Learning from Africa – building for the future
“A Bayreuth for Africa” is what Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010) envisaged: The diverse German artist and filmmaker wanted to build an opera village in Africa as a place for people to cooperate on arts projects and so lay mutual prejudices to rest. Having developed the idea together with architect Francis Kéré from Burkina Faso, Schlingensief did not live to see its construction, which began in 2010. We paid a visit to find out how it looks today.
Learning from one another
Abandoning mutually perceived stereotypes and learning from one another through cooperating on arts projects – that was the vision that inspired Christoph Schlingensief and his wife Aino Laberenz to initiate a site of education and cultural exchange in a remote part of Africa. The now internationally renowned architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, a native of Burkina Faso, was crucially involved in the development of the project. In 2004, while still a student in Berlin, he realized his first project in his hometown Gando – a primary school, which won the international Aga Khan Award for Architecture. To Kéré, architecture is an instrument of social change. Consequently, he involves future users in the planning of his social projects, and always takes local habits and traditions into account.
A well-informed taxi driver, familiar with the opera village project, drove us north from Ouagadougou. As the dry season sets in, temperatures here rise to at least 40 degrees early in the day. Arid steppes, a few small villages, little lost-seeming herds of cattle – then, after about an hour, we see a sign on the left indicating an open air sculpture park, and soon afterwards we take a right turn to the opera village. In the middle of this still barren, rolling landscape, we stop in front of some red mud houses grouped around an open yard. They are visibly different from the buildings in the surrounding villages as they have large, overhanging, corrugated metal roofs.
In the beginning: learning
Sévérin Sobgo, assistant to the on-site administrative head, gives us a friendly welcome and shows us around. He has been working here since the project’s inception, when he was still a student and personal interpreter to Christoph Schliengensief. So far, the village project consists of 23 building sections, including a school, an administrative building and a public health clinic, financed by the non-profit foundation Festspiel Afrika GmbH. The school is a regular public institution; the teachers are paid by the state.
As well as maths, reading and writing, and later biology, history, geography and French, the pupils are instructed in art, dance, music and drama. The Festspiel Afrika foundation is responsible for this part of the schooling, provided by its own staff with workshops held by temporary guests. Schlingensief set up the foundation to promote awareness of art and culture as a part of life and so create new prospects not only for the pupils but also for their parents.
The architecture: A symbolic snail
Christoph Schlingensief and Francis Kéré designed the opera village in terms of a master plan to be followed in gradual steps, according to the financial situation. Schlingensief chose a snail shape as a symbol of steady growth, and Kéré linked this metaphor with the kraal, the traditional circular settlement arrangement that is typical for Burkina Faso. Construction takes place using local methods and local materials, which Kéré has innovatively adapted to increase their weather resistance (pure mud constructions cannot always withstand heavy rainfall) and improve the indoor climate. He has also developed a dual ceiling construction to naturally improve the atmosphere inside. The shade provided by the overhanging roof creates a soft intermediary area between indoors and outdoors. Looking through a narrow window into one of the school classes, we can see that the children are able to work with concentration, certainly because of the pleasant climate. A little way off, we see the outpatients’ health clinic.
Still missing: The festival hall
The festival hall was intended to form the heart of the village, used for intercultural events as well as assemblies and other get-togethers. It is drawn into the ground plan as a core area made up of two, large, different-sized, circular shapes, slotting into one another: the two-part auditorium seating 600, with a diameter of about 25 metres, and tiered seating rows and axial staircases like an ancient Roman theatre; and a smaller stage area with a round orchestra and a raised platform for the performers, inclined towards the auditorium. Our hosts show us the site earmarked for the festival hall and we optimistically say goodbye.
The majority of concert halls now is built after the so called vineyard model. This term goes back to Hans Scharoun. The architect of the Berlin Philharmonie wanted to intensify the music experience of the audience but also abolish social hierarchies in architecture in the young state of democratic Germany. We publish a chapitre of the book Modern Theatres in advance.
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