The restructuration of the Université Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) campus in Dakar, Senegal, is on site. Hardel Le Bihan were commissioned for the student lodgings, working in partnership with artist and young Senegalese architect Alun Be, who was responsible for advising the team on local culture and identity. At the Dakar Art Biennale 2018, and in a joint exhibition with designer Jean-Servais Somian, Alun Be revisits the challenges of this experience of co-conception, essential in his mind, and the role that his generation must play in building the African city of tomorrow.
Clémence Mathieu (HLB) :
When you met Cyrille and Mathurin three years ago, you said that you had divorced architecture. Why?
Alun Be :
It is not easy to be an architect in Senegal. To give you an idea, around 250 have registered as architects in Senegal since 1960 (year of independence). I don't feel that local architects benefit from the recognition that would enable them to obtain more experience on big projects, which are generally given to foreign architects, Italian, Spanish, French. When I came back from the US in 2013, qualification in hand, I found myself between two worlds, weighing up mixing 'international baggage' with local understanding. In my country people who build with architects are too few and far between for me to find my place. That is why I turned to photography.
As part of the UCAD Campus design team, your original role was to inform and advise the team on social interaction, Africans' relationship with space and privacy, life in the bedroom, etc. At what point did you make the step from advisor to artist?
From our first meetings Cyrille and Mathurin were interested in my personal history and proposed that I also got involved as an artist, notably on the buildings' gable walls. Of course I was enthusiastic, but the proposal seemed too far removed from local habits to be likely to come to fruition. However, they championed the project right through to the end and it came off. The brick mosaics in relief on the gables will be a major feature in the perception of the new campus.
“The dialogue around how Africa is perceived, by foreigners and by the Africans themselves, is right at the heart of my photographic work. The exchange was fascinating.” — Alun Be
You also worked and provided a kind of artistic direction on the design of the moucharaby screens?
When the project started, Hardel Le Bihan's team – five architects at design phase – had already done a lot of research, in-depth, on a series of Senegalese symbols and their geometric translation as patterns for moucharabys, those decorative facade elements that provide protection from the sun, ventilation, and privacy in the bedrooms. The massing of the buildings, the repetitive grid formed by the bedrooms and budget restrictions, called for careful consideration of the decoration of the facades. As the architects were open-minded, I was able to help them graft the DNA of Africa onto their research. It wasn't good enough to be approximate, southern or Mediterranean. This project had to be African.
“The architects developed simple screens, based on straight lines, to express their use, well-being and climatic comfort rather than any decorative intention.” — Alun Be
Today you are generally optimistic about the evolution of the architect's profession in Senegal. How has this project changed your view of things?
It's the open-mindedness and tenacity of the whole design team that convinced me of the importance of the profession. The stakes are huge, particularly in my country where architecture can have a defining influence on social well-being, climatic comfort, acceptance of environmental challenges, on culture. This combination of open-mindedness and conviction was necessary to enable the expression of local knowledge and skills in this project. Senegal is a country where a great many different communities cohabit. Working together on co-conception and in a spirit of dialogue is exactly what we need.
Exhibition 'Dialogue at Work': Alun Be, Hardel Le Bihan Architectes, Jean-Servais Somian, 6 May to 30 June 2018. Pop up Gallery 49, Rue Bugnicourt Dakar Plateau, Senegal.
Alun Be was born in Dakar in 1981. He grew up in different countries in West Africa and in France. He studied Art and Architecture in the US, in Miami and San Francisco. 14 years later he returned to Senegal, registering as an architect in 2013. After two years of practice he moved to Denmark, where he set up as a photographer. Soon after he participated in the Milan Universal Exposition in 2015, exhibiting photographs taken in Senegal. In 2016 he worked as advisor on the project for UCAD's new student campus in Dakar, on which he reconciled being an architect with his career as an artist. Since 2016 he has lived in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.