Visual and performing art is omnipresent in Dakar, Senegal’s capital. But platforms for those outside the capital to create art and engage with a variety of art forms are limited. Earlier this year, one of the first cultural centers and artist residencies of its kind outside the capital, opened its doors for the first time.
Sinthian, a seven hour drive east of Dakar, is a remote village 325 miles away from the capital with a population of below 1000 villagers engaged in subsistence farming and a few artisanal trades. There is little in the way of neither infrastructure nor modern means of construction and materials. It is here that Thread, an artistic residency and cultural center, is situated.
The project was born out of a chance meeting in 2003 between a Senegalese doctor and Sinthian leader, Dr Magueye Ba, and Nicholas Fox Weber, director of the American-based non-profit arts organization the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation – established by the late painter and his designer wife to carry forward their idiosyncratic, humanist vision of artistic and social progress.
For the next ten years, the pair embarked on an initiative to create a space that could become a point of collision between local cultural customs in Sinthian and Senegal’s burgeoning contemporary art scene.
Weber first mentioned the idea to New York architect Toshiko Mori in late 2008, who then presented the idea to her students at Harvard, led by Jordan Mactavish, to develop a series of proposals for a combined infrastructural, residential and public facility.
The architects worked on this project pro-bono, the importance of which was stressed by Mori:
The community is very poor. The economic scale is at such an imbalance. We wanted the money that could be used for our fee to add more to the project budget, give jobs, and to hire more local villagers. This allowed it to become a community project instead of a project handed down by an outside architect.
It was critical for the design team to not simply import something foreign because the local community would not feel they owned it or that it was their own space. The goal was to have a facility that engaged with the local arts scene and now one that forced imposed itself on the community.
It is a sophisticated vernacular building, comprising a dramatic thatched roof of dried grass and bamboo hovering above simple mud-brick walls. Sheltered within, in a pair of modest live-work spaces, artists-in-residence selected from around the world will stay for a minimum of four weeks, developing ideas across a range of media and drawing on the rich traditions and artistic practices of the region.
At the heart of the building, a square around which runs a shady gallery, perfect for sun protection, is designed to be multi-functional in use – a town hall for markets, forums, or concerts.
The idea was to create architecture without protocol, an architecture that was flexible and spontaneous, an architecture that allowed the community to utilize the space as they see fit.
The local sourcing of materials was critical to Mori:
We only used materials that are available locally, so that transportation would not be required (it is a remote community and transportation is difficult and expensive). The materials could be easily acquired. It is cost effective and available for future maintenance. We based our design on existing local skill using local materials so we did not have to import external labour.
The soft curves of the whitewashed building evoke the round vernacular houses of the region. The thatch used for roofing was locally grown and harvested, providing a low cost and sustainable building solution representative of traditional construction techniques. The roof substructure is composed of three layers of locally sourced bamboo joined together by Japanese lashing techniques that created an exchange and cross-fertilization of traditional building methods. Clay bricks were formed on-site by local villagers, enhancing participation of the community.
The slopes of the roofs, also serve a practical purpose, with the pitched roof capable of collecting approximately 40% of the villagers’ domestic water usage – around 200,000 gallons a year – by siphoning the rainfall and channeling it into a new reservoir where it will be available to all as a valuable resource in this often arid climate.
The idea emerged from extensive research undertaken by Mori’s team early in the design process, including a visit with her students to eastern Senegal to figure out what people there needed most.
The building features a number of hybrid innovations. There were exchanges of knowledge as the architects had to adapt their instructions to the skill-set of the community, and the villagers instructed the design team on how they made bricks and picked out the strongest wood.
We were not there all the time to coordinate the project; the remote management of the project was difficult. However, Dr. Ba, the head of the adjacent clinic, took control of the project management and communicated with us through various means to facilitate the building process. We owe a great deal to the perseverance, intelligence and ingenuity, and social and management skills of Dr. Ba for the realization of the project.
Thread was built over nine months by local laborers and craftsmen employing traditional techniques and modern construction methods. The designers were intent on making sure that the building blended naturally into the landscape.
As such, the design drawings gave the local builders creative freedom, resulting in touches such as a beautiful mosaic floor, inlaid with broken shards of tiles, flecked with blues, greens and reds, that were the cast-offs of local production.
On how this project influenced her perspective on architecture, Mori added:
We learned the importance of including local material, practice, technique and way of life into the project of contemporary architecture. It provides a cultural and social extension and continuity of the community’s daily life and produces an impact without imposition.
The idea was to leapfrog from vernacular to 21st-century engineering, but using the materials the local community know and are familiar with, to create a building with a local dialect that intimately speaks with a material and structural language to its users and builder.
The result was a refined and unpretentious communal building with a perfect balance between traditional techniques and raw technology, reflecting art as a means, not an end.
Images © Toshiko Mori Architect, AFLK and Thatcher Cook.