Productive Landscapes_An Agricultural Research & Education Centre providing Sub-Saharan Africa’s first Seed Vault

Project

Set in a near semi-industrialised agricultural future of Tanzania – a vision which Tanzania is currently aiming for and sees for itself. The proposal looks to explore how that future vision may manifest itself architecturally and how it may evolve.

The project is located in Northern Tanzania, on the western slopes of Kilimanjaro on a 7500acre commercial farm named Simba Farm. The farm currently focuses on cultivating crops as well as offering lodgings for tourists visiting the area and Kilimanjaro. However, the main revenue generators for the farm are its crops and seed multiplication for European companies – which it can offer due to its currently ideal environmental conditions, abundant sunlight and fertile land.

Kilimanjaro is a rich farming area, with numerous crops grown around the mountain and the majority of this is stimulated by the mountain itself, with its melting snows and temperate climate providing an ideal farming environment – however this is currently under threat, mainly with the potential loss of the ice caps on Kilimanjaro by as early as 2030, leading to the rivers drying up, and with already recognised drought increases in the area, this is only likely to increase over the coming years. This has further knock on effects such as land degradation and productivity of land, which is already lower than achievable levels due to numerous problems that agriculture faces in Tanzania.

On a wider, national scale, Tanzania is a rapidly growing, ambitious nation with Agriculture at its core – accounting for 29% of overall GDP, which itself has been increasing by an average 10-11% over the past 4 years, this is a massive portion of the country – exacerbated further when you consider over 60% of people employed in Tanzania are in the Agriculture industry – most of which are smallholder farmers in rural communities, farming to fend for themselves. As Tanzania pushes for a semi-industrialised agricultural sector, able to compete against other nations, it has underlying problems which can prevent it from achieving its vision. Issues such as education, technology use or lack of, access to credit, access to markets, poor infrastructure – and some of these issues are one’s that the program looks to address.

The building is centred around a Seed Archive, Sub-Saharan Africa’s first – with all other seed banks situated mainly north of the equator, and it seems crazy to think that this offering is not present in somewhere like Africa, a continent which revolves around Agriculture for its livelihood. The importance of the seed cannot be underestimated, it acts as the basis for our everyday lives, what we eat, wear, use and without them – as the quote here suggests mankind would be facing certain catastrophe. It acts as an insurance policy for the preservation of biodiversity, which at one point if called upon can revitalisation and replenish areas in crisis. To further this point – the first withdrawal of seeds from the Svalbard International Seed Vault was made recently by Syria, due to its ongoing devastation. Such situations will only increase with severity over the future. The seed bank acts as the foundation for the rest of the building literally! From this research and development labs look to use the information stored and progress beyond this in terms of dna, tissue culture, with all of this information disseminated as education to the wider Tanzanian population via educational facilities, putting the work into practice as well as seeking to better educate them on farming methods and using their land better.

The building has many different facets to it, but in terms of spatial explorations the design has focused on some key design drivers – helping guide the designs evolution. The project has looked into notions of time and its relationship to architecture & agriculture, the idea of control (of lack of) and the idea of spatial flexibility, and being able to transform a very horizontal environment into one that can be explored in all X,Y & Z axes.

Perhaps the basis of all the other design principles – time is the underlying element behind the building. And it has been designed with this in mind as it begins to highlight areas of importance, life spans as well as materiality and spatial considerations. So viewed through a timeline, we can imagine a scheme where the seed vaults are inserted into the ground making use of the static, unchanging subterranean environment, with the building growing from this elevating itself above the land, allowing for itself to be populated with the rest of the accommodation, and becoming productive itself, in terms of allowing for growth and extension of the landscape as well as harvesting solar energy. And then at the end of time, the apocalypse if you will, when the land has changed beyond recognition after thousands of years, the seed archives still remain, keeping the items for life to start over, preserved. The building works on two timescales normal time – and extended time. This is not unusual, constructs such as Onkalo in Finland are currently exploring this issue of designing for time, but in this instance for nuclear waste – whereas the metabolists looked at future expansion and development of architecture, allowing for change.

The building itself, when considered as a ‘moment in time’ creates a subterranean environment for the archives, at the base of the main visitors entrance to the building, an emphatic void, forming a hill which literally becomes and supports the steel framed structure and which links both the subterranean and elevated worlds.

Beneath the levitating structure, the land remains a productive one, with boundaries between landscape and architecture blurred, crop fields, allotments flow into the building, creating areas for R&D tests to take place and for newly educated Tanzanians to put their education into practice. Outdoor classrooms break down the boundaries of the traditional classroom, placing the students within the very environment they are learning about. A flexible area allows for communal gatherings, informal markets and agricultural expo’s to take place.

The structure itself is elevated – for numerous reasons, but one of its main reasons is to all for flexibility and change. The frame allows for infinite possibilities of configurations AND EXPANSION of modular accommodation, which can expand in all 3 axes as they wish. Classrooms can hang below the super structure, with teachers able to point to specific elements, and researchers able to check on their tests.

The structure is a trellis for growth, allowing the landscape below to expand and make a very rigid element productive – which then is furthered when you consider that the roof of the building offers the perfect environment for harvesting solar energy, therefore the roof can be leased out to energy companies, to test out new devices or panels – the building starts to become a test bed – offering agriculture in Tanzania the chance to diversify, which in my opinion is key to its development.

This principle of spatial change and flexibility is really enhanced by the contrast of an everchanging environment above ground and the very static and controlled environment beneath. The building allows for classrooms to be placed next to labs – with visibility to their workings key, but they also start to highlight the idea of control – occurring in a number of different formats. Labs are inherently controlled environments, and the structure and spaces around them in this scheme are very passive, non-mechanised and constantly evolving, the space is contradictory – controlled, yet flexible and unpredictable. The use of a vegetated structure is facilitated at the beginning by the frame itself, and other sub-grids inserted into public areas to facilitate this growth – which can be positive and actually offering better climatic conditions in terms of temperature, shade and humidity levels – however while the building sets out to control this questions of nature’s inevitable growth and to the point where perhaps it gets out of control due to lack of maintenance, who knows what the future may bring and starts to potentially create a completely unique, evolving environment – but raises questions IS ARCHITECTURE STILL CONTROLLING NATURE OR VICE VERSA?

However, no matter what happens, over production of farmlands due to commercialisation, environmental disasters or what have you – nature will always inevitably win out and this is solidified by the seed archives – designed to endure the test of time until they may be required.

To conclude – the proposal set out with quite a large remit, looking to address the wider issues of agriculture in Tanzania with an ambition to actually strengthen it – in the form of an ambitious, an innovative manner and while the building does offer this it actually begins to raise larger questions or permanence, temporary, importance and control or unpredictability. I’ve found that architecture can only facilitate a certain vision up to a point, but designing in terms of timescales is key for understanding a buildings program and requirements – however you cannot account for the unpredictable no matter how much you attempt to – but perhaps this isn’t a bad thing, as it starts to create an environment that works with time and its unpredictability, a building which is preserving and evolving in parallel.

Interview

What prompted the project?

The project was undertaken as part of my 4th year studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen for my MA in Architecture. The unit itself, Architecture & Extreme Environments is split into two semesters, with a heavy emphasis on specific site context and creating architecture that responds to this, mostly in areas of the world which are considered to be ‘extreme’, whether that be in terms of climate/geography/politically/economically each area presents its own specific challenges which offer the chance to be explored architecturally. The project developed from a field-trip to Tanzania in Semester 1, which was used as exploration for our Second Semester project but also to test 1:1 prototypes which had been designed and built specifically for that environment. Whether that be to create clean drinking water, shade, new building materials using existing materials. From this fieldwork a program is generated, and my personal project looked to address Agriculture in Tanzania, which is prevalent in Tanzanian society. It currently makes up approx. 29% of Tanzania’s overall GDP, and over 60% of people are employed in the industry, however it faces major barriers in terms of production, technology, infrastructure, education etc. The project looked to address a few of these issues, but also to address future issues. The Kilimanjaro region is facing numerous environmental changes in the near future which could lead to a devastating effect not only to that area but on a much wider scale – therefore the proposed scheme looks to safeguard the very essence of agriculture – the seed.

What other case studies and projects informed your seed vault?

There is a great emphasis on research and gathering of information which cannot all be shown, but there are numerous other seed vaults which were researched such as the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard and the Kew Milllenium Seed Bank in Wakehurst, UK. The logistics, organisation and requirements were all considered and implemented where required eg. cold rooms/labs etc. However, what became more apparent is the lack of a major continental seed vault in Africa especially sub-saharan Africa, which is quite amazing when you consider how reliant the continent is on agriculture, acting as the backbone to numerous nations. Numerous projects were referenced throughout the project, Superstudio, Hans Hollein, Onkalo Nuclear Waste Repository, Metabolist Architecture, Yona Friedman and so on and so forth. Because if I learnt nothing else from my trip to Tanzania, I learnt that there is an instant social reaction to something new there, intricate ‘alien-like’ devices create interaction with locals who are immediately interested in how and why. There is a demand for new ideas. Therefore such references were used to show that a building even in Tanzania should be used to inspire and demonstrate a new future, in whatever context.

What was your work process in terms of project development research, drawing and design?

As previously mentioned, there was a large amount of research undertaken, which is then developed into infographic-esque boards, which help with the condensing and solidifying of information, which is then easily conveyed to others – this information then slowly manifests itself as a design, informed via the understanding of program requirements, terrain, environmental components etc. Through a large amount of sketch iterations, development and refinement of scale and program, which is lastly taken into 3D to explore the space further the initial concept was always to develop a design which both worked with the land, but not only to hide within the landscape, but accentuate it. The use of a grid automatically helped to organise an organic landscape which had no immediate context other than rolling fields and hills. It also begins to create an interesting juxtaposition between the orthogonal and organic which was explored at greater depth – but it was in this intersection that the project was explored, at sketch, at 3D and at detail level.

What defined the language of representation of the project? When crafting the views and snippets into the project what were for you the most important aspects you wanted to convey?

The representation of the project was something I was very keen to enhance, to highlight the importance of this proposal. One of the key themes that runs throughout the project is time, so the overarching question was how do you portray a sense of time in a very static 2D piece of work. Therefore the perspectives took on an almost graphic novel-like take on the standard CGI culture architecture finds itself in today, and instead of selling the ‘final image’ the project used perspective to show the evolution of a building over a time period, and speculate about what the future may hold. Personally, I have always loved to use collage, which is very quick and dirty way to quickly piece an idea together, in terms of scale, proportion, form and contrast – it also uses elements that people can find easily identifiable and relate to. However, the project was also crated as a completely buildable and practical proposal, and these technical aspects have looked to be integrated with these ideas of visualisation/collage/infographics etc. So while the section is one that implements some form of collage it is underpinned by a technical rigour which it would be a shame not to enhance. Finding a way to combine all these styles is the tricky part. Some successful, others not so much – but it is a balance I am still trying to find. The project (created in 4th year) was one I used a test run for the final thesis year, in terms of exploring the use of graphics and representation, understanding what works and what doesn’t.

What is your take on the hyper realistic render?

A hyper-realistic render was something I did not set out to do, but it became very apparent that it was a great way to demonstrate how the building would evolve over time, and but the viewer into that timeline, so you can almost imagine that scene unfolding. It was also a method of highlighting that this is in fact a very genuine proposal, one that could be built – in whatever form, but went to tell a story of the importance of agriculture, the importance of preservation and enhancement of it and that this sort of scheme is one we should be considering. Hyper realistic renders are used in so many different formats nowadays, from ikea catalogues and adverts to glossy new masterplans, we live in a world saturated with CGI’s, however, when used strategically they can tell a very powerful story, creating a world that doesn’t seem very far away – very real. I guess that is something I wanted to portray, that while this is a speculative project to a certain extent, it is one that I very much believe could and should be real.

How is the notion and importance of time within the project reflected in the project’s representation?

Time is represented via a series of visualisations, each displaying different aspects of the building at different points in time, from the moment of construction to the end of time when apocalyptic scenarios may occur. But this is used to highlight the importance of certain aspects of the building and how each part of the building has its own timeline. Time is also reflected in plans which are shown to evolve over time, using the grid as tool to expand into, allowing all axes to be explored 3 dimensionally. This idea of time highlights the need for flexibility and modularity in our near future, which preserving the most important aspects underground in an unchanging environment.

Are you interested in exploring the relationship/potential between architecture and time further? How does and has this affected the way you think and approach the practice?

Through the project, while this is one that worked on a vast timescale, with each different aspect having its own mini-timeline I realised how important this consideration to architecture should be. It defines program, longevity, materiality & spatial requirements, which then raises more questions on how to then display this, exaggerate this, hide this. Time is something that is precious, and should be invested in and if we are going to place an object into the world or we are going to leave a mark on the landscape, we need to consider what we are saying and how that building not only communicates now but also how that will resonate in the future, 10 years to 1000years. We should be designing for time – someone like Louis Kahn, was trying to design for timelessness, something that resonated through the ages and I think this is of immense importance. This does not mean it has to be the pantheon, it can adapt, it can change to changing landscapes and still be timeless. Interestingly, as you brought up the hyper-realistic render previously, the way we demonstrate time as part of our design proposals is rarely shown. No one ever considers the degradation of the building, how it may look in 50 years, the homeless people that sleep in the doorways and the changes that may surround it. Perhaps Sir John Soane was right when he commissioned Joseph Gandy to paint the Bank of England as a relic!

What would you say is the architects most important tool?

For this project Photoshop!!!!! No, I think it would be wrong to pinpoint one particular tool to be most important. My personal take is that an architect needs to be multi-skilled, a chameleon that can adapt to all situations. But if pushed, arguably I would say IMAGINATION is our greatest tool. We are in a very special position where we can shape our worlds future, create a future that we would want to live in. We should be bold, with our proposals and be ambitious for not only our generation but future ones. I believe that ‘what if’ should be the start of all projects, we as architects should be looking to push boundaries, to provoke, to instigate debate and conversation, rightly or wrongly, but we should take chances. I would bet some of the best inventions in history began with that phrase, it allows us the chance to step back from reality and explore a new one. Life is too short not to take chances and explore!

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