The African Building Platform

Cover Feature

IEC Youth Center

KIT Studio & Habar Architects
Article: Nahom Atakilt
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Picture yourself, dear architect, sitting at your desk, lost in thought. A client has approached you with the prospect of a youth center design on a steep site scattered with trees. But wait, there’s more! The design brief also includes a spacious auditorium. Now, you would not want to drop a massive box and ruin the charm, would you? And who in their right mind would dare harm the beautiful landscape? After all, they are what gave the site its life and vitality.

Typically, when faced with such a site, a builder’s instinct is to bulldoze and shape it into a monotonous box devoid of imagination or thought. However, as an architect, you understand the land has a voice and its own story to tell. Your task is no longer to impose upon the terrain, but to listen, to observe, and to respond. So you gracefully step aside, allowing nature to do the talking. You observe the contours and uncover the hidden hollows where nature has crafted gaps. Your job is to fill these voids with a purposeful design that resonates with the landscape and its program.

Well, that is what KIT Studio and Habar Architects did. Through a series of controlled modules that tiptoe down the hill and spill out to the outdoors, the architects have fused the project with its context. The youth center is situated in the compound of the International Evangelical Church around Sarbet, another architectural gem in its own right. The church community’s vision was to create a space that not only catered to spiritual needs but also embraced the vibrant energy and boundless imagination of the youth. A space where gathering and engagement would intertwine, where youthful spirits could roam freely.

After extensive research and fruitful discussions, the architects distilled their guiding principles down to two key points: a gentle resting of the building upon the land and a deep respect for the existing vegetation. These principles further evolved into architectural considerations such as scale, spatial control, and nature connection. The designers’ research coupled with their previous experiences with the material led them to choose a shipping container as an ideal tool. It represents a controlled space wherein creative arrangement, placement, and manipulation come together to create a seamless environment for the youth and the church community.

By strategically placing the containers, the design not only maximizes the usable area but also maintains a desired volumetric form, both horizontally and vertically. The result is a clear usable area measuring an impressive 155.2 square meters. To achieve this, the architects overlapped six containers, forming an efficient configuration that uses space to its fullest potential.

This overlapping arrangement not only optimizes spatial efficiency but also adds a visually captivating element to the composition. In an effort to further enhance the desired volumetric form of the building, one container was reduced to a size of 20ft. To claim more space, the roofs of shipping containers are re-purposed as multi-purpose terraces by preparing them with a cement screed for a smooth and level finish. This approach allows for the utilization of otherwise unused space and provides an additional area for various activities.

Time to experience it ourselves! Once you enter the IEC compound, pause for a moment to appreciate the church’s architecture and set your course to the right. You will instinctively know when you arrive with the unmistakable silhouette of bright strokes of metal punctuated with towering trees and glimpses of a zigzagging line in the background. As you near the hill, you first spot two orange containers side by side, almost sprouting from the ground like a tree, supported with inclined concrete columns directly anchoring the platform into a single foundation.

These sets of units contain offices and indoor game rooms which we will explore inside. Walking up the stairs, more interesting spaces unfold. The multiple juxtapositions of brightly painted containers come to life, which opens up to a common central amphitheater. It is here that the heart of the youth center beats, pulsating with energy and excitement. From inside the game room, the youth can take part in fun activities in a generous space while engaging in high social activity that spills outwards into the central plaza visually and physically. They can also appreciate the landscape within the visual reach through strips of transparency that are slotted into the hard metal.

Moving back to the amphitheater and ascending higher brings us under a suspended container that sits above double horizontal units that hold offices, a library, and a small kitchenette. Its inside presents us with a generous and cozy place to wind up in reading and working as well as stepping onto the balcony to watch out, which were cleverly designed to match the dimensions of a container door width. At the other end of this space, we find a central staircase upwards between the offices and the kitchenette. Upwards, we find the unique downsized container we talked about earlier. On the right side, it opens up to the outdoors, transforming into a multipurpose terrace. To the left, it seamlessly connects to the auditorium, serving as an elevated stage that sets the perfect backdrop for performances and sermons.

And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for—the auditorium, a key element entrusted to the architect by the client. Throughout our journey, we caught mere glimpses of its presence, a tantalizing tease that left us craving more. However, it is only now, as we stand in its grand presence, that we truly comprehend its magnificence. Though it seamlessly blends into its surroundings, the internal space of the auditorium exudes an undeniable elegance and an overwhelming sense of spaciousness. To truly appreciate this architectural marvel, we must descend to the lowest level.

Upon entering, the space expands into a grand setup exposing the concrete seating steps that are seamlessly placed following the natural elevation of the terrain and white walls that wrap up in a stunning origami-like folding roof structure that gives the space its peculiar character. As we go up the stairs, the space undergoes a subtle transformation. It compresses, enveloping us in an intimate and human-scaled environment. Yet, as we near the entrance, the proportions gracefully open up, unveiling a sense of spaciousness and grace. Rather than directing all focus inwards, as is often the case with auditoriums, the architects have thoughtfully incorporated windows that follow the lines of the roof. These windows serve as frames, allowing the outside views to become an integral part of the auditorium experience. A large curtain system at the entrance further reinforces the close connection to the outside world, maintaining a sense of openness and harmony with the surroundings.

“Contrary to expectations, the auditorium, with its capacity to hold 180 people, does not impose itself as a colossal mass within the project. Instead, it is strategically positioned at the rear, seamlessly blending into the background. In a departure from convention, we opted for a folding roof design, effectively breaking down the visual impact of the nearly 220 square meter structure. This choice not only contributes to the project’s organic and natural aesthetic but also creates a harmonious transition from the exterior to the interior. When viewed from the outside, the auditorium presents itself as a series of fragmented lines, revealing glimpses of its presence at intermittent intervals. This fragmented appearance adds an element of intrigue and visual interest to the overall design. On the inside, however, the true scale and grandeur of the auditorium come to life. The vastness of the space becomes apparent, while the playful folding roof showcases dynamic and captivating characteristics.” Habar Architects and KIT Studio.

As our tour comes to a close, take a moment to appreciate the truly experimental nature of this project. It encompasses a diverse range of spatial experiences, each carefully crafted to evoke a unique atmosphere. From its materiality to its scale, every element has been thoughtfully considered, establishing a natural connection with its surroundings. The design exudes a sense of control and precision, yet seamlessly flows from one space to another. It effortlessly transitions between being in the background, subtly blending into its environment, and taking the forefront, commanding attention and becoming a focal point, depending on one’s perspective and location within the project.

The architecture is in harmony with the site, rather than imposing itself upon it. Let it be a lesson for all of us to consult Mother Nature and listen to what she has to say. In other words, do not just drop a giant box on your site!

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© July, 2024 Ketema Journal

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