As architects we find challenging the possibility of beauty in places of resources scarcity; low-cost architecture sometimes could be intimidating, it needs careful choices; and that fear brings architects to avoid such an ambitious approach, which concerns building within the too restricted technical conditions that the place provides. That’s the kind of attitude that does not challenge the possibility of extraordinary buildings. From Angkor Wat in Cambodia to the Ksars in Morocco, many countries demonstrates the possibility of an architectural masterpiece, within resources scarcity.
The place that the competition choose to investigate is a curious little void in the centre of the village of Tanaf, a tiny void, surrounded by short fences and little huts made by adobe bricks, and mostly covered with a wood structure and iron sheets roof. The tension of the surrounding built elements gives the idea of a place of “density” which has not already taken physical form; we interpreted the suggestion from the place, with the idea of a Tower, an element that can easily represent the human pursuit to the divine and work as a landmark in the landscape.
The idea is to not overpass the height limit of the existing trees (around 15 m) to keep the project in the natural scale of the landscape and be part of it, as a respectful but extraordinary human presence. We also interpreted the path drawn by the feet in the ground, as a kind of an urban hierarchy, which gave us the idea for a basement (which by the way is a very common architectural mechanism in Tanaf). The spline form shape of the basement helps to provide different spaces situations with the surrounding elements, taking advantage of tension generated with the existing fences around the building.
In our society, the market defines the value of a pair of gloves depending on the firm of the industry and balancing demands and offer, sometimes it is hard to distinguish between what is worth the money, and what is just expensive; often we find hand-made objects which are cheaper and last longer than a standardized product in the market. The architecture we want to propose, is something against that idea of temporary fashion solutions, in fact, an architecture which can be valuable within time. This attitude generated the idea to build independently from massive material producers, using recycled materials, to resist the notion of time.
For that reason we propose the technique of “rammed earth”, which gives an image of a natural solidness to the building, it can be built by people without huge constructive knowledge, children can also participate in finishing the space with clay, making the interior looking as a mono-material sculpture. Rammed earth has a very good fire resistance standards, great walls breathability, noise control, very low toxicity and the thermal mass permit cold space in summer and heat during winter. We found also interesting the idea of building something challenging directly with people to explore the experience of building collectively.
The building process starts with the definition of the limits of the intervention, which is the perimeter of the basement, 0.6m high, made in rammed earth, that helps to lighten the visual impact of a geometrical tall element as the tower is and to react to the tension of the surrounding elements. The basement include also two tanks with a total amount of 9.6 cube meter, which means 8.000 litres of collected rainwater for the village, to be purified; the foundations are made in Laterite Stone, and follows the tall walls, going 1m underground. The walls begin with a 0.8m thickness going tapering to the top until 0.4m; the 15 m tall walls, work as a solid and strong structure distributing forces into each other every layer of ground is compressed by workers and goes up simultaneously with each wall, making the tower working as a strong block.
TOWARDS MEANINGFUL ARCHITECTURE
The forces that generate the demand of architecture bring their values into the project; to express values is the purpose of an architecture that has the ambition to became meaningful, and hopefully becoming a symbol; the challenge we have been through, is to propose a building that could express the values of hospitality, sobriety and spirituality.
For that reason, we thought about a big open space, defined by the tension between the tall walls. The plan of the tower started with a basic figure, the rectangle, orientated to The Mecca to host the possible Muslim worship; within the design process, the figure got more complex to provide more spatial diversity in the tower. By doing so, the final shape ends up as a composition of rectangles, presenting a non-form open space, which helps people to find their way to occupy the space as they prefer, in a natural way.
Since the beginning, the roof has been a very challenging element; we were looking for a solution which would be invisible from the exterior; surprising people with unexpected proportions and local material relations; permit sun-light to come inside from the roof lights; protect the space from strong rain-water seasons and collecting it in smooth tanks excavated in the basement.
After several different options, we found interesting a solution that mix engineering and craft local production: a flat roof, covered by recycled iron sheets, maintained by long strong baobab wood bins structure, obscured by hanged hand-made “wicker panels” (inspiration given from village’s fences), creating dynamism in the open space, modelling the roof shape towards the sky. This is a kind of roof which helps to create different environments in the large open-space, giving different natural lights conditions and space proportions, protection under a natural hand-made surprising roof.
THE REAL ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
The responsibility we have as architects include sustainability as a crucial choice at the earliest concept stage of the project. The kind of attitude will be appreciated from people of Tanaf, it’s the fact that the tower has to be built naturally and collectively, and being able to express the most beautiful properties of low ecological footprint building, made possible by using the rammed earth. For that reason we think is fundamental the choice to hide the roof structure behind the walls, to leave the message of the possibility to build an extraordinary structure with plentiful and recyclable material as the earth.
To take seriously the issue of sustainability, it has to become a component of the entire architecture, as a cultural design attitude and not just as energetic certification check. We consider the tower as an ideal strategy to reduce land consumption; the choice of rammed earth as a way to build with a plentiful and renewable material; a natural roof structure, made by wood and hand-made wicker panels which provide free rainwater; the building does not provide any electric plug, which means independence from any source of energy, although candles and little fires are suggested to warm up the spiritual atmosphere.
Apart from the fact that we wish the building to last for long, and become a reference for the territory; whenever it would become obsolete, it could serve as a source of material for a new construction made with earth, wood and recycled wicker; as a natural construction, time will let it come back to its origins, as part of the land, leaving to collective memory the responsibility of the survival of the building over time.
The idea of open space is to provide the possibility for future internal partitions; as history teaches about Roman theatres transformed into residential buildings, or ancient monasteries becoming perfect hospitals or universities, the strongest the structure is and the more characterized spaces are, the better is for future un-predictable uses.
In particular, we design the plan, without a specific form to let it be fitted by un-predictable free uses; spaces are characterized by different proportions, roof shape and natural light conditions, we imagine different worships under the “archetypal” roof, meditation classes in the small northern orientated space, music activities in the southern tallest more lightened space, but whatever we imagine is not relevant towards the potential freedom that this kind of space provides to the users.
The interior largest dimensions are 13.5 m x 12.0 m, the total interior area is 125 square meters, which means the possibility to host more than a hundred people; in case of emergency the basement help as a defensive mechanism from river overflows; and in case of health emergencies, the space can easily be divided into three main areas for future healthcare needs: the main entrance, a changing room, and an isolated tall room with natural ventilation at the top.
In collaboration with Silvia Nocentini