Anthropologist among architects

An anthropologist among architects: that’s the most accurate description of Dutch architect Anne Feenstra. It took some time before Feenstra showed buildings and designs during his talk at ARCAM on August 17. First came portraits of people because, so he argued, architects should never forget who they build for. Or as fellow architect Rene van Zuuk: ‘a building without people is only a building’.

Before leaving for Afghanistan, Feenstra worked as an architect at the office of Will Alsop and involved in projects like Almere Stadscentrum and Rotterdam Central Station. In 2003 he established his studio, AFIR Architects, with offices in Kabul and Khulm in the north. He teaches architecture, unpaid, at the University of Kabul and the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi. In the Indian capital he established Arch-I, a platform for architecture and urban planning.

Afghanistan is a large country with an extreme climate, known for its great variety of high and low-lying areas and its splendid scenery. Travelling is difficult because of the turbulent political situation as well as the impassable roads and hectic traffic. More casualties result from traffic accidents than from war. Feenstra showed images of snow-covered mountain passes and flooded roads, and showed an Afghan man on a horse as the solution when the Jeep got stranded once again. This simple answer to the problems of an architect in Afghanistan is typical of the level-headedness with which Feenstra speaks of his work.

And travel he must. The so-called 'mother guardhouses' project, commissioned by UNICEF and the Afghan Ministry of Health, takes him across almost all of Afghanistan. UNICEF researched the high mortality rate among pregnant women and newborns in Afghan hospitals. The poor hygiene is partly the result of the spatial lay-out of the buildings. People were walking in and out of the non-partitioned areas. In Afghan culture women must be accompanied by men. The challenge was not only to separate spaces but also make people aware, especially men, that this separation was necessary. The women would get their desired privacy and hygiene would be significantly improved. The commission was particularly interesting in that it was a search for a new typology that, according to Feenstra, could not be found in the Neufert. The local UNICEF director was so pleased with the design and construction that he wanted to copy it for other planned mother guardhouses. That was decided without the architect. Local differences require local solutions, is his response.

And that is how Feenstra introduces his definition of sustainability.  This is always based on available local knowledge. Local people are familiar with soil conditions, climate, available materials, and natural threats such as earthquakes. Sustainability is also a matter of establishing a lasting relationship with one another. Feenstra quoted the most frequently asked question of him: 'How long are you gonna to stay?' And he voiced his criticism of American building projects in particular. These are built in a short period of time, with minimal input from local experts. The projects lurk behind large billboards for long periods of time, displaying the names of all the well-intentioned international donors. Before the words follow-up and maintenance can be spoken, the do-gooders have flown the coop.

Not only is the follow-up care handled well by AFIR Architects, but so too is the process preceding the design. Talks and workshops are organised with local authorities, experts and consumers. 'Design by proposal’, is how Feenstra cited Will Asop. The design of the mother guardhouses distinguished three zones: the public space, the 'house' with garden (for the women), and a buffer or transitional zone in which the kitchen and space for the nurses is incorporated. The heavy walls are interrupted by the low windows to give the reclining women a view of the world outside. Although the ministry wanted a 'box' and not a round shape for cost reasons, AFIR Architects persuaded the clients that a straightforward solution was not necessarily the most efficient one. The model was then adapted further to local conditions, and height, climate and local materials and building tradition determine the differences. In Herat, close to the Iranian border, a special light yellow Iranian brick was used. In Feyzabad, they used the local flat rock and warm terra colours. Even the houses still under construction in Mehtar Lam, Kandahar, Asadabad and Bamyan will get their own coleur locale.

Bamyan is the place where the large Buddha statues were destroyed. But the real disaster here, argued Feenstra, was the killing of the thousands of civilians. But the province of Bamyan is also a place of beauty. Magnificent landscape images of the first National Landscape Park in Afghanistan proved this. Here is where AFIR Architects built a visitor centre and a toilet building. The local expertise on climate, materials and soil conditions, combined with the architect's obligation to realise the most pleasant building possible, resulted in a sophisticated structure.

Reconstruction is a constant necessity in Afghanistan. Feenstra works with a team as a Dutch representative of the Centre for International Education (CIE) on the renovation of the National Museum in Kabul. His studio is also supervising the renovation of the Bagh-e Jahan Nama in Khulm. Russian forces shot and destroyed the steely Emir's palace. A task for the Afghan architecture practice is to clear the building site of tanks and mines. Mines, acknowledged Feenstra, are the only things that truly terrify him. In Khulm he once again spoke with local experts, and after lengthy persistence he contributed to alleviating the huge unemployment problem with the introduction of a teacher-student concept. With this, social sustainability and the handing down of building traditions go hand in hand. The walls of the palace were rebuilt using the local Pahksa technique where the layer-by-layer construction resulted in original looking yet new walls. The building now houses an ethnographic museum, and the surrounding garden of pomegranate trees was restored to its former glory and serves as a meeting place for locals.

The Dutch consul in Afghanistan concluded the evening by pledging to bestow honorary citizenship of Afghanistan on Feenstra. A deserved award for this anthropologist among architects.