Collaborative Design Across Borders: An Interview with Partner George Schieferdecker and Alexandra Hutchison
The Lambaye Learning Center will provide a library, skill training area, women’s center, and other communal spaces for the village of Lambaye in Senegal. The project was made possible by the hard work from a diverse cohort, including BKSK, an enthusiastic chemistry teacher originally from Lambaye, Students for Senegal, a world-renowned furniture designer, local builders and craftsmen, and the villagers of Lambaye. With the Learning Center nearing completion (opening est. early 2019), partner George Schieferdecker and interior design Alexandra Hutchison took a moment to discuss the challenges and opportunities of working collaboratively across cultures and continents.
Q: So how did a New York-based architecture firm like BKSK become involved in a project in a remote village halfway across the world?
George: This whole project began with the dedication and enthusiasm of Amary Seck, chemistry teacher at my children’s high school. Amary grew up in Lambaye, and worked his way to the United States. He believes in the value of a good education because it changed his life. Amary regularly brought students from the high school to Senegal, to experience the culture and generosity of its people. Through these visits, he became determined to build a learning center to help make the education he’d worked so hard to get, more accessible to others. Amary began the search for an architect willing to collaborate on the project, and BKSK was delighted to sign on.
Alexandra: As the project progressed, we were prompted to search for other professionals familiar with the unique culture and context. We ended up contacting Bibi Seck, an acclaimed Senegalese designer, to supply the furniture for the project. He does fantastic work with the local craftsman and locally-sourced, recycled materials. He has been particularly interested in helping the youth in the village and has just been an exceptional collaborator.
Bibi Seck in his Dakar studio; Alexandra with local artisan; a small sampling of Seck’s furniture collection
Q: What specific challenges did you encounter working in this new setting?
George: We were largely unfamiliar with the culture, the people, and the language – although we have a few French speakers in the firm and we had Amary to guide us – which created some initial hurdles. Given these circumstances, we didn’t want to assume to know what the villagers needed or how they would use this learning center. We were determined not to parachute in with a finished design but to treat this work as a standard client-architect relationship and have the Village tell us what they wanted. We started by putting together simple survey questions for the villagers, asking what kind of activities they envisioned in the center, what features were important, the ideal location, and even how to orient the building. We were careful to ensure that we surveyed a variety of people, including women, children and layman of the village, not just the advisors and elders. After initial feedback, we held an additional “visioning session” in the village with a model of our design to solicit further feedback.
View the first survey book BKSK sent to the Lambaye villagers here.
Q: What kind of feedback did you get from this process? Any surprises?
George: We asked for feedback on where to locate the learning center within the village, and how to orient it. We were originally thinking it might be best to place it in the center of the village near other communal buildings like the market to help create a village core, which seemed like good town planning design practice. But the villagers wanted it right off the entrance road to the village, close to the school, so that it’s one of the first buildings you see when you enter Lambaye. The design was altered to capitalize on this. We gave the major volume some height so the learning center will be this signature piece, the outward face of the community. “We gave the major volume some height so the learning center will be this signature piece, the outward face of the community.”
The village also insisted on making it a walled compound. Without this input, we might have designed it as an open arrangement of buildings. However, the walled compound is more within the vernacular, and the village said that they would feel more protected with it. That is just one example of how it was important for us to first listen to what the village wanted instead of imposing our preconceptions on the project.
Q: What other elements of the design were inspired by the vernacular architecture and traditions? And how did these achieve sustainability goals?
George: We integrated several vernacular design features. I think our roof system is particularly interesting. We have masonry vaults, an air space above, and then a secondary low-slope metal roof on top. The masonry vaults are certainly inspired by the local architecture, and metal roofs and metal craft are ubiquitous, but the combination is a rarity. The air space in-between the double roof allows for ventilation while the metal roof protects from the seasonal rains and should improve the longevity of the roof system. We also have brick screen walls, water storage for rainwater, an open courtyard, and naturally ventilated spaces. Many of these vernacular features are inherently sustainable. In the U.S., sustainability is sometimes considered a luxury item. But in Senegal, it’s a necessity. “In the U.S., sustainability is sometimes considered a luxury item. But in Senegal, it’s a necessity.”
The roof is designed with a long-life, loose-fit concept; protecting from seasonal rains while providing enhanced durability.
However, the villagers did request some “Western” design features. Some items were necessary to create a comfortable and functional space, like basic sanitation. They also really wanted air conditioning. We compromised on that. Some spaces have air conditioning, but others are naturally ventilated. In later phases, we hope to install solar panels on the roof to power the air conditioning and other electronics. Some of the other items were more of an aesthetic preference. As an example, the contractor suggested aluminum windows that are prevalent in some modern high-rises in Dakar, but we were interested in the steel windows fabricated in so many metal shops around the country.
For these reasons, we didn’t just want to create a vernacular design or a western modernist design, we wanted to use vernacular-inspired design elements that were uplifting. The screen walls are a good example of this. We borrowed from the traditional brick work to create open brick screen walls, but we also played with their placement to create interesting, layered spaces.
“We didn’t just want to just create a vernacular design or a western modernist design, we wanted to use vernacular-inspired design elements that were uplifting.”
Alexandra: This need to strike a balance between vernacular, place-based design and a modern aesthetic was a big factor in selecting the furniture designer. We didn’t want to import Italian furniture, but we wanted something special. Bibi is great at achieving this balance – his designers are inspired by his background but they are unique and stunning.
Q: BKSK has clearly taken a collaborative approach to this project. Besides informing the physical design of this project, how else has this collaboration influenced the project?
George: We’ve had amazing cooperation and support from Amary, the Students for Senegal, Bibi, the site super, the contractor, and the village. There’s also a dedicated library director on board who has been very patient with the pace of this project. In the end, physical architecture can only do so much. We can provide the space, but nothing will happen unless the community uses it. Enthusiastic people like the library director and complete buy-in from village will make this project a success. By taking a collaborative approach and working with the community, we recruited these fantastic people to propel the project to where it is today.
Amary Seck (right), chemistry teacher and catalyst behind Students for Senegal
Alexandra: The people are certainly ready to take advantage of this learning center. I think what I’m most excited by is the opportunity that this project will provide for Lambaye.
George: Yes, what I think is particularly interesting here is that the only other libraries in Senegal are large academic libraries at universities that are not easily accessible to the public, let alone the Lambaye villagers. In the U.S., we’ve become accustomed to having smaller community libraries available to us that, now in the age of technology, provide ready access to information and communal space. Yet from what we’ve heard, this learning center – which is very similar to a community library in the U.S. – is the first of its kind in Senegal. The project is really a prototype for this kind of program in that region of the world. “Yet from what we’ve heard, this learning center – which is very similar to a community library in the U.S. – is the first of its kind in Senegal. The project is really a prototype for this kind of program in that region of the world.”
Alex: When I visited last, the mayor and advisors thanked me and BKSK for our work on this project. The thing they said that stuck with me the most was “We’ve always had big ideas, but you are giving us the means.”
George: That’s wonderful to hear. That’s what I hope this project accomplishes – to give the people of Lambaye the means to realize their ambitions.
To support the project, please donate via Students for Senegal.