Situated in the arid and rural terrain of the Nkhotakota district in Malawi, the parish of Benga is established as a focal point for communal and spiritual enlightenment. Its inhabitants, members of the Missionary Community of Saint Paul the Apostle, spearhead a mission to not only bring the presence of Christianity to the local populace, but to also plant the seed for an enriched way of life. The goal is to create a platform in which principles like higher learning, gender equality, health safety, and the means to pursue fulfillment are universal by nature and accessible to all. In a context where the majority of local communities are illiterate, and live well below the poverty line, such ambitions are ever so paramount. Education has the opportunity to be a catalyst for positive social change, where the development of a sustainable lifestyle is integral to the pursuit of knowledge. One should never have to choose between scholarship, or sustenance. As such, a foundation aimed at challenging traditional conventions by merging the two disciplines can become a beacon of hope that extends beyond all borders and cultures.
Inspired by the iconic tree of knowledge and African agricultural villages, the natural is combined with the vernacular as an approach to nourish both the body and mind. Much like the gathering spaces underneath the great ancestral giant, a series of ringed canopies are formed to provide shade and shelter. At their cores, there stem open courtyards that are utilized as spaces for seasonal farming, and social gatherings. It is here that the students learn about the necessary skills involved in maintaining a community, where practical knowledge serves in conjunction with the theoretical. Since resources are scare, emphasis is placed upon the recycling and conservation of matter through processes such as crop rotation, water retention, and solar energy collection. These mechanisms are integrated throughout the design, and made visible for everyone to analyze, and understand. Over time, the mastering of these techniques will allow each pupil to have a stronger grasp of the ecosystem, and his/her role within it.
The programmed spaces are organized along the peripheries of courtyards. Like their indigenous equivalents, they aggregate radially framing prominent nodes both private and public. Here, an educational core is enclosed by living quarters on either side. Specific openings are arranged throughout to define sequences of spatial transitions. They propagate varying degrees of privacy, and choreograph programmatic requirements through informal boundaries. Whether it is the annual jamboree, or one’s daily trip of animal tending, subtle moments of chance encounters are facilitated to encourage a diverse range of interactions. As the field of density expands, the same logic is implemented accordingly.
Utilizing vernacular craftsmanship, the design adapts and modifies conventional building practices toward a more economical and sustainable method. Since budget is a major driving factor, all materials are locally sourced. The facade is made with clay bricks built upon a concrete/stone foundation. They are laid out in an alternating pattern to allow ample amounts of light to permeate through. Concurrently, these openings assist in mitigating temperature and air flow. A thatched roof system comprised of bundled straws on wood columns is placed on top of the wall enclosure. It directs rainfall into the gutter for collection, protects the bricks from disintegration, and provides shelter for the occupants below. An array of solar panels is affixed to capture electricity. Renewable resources such as water and sunlight are crucial for the project’s upkeep, where long term growth is favored over short term gains. They, as well as their passive counterparts, are all part of an ecosystem that the students must learn to respect in order for harmony to be achieved between the artificial and the natural. By nurturing their minds to the intrinsic values of these resources, a model community can be developed to serve as a prototype for the greater region.