Unmaterial: Building for Nomadic Cultures
Option studio, instructed by Jose Selgas (Selgascano Architects)
Images copyright Iwan Baan, unless noted otherwise
In the summer of 2014, the Unmaterial studio constructed an education center and vaccination clinic to test new processes for designing with nomadic cultures in remote regions. The Turkana people—a contemporary Kenyan tribe with an estimated population of over 800,000—operate as semi-nomadic goat herders in a region distant from civilization, with no infrastructure and scarce resources. Working with tribal leaders and a relief organization, we designed and built for this difficult to access area using limited materials and unskilled labor.
Above: We navigate one of several rivers en route to our site during flash floods. Photo by Tyler Crain.
Designing a parametric structural system, materials needed to be lightweight and accessible to the site. Basic plumbing pipe and corrugated metal were available at the nearest importer, a 6-hour off-road drive from the site, and kept the truck light enough should it have to ford rivers or sand traps. Scaffolding joints provided a flexible connection system—the design was based around how many joints could fit in a suitcase flown from Nairobi.
A series of 16 trusses build a form determined by sun paths and functional requirements. A clerestory allows indirect light and ventilation to enter while protecting from the space during the wet season.
The structure rose in about 1.5 days, was adjusted as needed, and the scaffolding joints were spot-welded into a fixed connection.
The available labor had zero construction experience, shared little common language with our group, and were unable to read construction drawings. All parts of construction were designed to be translated into a series of actions and to allow for enormous building tolerances. Our research into previous structures built by other outsiders in the region showed that the Turkana found rectilinear buildings alienating and difficult to construct. Instead we chose to work with traditional processes the tribe uses to build their typically circular and radial structures.
The building serves to extend the canopies of nearby acacia trees, which previously provided the only shade for meetings, networking them into one large gathering place.
After the 3-week construction process, the community welcomed the building through a naming ceremony, appointing it ‘Konokono’—or ‘Snail.’