TED Talk: Rensselaer Professor’s African Fractals Inspire African Architecture

by Emily Donohue on October 30, 2013

Fractals — endlessly repeating patterns that are self-similar at different scales and are found throughout nature (see: seashells, trees, leaves, and the Romanesco broccoli above) — also frequently appear in design in Africa, from fabric to buildings to entire villages, as Rensselaer Science and Technology Studies professor Ron Eglash explained in his fascinating 2007 TED Global talk.

As a fractal pattern repeats and grows and repeats and grows, so too does the knowledge Eglash gained while studying fractals in Africa. He shared that knowledge in a book, African Fractals, and the TED talk and it sparked the imagination of Spanish architect Xavier Vilalta, who then shared what he learned in another TED talk.

A post on the TED blog explains that Vilalta first encountered Eglash’s work while researching African design and architecture when he was tasked with designing the Melaku Center, a first-of-its-kind vocational school in Ethiopia.

Drawing inspiration from Eglash’s book and TED talk, Vilalta designed the school’s campus — which includes a variety of buildings — on a fractal-based hexagonal grid.

After that project, he began to correspond with Eglash and their friendship continues today.

In Vilalta’s recent TEDx talk (it’s in Spanish, but you can use YouTube’s transcript feature for subtitles), he described the fractal-based designs he used when designing the Melaku Center.

Recently he used fractal-based design again when designing a shopping mall in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The fractal-inspired design Vilalta created for Lideta Mercato features a facade made of concrete blocks with square holes in them that do double duty allowing cross-ventilation while also creating a pattern reminiscent of the textiles used to make women’s dresses.

Take a cool video tour of the Lideta Mercato here.

And then, read this interview with Vilalta that appeared in The Reporter Ethiopia last January in which he discussed the facade design and the way it echoes fabric. He also gives great insight into architecture and design in Africa.

Read much more about Vilalta and Eglash’s work on the TED blog. Read much more about Eglash’s research into African fractals here.