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The Afghan Studio: an update

The foundation stone laying ceremony for the new Gawhar Khatoon Girls’ School was held just a few weeks ago–to much fanfare and excitement from the local community in Mazar-i-Sharif.

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The foundation stone laying ceremony at the Gawhar Khatoon Girls’ School. (photo courtesy of Airokhsh Fiaz Qaisary)

What began as a discussion between our former dean Daniel Friedman, and philanthropist Janet Ketcham, has progressed to become an actual building that will serve over 3,000 Afghan students starting in 2014. As most UW architecture students probably know, the project began with a research studio taught by myself and Bob Hull. The studio was conceived as a springboard for the actual school project, and offered a unique opportunity for exploring the interconnections between the fields of architecture and international development, all within the context of a comprehensive graduate studio.

Seventeen graduate architecture students spent the 2012 fall quarter closely collaborating with Ginna Brelsford and Catherine Gelband, the executive director and board president of Ayni Education International. Ayni is an international aid agency currently active in Afghanistan, and has funded education projects there since 2001. Ayni supervises the construction of schools and computer centers, in addition to managing teacher training programs in and around Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth largest city. Ayni places great emphasis on building ties with community leaders, and their schools are only constructed where the organization is invited.

The Afghan studio was an amazing experience, mostly because of the students. I have never seen a group more dedicated to a project; we often joked that  all of the ‘sensitive’ students were in the class, and it was true. All of their hard work resulted in eight exceptional projects, and a lot of ideas. The exchange between Ayni and the students was meaningful for both groups, and each came away with a different perspective of architecture and its potential within a humanitarian project.

After a few hiccups–like losing the local architect–Bob Hull stepped in and agreed to see the project through to the end of construction. Working with Yasaman Esmaili and Chris Garland (both from the studio) Bob proposed a school that will function essentially off-the-grid, using as little power as possible.

Passive strategies for the Gawhar Khatoon school. (photo courtesy of Bob Hull, Chris Garland, and Yasaman Esmaili)

Passive strategies for the Gawhar Khatoon school. (image courtesy of Bob Hull, Chris Garland, and Yasaman Esmaili)

Schools in Afghanistan are not typically heated, due to lack of funds for fuel. Electricity is also unreliable, so passive strategies are key to creating a comfortable learning environment. Although these strategies might be called ‘low-tech,’ the calculations for how things will actually work are quite complicated, so architecture student and IDL research assistant, Michael Gilbride helped the team with the daylighting simulations.

Daylighting simulations by Michael Gilbride.

Daylighting simulations by Michael Gilbride.

Another area requiring careful planning was the latrine ‘situation,’ which Mariam Kamara (also a studio participant) kindly offered to research in depth. Mariam brought us all up to speed on toilets in the muslim world, and also calculated how much waste could to be expected from 3000 people per day–not your average design problem!

Waste calculations graphically illustrated. (image courtesy of Mariam Kamara)

Waste calculations graphically illustrated. (image courtesy of Mariam Kamara)

Meanwhile, Ayni has given a grant to future journalist Airokhsh Faiz Qaisary, enabling her to return home from her studies in the US to Mazar-i-Sharif. Airokhsh has been documenting the school construction, and the work that Ayni has carried out on other projects in the area. In addition to taking photos, she has also interviewed the students and staff from the Gawhar Khatoon school, all for her project documenting a day in the life of an Afghan schoolgirl. As part of the documentary, Mariam, Yassi, and I proposed that Airokhsh ask the students to draw how they would like their future school to look.

Students imagine their future school. (photo courtesy of Airokhsh Fiaz Qaisary)

Students imagine their future school. (photo courtesy of Airokhsh Fiaz Qaisary)

Seeing the students drawing the school causes me to reflect and wonder if some of these young women and girls might have futures as architects? Interestingly, there are parallels between their drawings, the Afghan studio proposals, and the actual project–they all create a space where girls can go to school, play freely together, and connect with nature.

A place to learn, play, and connect to nature. (photo courtesy of Airokhsh Fiaz Qaisary)

A place to learn, play, and connect with nature. (photo courtesy of Airokhsh Fiaz Qaisary)

This seems like a given to those of us who have gone to school in the US, but in Afghanistan, these places are rare or non-existent. Currently, there is much apprehension in the country. What will happen when the NATO troops pull out in 2014? What will happen to the students at Gawhar Khatoon? There are no sure answers, but we can only hope that the optimism conveyed in the students’ drawings is a sign of things to come.

By Elizabeth Golden, Assistant Professor

To see more photos of the school project construction and the students at Gawhar Khatoon, go here.

(photo courtesy of Airokhsh Fiaz Qaisary)

(photo courtesy of Airokhsh Fiaz Qaisary)

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