Kenya is a place where long entrenched cultural traditions interact with the fervor of urban modernization. Both in the heart of Nairobi, and at the peripheries, the line is contentious, sharply delineating a country into the past and future. In moments, the global repertoire of modern construction techniques becomes bound in a Kenyan vernacular, where an old approach is expressed with contemporary parts. Introducing the Kibera Hamlets School.
The remodeled Kibera Hamlets School is a befitting illustration of a transformation project with a twofold agenda: to improve the school’s health profile, currently among the country’s poorest urban zone, and to create a social meeting point across age and interest for the entire local community. The old facility was characterized by lack of basic facilities such as toilets, drainage, electricity, adequate roofing, furniture and stationery among others. Upgraded with a contemporary architectural design, the learning institution that serves up to 600 orphaned children is now an outstanding feature in the depths of Kibera slums.
The project came about after photographer, Iwan Baan, visited the dilapidated Kibera Hamlets School early in 2016. Struck by the adverse conditions that the children endured to study, Iwan approached SelgasCano architects to partner in rebuilding the school. Brought together by the need to transform the lives of the children in Kibera, the project emerged out of the collaboration of a Spanish duo, architects Jose Selgas and Lucia Cano (Selgascano Architects), New York architecture practice, Hello Everything and Kenyan architect Abdul Fatah Adam of Studio 14, the photographer and co-organizer for the project Iwan Baan, with sponsorship by Second Home, a London cultural venue and workspace. Originally commissioned as a pavilion for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, the project traveled over 11,000 km by sea to be reborn as a school for youth in Kibera, Kenya.
Louisiana Hamlet Pavilion formulated a reciprocity where the local, is explored via the techniques of the global, of the universal standard. Born from the traditions of early society architecture and informed by the digital logic of contemporary architectural practice, the project describes a mode of interaction, a social algorithm through which a set of simple rules informs the generation of architectural space across a broad range of contexts, crafts, and skill sets.
Louisiana Hamlet Pavilion is an act of architectural misconstruction, formulated out of universally available scaffolding components organized into sets of modular assemblies defined by modifiable parameters.
A strategy of onsite constrained improvisation allows a crowd-sourced model to productively amplify errors and idiosyncrasies as drivers of aesthetic variation. Reconfigurable connections and identical elements extend the afterlife of the project enabling an adaptive response to the wide range of cultural and the economic constraints of both of its sites: in Kibera, Nairobi and the Louisiana Museum in Denmark. At work is a reformulation of existing ideas inherent in the global construction industry, exploiting scaffoldings periodic life-cycle towards an architecture of reuse and variation.
Both a pavilion in a museum setting as well as a Hamlet in Kibera, Louisiana Hamlet school asserts contemporary architecture’s imperative for adaptability, expressed as dual manifestations of a common methodology. In Denmark, the project is a form of prototypical architecture, challenging the tectonic and formal possibilities of conventional construction assemblies. In Kenya, it is a school, equipped to engage severe economic and logistical constraints in the production of an engaging educational environment. The result is an atmosphere, enriched in its color and material texture as well as an attitude for new global adaptable collaborations.
The project depicts a positive attitude and strong resilience to promote learning in a conducive environment. The facility is managed by a community based organization called Kibera Hamlets, which was founded in 2004 by youths from Kibera to serve the underprivileged in their community. The school is one of the projects run by the organization and through outside funding, the children are able to access education and basic facilities in the school. The project was intended to illustrate how architecture can transform the lives of the disadvantaged in the community. It is also used for social gatherings such as weddings and hence, benefiting the lives of the one million estimated population in tremendous ways.
Couplers connect two elements. The swivel coupler is a generic construction element, capable of a wide range of variation through its rotation. Kibera Hamlets makes use of its versatility to produce non-standard wholes from standard parts.
At night, Kibera is very dark. In an environment where access is quite limited, the building is challenged to provide as many programs to as wide a range of users as possible. Introducing simple artificial lighting allows the space to be multifunctional across different times of the day. Colour employment was hence both a method for organizing construction, as well as a generator of atmosphere and spatial affect, demonstrating a construction sequence all participants can quickly understand. Using many versions of a common element, colour is a primary way by which construction hierarchy was embedded into the pieces themselves. Simultaneously, the gradient of colour produced a playful environment for learning and interaction.
In the process of traversing two dramatically different contexts, Kibera Hamlets required a design strategy capable of responding to dramatically different sets of skills, concerns and unknowns. The structure had to be robust to respond to unclear site boundaries and elevational grades. The control of tolerance within Kibera Hamlets is the intelligent control of contingent unknowns in context, communication and logistics. It is design through embraced uncertainty.
One of the major challenges the team faced was on the shipping of the pavilion to Kenya. Due to custom duty regulations on importation of goods in Kenya, Selgascano and his team experienced a 6 week delay due to customs procedures. In a building environment where most locally sourced materials are also locally produced, everything is customized for a task. Affordable manual craftsmanship lowers the barrier to building with differentiated parts because construction “norms” are so flexible. However, customization in this form was difficult to scale, though highly effective for individual buildings.
The old structure was two storey, consisting of eight classrooms and administration offices with no windows hence no adequate lighting or ventilation. Cracked boundary walls of the old Kibera School were made of old corrugated sheets, unstable timber cut offs and nails – exposing the students to the sewage which run alongside the classrooms. Walls were made of flooring and the stairway were made of uneven and unstable dangerously built blocks of wood with gaps. Leaking iron roofs exposed the students to elements such as rain, wind and other harsh weather conditions. Interior partitions of the classrooms were made of broken recycled soft boards offering little sound insulation. The open space that formed the courtyard was based on a muddy slope. The cooking area was based on an open compound within the courtyard, on a wood fire stove- the smoke and fume gets into the classrooms, making it very difficult to study.
About Selgascano Architects
Based in Madrid, Spain, Selgascano are an architectural Spanish duo best known for socially focused projects. They’ve also worked on a vaccination clinic elsewhere in Kenya. Both architect Selgas and Cano are hands on designers who like to be part of the very physical process in all their projects.