhat restricted, especially in the main building, are of harmonious proportions.
Together with the market area, the Niono mosque is located in the center of the village and is its focal point. Financed and maintained by the local community, the mosque represents the people’s needs. In practically every way the Niono mosque can be considered homegrown. Its architecture and the use of materials and building techniques all originate in the region. It suggests that there are places where it is still possible to talk of a continuing tradition and where a traditional approach to architecture can still be dynamic, integrating new features, but mainly playing variations on age-old vernacular themes.