THREAD Artist Residency & Cultural Center
In the remote village of Sinthian in southeastern Senegal sits the Thread residency – one of the world’s newest centers of creative production and interdisciplinary exchange. Melding the vision of artists Josef and Anni Albers, the futuristic designs of architect Toshiko Mori, Sinthian building and craft traditions, and complex environmental and sustainability needs of the region, Thread has emerged as an exciting vision for what an international residency can be.
The project was born out of a chance meeting in 2003 between a Senegalese doctor and Sinthian leader, Dr Magueye Ba, and Nicholas Fox Weber, director of the American-based non-profit arts organization the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation – established by the late painter and his designer wife to carry forward their idiosyncratic, humanist vision of artistic and social progress.
Toshiko Mori, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, gave her class an assignment: create a mixed-use building for a remote stretch of eastern Senegal. The project was born in part from conversations she’d had with friend and past collaborator Nicholas Fox Weber, who heads the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the legacy and ideals of the modernist couple. Mori and Weber shared an interest in the West African region, and what had originated as an academic exercise for her students became reality when he approached her about build- ing a community center and artist residency in the tiny Senegalese village of Sinthian.
Offering her firm’s services pro bono, Mori worked with Jordan MacTavish, a former pupil, whom she had hired as an associate, to adapt the structure he had designed for the class. Among the features they added were masonry based on a Josef Albers fireplace and a thatched roof, inspired by Anni’s textiles, whose sloping surfaces collect rainwater, a precious commodity in the arid climate.
The project of creating an artist residency and cultural centre formally began under the pro-bono stewardship of Toshiko Mori, who had previously held workshops in the area. It is a hub for Sinthian and surrounding villages, providing agricultural training on the area’s fertile land and a meeting place for social organisation which is, in rural Senegal, the crucial mechanism for sustainable development.
A parametric transformation of the traditional pitched roof achieved through a process of inversion collects rainwater, creating a viable source for new agricultural projects during the eight-month dry season. Thread exists at a crossroads between (inter)national artist residency, agricultural hub, community farm, water source, exhibition and performance venue, cultural centre, local library, children’s play gym and village cell phone charger. The success of its atypical plurality proves why art and architecture should be the right of all people.
“The community is very poor. The economic scale is at such an imbalance. We wanted the money that could be used for our fee to add more to the project budget, give jobs, and to hire more local villagers. This allowed it to become a community project instead of a project handed down by an outside architect.” – Toshiko Mori
- It is a sophisticated vernacular building, comprising a dramatic thatched roof of dried grass and bamboo hovering above simple mud-brick walls. Sheltered within, in a pair of modest live-work spaces, artists-in-residence selected from around the world will stay for a minimum of four weeks, developing ideas across a range of media and drawing on the rich traditions and artistic practices of the region.
- The idea was to create architecture without protocol, an architecture that was flexible and spontaneous, an architecture that allowed the community to utilize the space as they see fit. The local sourcing of materials was critical to Mori.
“We only used materials that are available locally, so that transportation would not be required (it is a remote community and transportation is difficult and expensive). The materials could be easily acquired. It is cost effective and available for future maintenance. We based our design on existing local skill using local materials so we did not have to import external labour.” – Toshiko Mori
- The soft curves of the whitewashed building evoke the round vernacular houses of the region. The thatch used for roofing was locally grown and harvested, providing a low cost and sustainable building solution representative of traditional construction techniques.
- The roof substructure is composed of three layers of locally sourced bamboo joined together by Japanese lashing techniques that created an exchange and cross-fertilization of traditional building methods. Clay bricks were formed on-site by local villagers, enhancing participation of the community.
- The slopes of the roofs, also serve a practical purpose, with the pitched roof capable of collecting approximately 40% of the villagers’ domestic water usage – around 200,000 gallons a year – by siphoning the rainfall and channeling it into a new reservoir where it will be available to all as a valuable resource in this often arid climate.
Thread is a socio-cultural center with a residency program to allow local and international artists to live and work in Sinthian, a rural village in Tambacounda, the southeastern region of Senegal. It houses two artists’ dwellings, as well as ample indoor and outdoor studio space.
Thread’s role as a socio-cultural center in Sinthian is most pronounced in its function as an agricultural hub for Sinthian and the surrounding villages. We provide training, fertile land, and a meeting place for the local and regional community to increase their economic stability. The roof collects and retains rainwater, creating a viable source for the majority of these new agricultural projects during the eight-month dry season.
Thread is a flexible and evolving public space — venues for celebrations, classes in language and health, and performances and village meetings are just a few of the ways the local population has taken over programming of the new community center.
The mission of Thread is twofold: to allow artists access to the raw materials of inspiration found in this rarely-visited area of the world; and to use art as a means of developing linkages between rural Senegal and other parts of the globe.
The team behind Thread speaks to its collaborative nature. Its concept and construction were spearheaded by local Sinthian leader and doctor, Dr. Magueye Ba. A Senegalese environmental sustainability expert, Moussa Sene, is its general manager. And its director, Nick Murphy, represents the organization that has made the project possible: The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation through the guidance of its Executive Director, Nicholas Fox Weber.
A PROJECT OF THE JOSEF AND ANNI ALBERS FOUNDATION:
Josef and Anni Albers were two extraordinary artists and human beings, both of them renowned for their work at the Bauhaus School in Germany prior to the closing of that institution in 1933. That year, they moved to the United States, where they would live for the rest of their lives. Anni, primarily a textile artist, was the first in her field to be given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1949, and Josef, a color theorist and painter and teacher, was the first living artist to be the subject of a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in 1970.
The artistic program for Thread is inspired both by Anni Albers’s belief in the vital value of “starting at zero” and Josef Albers’s lifelong desire “to open eyes.” Anni used to say that “you can go anywhere from anywhere,” and Josef made it a perpetual goal to employ “minimal means for maximum effect.” Those beliefs are fundamental to Thread. Otherwise, there is no fixed artistic program.
Despite this support and involvement in Thread’s program and construction, Thread’s most common purpose is as a cultural center and water source for the village; the artists are their guests. Notions of we and they are wonderfully confused at Thread, as we hope too to challenge concepts of the “West”, the “developing world,” and the institutional and social functions of art.
Toshiko Mori Architect:
The remarkable design of Thread was executed pro bono by Toshiko Mori Architect. It is through the ingenuity of the architects–specifically the project architect, Jordan Mactavish–and their commitment to collaboration with local builders that the building is able to be a part of the Sinthian community rather than an imported project space. Its innovative roof design has transformed it into a source of water for the village. The construction process has focused entirely on using local materials and local expertise and as such is truly a building created by the Sinthian community for themselves. Toshiko Mori has had her own history of work in Senegal, taking groups from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design on site visits there since 2009.
Toshiko Mori Architect is known for over thirty years of innovative and influential work in diverse projects. Founded in 1981 and based in New York City, TMA consists of a team of fifteen architects and designers working together to produce an inventive body of work. Their research-based approach to design has been commended in awards, invitations to lectures, and exhibitions around the world. They engage in an architectural practice of material exploration, technological invention, historical and theoretical research, and construction resolution.
TMA has demonstrated inventive approaches to design by exploring new materials and technologies. An integral part of their work involves ecological practices in every project, addressing all levels and components of environmentally conscious design. TMA’s approach balances and combines an optimum use of natural resources; especially when it comes to non-profit organizations. They are conscious of both the building cost and its operations.
Project name: THREAD Artist Residency & Cultural Center
Location: Sinthian, Senegal
Coordinates: 13.338040, -13.621382
Type: Community Centre, Cultural Center
Project Area: 1017 sqm / 11,300 sq.ft
Site Area: 6,232 sqm
Completion Date/Year: February 2015
Opening Date: March 4,2015
Visit THREAD Artist Residency & Cultural Center’s website: here
Client / Owner / Developer: Josef and Anni Albers Foundation
Architects: Toshiko Mori Architect – 199 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10012, United States
Project Team: Toshiko Mori and Jordan MacTavish
General Contractor: Dr. Magueye Ba
Structural Engineer: Michael Stein of Schlaich Bergermann and Partner
Text Description: © Courtesy of Toshiko Mori Architect, Aga Khan Award, THREAD, Josef and Anni Albers Foundation
Images: © Toshiko Mori Architect, Iwan Baan, THREAD, Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, AFLK and Thatcher Cook