Building on Common Ground

Building on Common Ground: Partners for Architecture Joins a Village to Raise a School

By: Michelina Docimo

Grain Storage Huts in Nigeria, Photo by Patricia Thrane

“It takes a village to raise a child,” is the oft quoted ancient African proverb when discussing education and building community. Partners for Architecture, an architecture firm in Stamford, CT, that bases its mission on this core value, flew into action when approached by UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) in October 2008 to create one master plan for eighty schools to be built across the borders of four civil-war ravaged African countries: Republique de Guinea, Côte D’Ivoire, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The LAB4LAB (Learning Along Borders for Living Across Boundaries)project objective is to ease conflict by creating safe places of community education and social activity to stimulate development and interdependence between the countries. A goal easier said than done, Partners for Architecture’srole was to translate this utopian concept into a real, physical solution within six weeks time.

Stephen Grasso and Rainer Schrom, co-principals of Partners for Architecture, Grasso invited me to tour their newly-renovated, sustainable studio space. Once a factory plant that manufactured shims for tanks during World War II, the studio’s smaller conference room was originally a vault that stored sensitive paperwork. Now, the original weathered brick walls display the firm’s current drawing board sketches and construction documents, ranging from country clubs, to high rises, to cultural art centers. The sleek work space is a pangaea of openness and light, allowing for a liberal exchange of ideas among the seven architects.

Nigerian Children by Adobe Hut. photo: P. Thrane

“There are two types of people in the world,” says Grasso, offering an espresso, “the Oppressed and the Oppressor. As a group of architects of different backgrounds in this office, we like to believe that how we design, creates positive cultural effects. We realize our actions and the choices we make have consequences, not only on the local natural environment, but on the psychological landscape on a global scale.” As architects and creative thinkers, Partners for Architecture did not associate with either the oppressed or the oppressor; they served to bridge the gap with a vision and a leap of faith into a cultural darkness. Design, as they had known good design to be, was thrown out the window and they welcomed this freedom-to-reinvent as a breath of fresh air. Inspiration, they believe, comes from no preconceived notion.

Faced with many challenges of designing schools in the heart of the African jungle, it took one to two weeks to fully understand the task at hand, recalls Schrom. “Any of our sophisticated construction methods that involve machinery simply would not work. We learned to build literally with our hands. There was no running water, no sanitary system, no electricity, no paved roads.” These were their limitations and it was liberating.

Students traditionally sit in a circle, a design element in the new building. photo courtesy UNICEF

Perhaps the most critical realization for the firm was the fact that Africans live outside; their lives revolve around the landscape and they see architecture as shelter from the sun. African architectural images tend to consist of adobe-walled, circular grass-thatched humble huts, camouflaging into the earth’s brownness. A history riddled in poverty and war, for centuries Africa has succumbed to western and eastern influences in religion, politics, economics and architecture. Most devastatingly, though, has been the recent civil war–creating tension between brothers, alienating neighboring countries and leaving millions of indigenous peoples uprooted and oppressed. Diverse landscapes of tropical rainforests, open grass plains, and thick mangroves have been destroyed through the actions of paramilitary, slash and burn practices. Rich in diamonds, gold, minerals, iron ore, cocoa, and coffee, these countries’ lands have been mined and exploited and left barren.

Partners for Architecture’s design for a master plan school community was to assist UNICEF in lifting the oppression. Given a plan that prepared the site by clearing trees, Partners for Architecture rejected it, saying they would not contribute to a design that further encouraged deforestation. Instead, they developed a beehive-like layout of hexagonal shaped pods dispersed between the trees, allowing for a flexible plan that could be adapted to different locations and easily expanded upon.

“We have designed the pods to consist of three sections. Safety was a critical design issue. The first access area is the most publicly-used space. Then, we move further into school administrative offices and the computer labs, and finally the most private classroom areas, with the youngest group of children are sheltered by the inner-most circular space. Africans tend to teach their children in circles rather than rows. The hexagon shape leaves an opportunity to build community and share borders,” explains Schrom.

Students using exterior hallways. photo courtesy UNICEF

All the hallways are open-air exterior spaces. The building materials are native wood, metal, and adobe. The roofs are solar equipment-ready, so that panels can be installed and wired to provide the electricity for the computer lab. Rather than covering the classroom ceilings with a metal roof, Partners for Architecture proposed incorporating vibrantly colored hand-woven African fabrics strewn over the rafters that evoke an unspoken history.

Both Grasso and Schrom agree that dialogue with the African people was critical in planning the design. “We welcomed their opinions and needed their knowledge just as much as they wanted ours. We worked with a local African architect who was able to explain the simple building method to the labor force. The locals participated in all phases of the project from the conceptual to the physical construction.”

The finished school uses local materials, labor and is designed with climate condition of the country as a principle consideration. photo courtesy UNICEF

In addition to the physical structure and aesthetics, Partners for Architecture strategized how the buildings would function. Because there was no running water or sanitary sewer system available, dry latrines were proposed to avoid disease. A hybrid of two design ideas, the lavatories are located in dark interior spaces. Screen covered chimneys allow for light but prevent flies from entering. The human waste is then collected, composted, and used as fertilizer to re-introduce nutrients into the soil. In a most basic sense, even the design of the latrines is a system of giving back and making the soil fertile again.

“As architects, we are trained to look at negative or void spaces that buildings leave behind and we attempt to carve out a special place. We believe that positive buildings in communities won’t be vandalized because their function is clear. We find satisfaction in designing public buildings because they have a larger impact on community and society. In our corner of America, what is most important is the real estate market and property value. People build homes for the next buyer rather than tailoring their homes around their lives. A home should be an investment in life rather than the market. Everyday is a struggle to find a meeting place of cultural differences. We think where the sun meets the horizon is our common ground,” reflects Schrom.

by Michelina Docimo, Contributing Writer

This article first appeared in Artes Magazine:

Construction on the schools began in February 2009 and continues to progress. Currently, five schools in the Republique de Guinea have been completed, providing safe havens of education and communication to promote peace, a process that never ceases.

Partners for Architecture is located at 48 Union Street, Stamford, CT 06906.  For inquiries regarding design, planning, LEED certification, cost feasibility analysis, and corporate or community lecture opportunities on sustainable design, please call (203) 708-0047 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              (203) 708-0047      end_of_the_skype_highlighting or visit


Kathleen Patricia Thrane is a painter, documentary photographer, avocational archaeologist, and activist. Trained at the New School of Social Research Parson’s School of Design, Thrane has lived in Africa, the Far East, Asia, and Europe documenting poverty, discrimination, politics, and culture. Thrane’s biography and sample works can be viewed at: www.alexideas/website/kpthrane/artist.html email:


3 Comments to “Building on Common Ground”

  1. Thanks for an honest and truthful post, the like of which is surprisingly rare and all the more valuable for it. Regards, John.

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