An Inhabited Wall


When six friends, imagined for the very first time to build a public library for the students’ community of the town of Grand-Lahou, in Ivory Coast, the idea could have stayed as an unreachable dream. During almost six years, those school teachers fight to get financial support. They found the ONG JADE, and along with the Ivory SIAMOIS scouts, they finally unit with Swiss scouts to raise money together. Hypothesis Atelier, formed of trees architects students, lately join the project to give a shape to the initial library idea.

The construction stage took place in summer of 2018. Local professionals, supported by more than 50 scouts volunteers, raise the building within two months. Hosting more than 60 thousand people, the city is mainly composed of informal settlement. The library is located in the students’ neighbourhood. The building implantation, at the corner of a 600m2 land, creates a strong link with the street. The volume set on a podium which reinforces the public aspect of the library, and protects it toward floods. The facade is thought as a gathering place, shaped thought shadowed patios always accessible to neighbours.

The plan articulates a large reading room in the centre, surrounded by four small volumes housing offices and services. This organisation reinterprets one of the traditional villages. From the outside, the monolithic aspect of vernacular architecture is also preserved.

While the aesthetics of the building is based on different historical elements given by the context, the main experimentation of the project challenges thedefinition of the architectural element par excellence: the wall. Here, composed of multiple moves, repetition of solid and empty spaces, the classic divisional role of the wall is largely questioned. The hypothesis is to consider it not as an element of separation, but as a central element of exchange. This approach isconscientiously part of the cultural, environmental and climatic context of southern Ivory Coast, where partitions define both the interior and exterior space.

The wall is inhabited on all sides; the interior surfaces house shelves, while on the outside the modules are completed by seats. The gaps between each moduleallow the building to enjoy efficient passive ventilation. The passer-by in search of shade as well as the inquiring student is thus invited to meet around thiselement, once a symbol of exclusion.

The construction technique responds to the ambition to offer a new horizon to a material often considered poor and banal, the cement brick. Arranged at 45degrees, the bricks are articulated, breaking the linearity of the wall, making it permeable and creating multiple moments of interaction. Despite the apparent complexity of the plan, it is arranged on a strict grid where the concrete punctual structures blend entirely into the design of the walls. The different angles alsoincrease the resistance of the surfaces and increase the durability of the building.

The community library now offers a collection of more than 2500 books and is facing its success in accompanying young students.


What prompted the project?

The project was driven by the desire to become more active outside of our studies and to confront architecture with social concerns.
After a workshop led with Francis Kéré in Mozambique, we find out a new world: the possibility to build new realities for communities. We understood the concrete and physical dimension of a project within a specific place. We realized the direct impact that an intervention can have in a specific context and how it can become crucial for people in a very short time.
Pursuing this desire, we heard about a project led by a scout association for the construction of a small library in Côte d’Ivoire. By that time there was already design and an established date for the construction. We believed we could develop an alternative proposal with a stronger impact, still in collaboration with the Scout association and the local community. We had a limited timing before the beginning of the construction, and the time to go to Grand-Lahou to help with the construction came quite quickly.

What tools did you use in the development and design of the latter?

The coordination of the development of the project was through video call meetings with the different interested members for this collaboration in Geneva (Switzerland) and Grand-Lahou (Côte d’Ivoire).
Depending on the phase we were able to contribute with a different material to be able to explain and express in the best way our ideas. Sketches, CAD drawings, diagrams, images and models, were part of this production.
We also created and brought on the construction site a manual composed of axonometric drawings to coordinate the steps of the construction.

What informed the materiality of the proposal?

Thanks to discussions and pictures of the plot and its surroundings, we identified a repeated feature: the presences of massive-closed walls that compose the landscape of the village. After confirming that they were made mostly by concrete blocks that were produced locally, we got excited and took the opportunity to re-think the use of those bricks. We believed that there was a potential to change the perception towards it, by using the same material but in a different way.

How instrumental were the models in communicating the project to a third party?

As the concept itself was an open wall which encourages interactions between the inside and the outside, a tridimensional comprehension was essential to develop our first reflections.
Regarding the construction phase, we considered necessary to bring with us a physical model. This decision was overriding because it became an incredible tool to exchange with workers, volunteers and the local community which was really curious by the presence of this new building.

How and to what extent was the community engaged in both the design and then construction of the project?

In social projects, the community plays an essential role. In our opinion, the grade of success can be rooted in how the project touches and modifies positively the conditions of a determinate community.
In this case, we tried to involve from the very beginning the community to understand what could be appropriate and what was feasible build.
Regarding the design, from Switzerland, we constantly exchange project advances by video call reviews with the NGO, formed by local teachers. Later on, during our trip to Côte d’Ivoire, we tried to verify or modify the project by confronting it again with the place and the community. Volunteers, workers, craft-mans, children and in general future users were part of this process.
Another important aspect regarding this point was that we were very interested to learn from and with the people that were involved in the construction.

Could you expand a little bit more on the title 'An Inhabited Wall’?

The archetype of the wall had a fundamental role in this project, we wanted to challenge the usual way of composing massive walls. Why not think of the wall as an element of connection instead of a separation? We fragmented and drew the wall in motion, therefore, the possibility of creating in-between spaces containing public or semi-public spots, became a reality.
In synthesis, our hypothesis was to propose a wall lived and experienced simultaneously from both of its faces.

How did you approach the term and very notion of the library?

As a fundamental part of the programme, we had to provide the space for 2500 books. “The networked house of knowledge” was the name of the project given by the local ONG and proposes an ambitious social and educational program. This vision outlines a building which is not only a conventional library but a multifunctional space, a place of exchange, a house of knowledgeable to captivate its community.

What role does such a space play within the settlement of Grand Lahou?

The role of this building in this village is to provide a space for all, to exchange or rest, a place of shadow, of knowledge, of hope, and of culture.
Nevertheless, as we said, behind this project is not only the building but the ambitious didactic programme directed to a large scope. We are more than happy to know that the NHOL is now successfully operated by the community, which throws many events and is taking over of the space.

What are your hopes for the project in 10 years time?

Actually, even before the construction has finished, the building endorsed the nickname of « the twisted bricks building
». (Le bâtiment des briques tordues in French). If it entered into the common memory in a few days, we dream this building will then be able to become a referential point within the community of Grand-Lahou.
Moreover, we believe in a functional space, but also on a building able to provide new experiences, to create memories around it, to provoke identity and therefore an emotional connection to the edifice.
Finally, we hope that this library could serve as a stereotype breaker regarding the use of the wall and inspire walls which encourage social relations, outline the importance of public sphere, revalue the local crafts, and finally which reveal new possibilities against the current and diffuse neo-bourgeois suburban house typology.

What is for you the architects most important tool?

The trust that imagination can have an impact.
We think that to be relevant as an architect, we need to be pro-active, and to be relevant in nowadays world we need imagination.