Just ended my first full week back in the States after a whirlwind week in Libreville, Gabon facilitating a charrette for the beginning of my terminal architecture studio. Also the week of my 23rd birthday and a lot of catching up in the classes I had missed. The way to Africa was a 40 hour trip in both directions between Eugene and Libreville, with slightly different journeys each way. Due to the anticipation and nervousness, the trip there seemed much, much longer.
Highlights of the in-between journey definitely had to be finally seeing Saarinen’s terminal at Dulles Airport along with flying over the hills surrounding Addis Ababa in the early morning at the end of our trans-Atlantic flight. Just from the two layovers we had at the Addis airport, I already want to return to Ethiopia. Such an old, ancient place like nowhere else I’ve been other than Rome.
Eero Saarinen’s Dulles Terminal
We did finally arrive in Libreville on a Saturday afternoon (we’d left Eugene late on Thursday by bus), and the climate was definitely a bit of a shock coming from an Oregon winter. It was hot and humid like it would be our entire time there. The first day we didn’t do much more than check into our hotel, meet Zoe, who was our contact and on-site coordinator the entire time, have dinner, and fall asleep quickly afterwards.
Sunday, the second day, was our only full day of any kind of recreation. A meager continental breakfast in the hotel restaurant of baguette, tea, and juice was followed by a morning jaunt to several artisanal markets near the heart of the city. The markets were warren-like jumbles of stalls huddled together to shade each other from the tropical sky. At least the first was. The second market that Zoe and another new friend of ours, Allan (from ANGT, the national works agency) led us to was much calmer and airy, with just a few stalls selling various kinds of masks. No one bought masks, but beside I and one other, everyone did purchase something to bring home with them.
We rounded out the day with a lunch at a ocean-side shack (including some soccer on the beach while waiting for food), visiting the oldest church in Libreville (its cathedral, which is one of the few remaining vernacular buildings in the city), and dinner at an Italian restaurant in one of the warehouse districts bordering the ocean.
Front of Eglise Saint-Michel, oldest church in Libreville
One of the craziest weeks I’ve ever had began with a huge crowd. 1100 people, we’d later realize. 1100 students and faculty from the Universite Omar Bongo (UOB) who were in an un-A/Ced auditorium with us to see just what this whole campus master-planning thing was about. Long presentations from both my terminal professor, Mark, about urban design, and from the president of UOB about the future possibilities for campus. Plenty of cheers (and sometimes hoots and jeers) accompanied them; at the end we even helped with a SWOT analysis of their campus: what the attendees thought were strengths, weaknesses, etc.
Immediately after the lunch that followed, we met in the private dining room at the school restaurant that would be our home for the rest of the week’s work. Once organized into small groups of 1 Oregonian student + 3-4 UOB students, we were ushered outside to start on condition analysis of the campus’ streets and buildings, etc. My group was tasked with a building condition analysis of what we’d labelled as the “Hillside” district of UOB. Buildings were to be ranked from green, keep with little modification, yellow, to red, demolish soon as possible. Of the 10-15 buildings within our section, my group only labeled one as green, a few, yellow, and all of the rest were red. This pattern held for the rest of the building condition analysis groups.
One of the pavillions, student housing at Universite Omar Bongo
Over the next several days, I assisted a different group of UOB students in the creation of one of eight, then four, design alternatives for the future of the campus. Our group was to envision the possibilities of campus within the frame of maximum demolition (getting rid of all yellow and red marked buildings at the university). On the second day of full design (Thursday), we combined with the other group working on max. demolition. Together our group crafted a plan very, very different from the on-the-ground reality of today’s UOB.
This new UOB campus would be focused upon a green heart lining a creek, with check dams and bio-retention; to the north and south of the green heart would be the two main sub-campuses, with alternating patterns of quad-building-quad. Along the northern edge, a buffer would be retained between buildings and Boulevard Leon Mba, and all of the campus paths would be pedestrianized, other than one through street linking the north and (new) south entrances. UOB becomes a very green, very regulated, very French-model campus, similar to the origins of the Sorbonne in Paris.
The Sorbonne, Paris
The hardest part of this entire charrette was that, unlike a normal studio, even with group-work, here the point was to let the students from UOB pull as much of the weight in design as they could. Our work was less to actually design, and more to facilitate. Having never really done so before, and additionally not having the greatest in interpersonal skills, it was quite hard to not just dive in and try to do all of the design work. Especially when things were moving slowly while the UOB students hashed out whether or not a building should really go in a particular location or not and all I could feel was deadlines looming.
Thank god for my partner (once groups combined) David, who was much better at being able to teach the Gabonese how to draw something, etc, and then stand back and watch. And for his ability to stay through the night when we had to pull an all-nighter while I went back to our hotel with a few others to catch a few hours of sleep before Friday’s out-brief presentation.
Group members discussing final plan for the maximum demolition alternative
Now, back in Eugene, it does feel very odd to have all of our major design work for the first term done. Since the heart of the work is this participatory process, it would be senseless to make major changes while not with the UOB students/faculty and lose their buy-in. The majority of the rest of this term will be the creation of a bunch of different, new, analysis maps, taking the illustrative plans that resulted from the charrette and digitizing them, as well as creating a regulating plan for each alternative. A regulating plan is the application of the main logic (in our case quad-building-quad) at a more theoretical level across the site, to see just how all of the possible developable parcels lay out. Towards the end of the term there will also be more design drawings showing how the plans would look in 3D space when realized: renderings of the places, etc.
Very excited for all of the new places and things I’ve experienced so far with this project! Even not being that much of a people person, I loved facilitating in such a participatory process. And the UOB students seemed to love it even more, with one new friend telling me she wished she could switch to majoring in architecture because of the charrette!