Photo © Iwan Baan

Ahmed Baba Institute Library

dhk Architects

Timbuktu, Mali

By Caroline James

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Just a few miles from the Niger River Delta in Mali, Timbuktu appears as a labyrinth of single-story mud buildings. A city of near-mythic status, it is the last outpost before the great Sahara Desert, a place synonymous with being almost impossible to reach. Despite its remote location, the city boasts a heritage of scholarship that has produced an astounding number of manuscripts. The new Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research, completed in 2009, introduces state-of-the-art techniques for conserving, exhibiting, and studying these famous Timbuktu manuscripts. The new institute is part of a 10-year initiative to replace its aging predecessor, founded in 1970 and located less than a mile away.

After French colonial rule ended in 1960, Timbuktu slid into decline and scholars went to great lengths to protect the city’s legacy, even burying manuscripts in the sand. An estimated 60 to 80 private libraries formed a grassroots conservation effort in Africa. According to UNESCO, a staggering 300,000 manuscripts exist in the Timbuktu region alone.

In recent years, African leaders have used architecture to reclaim their countries’ intellectual heritages. Egypt, for example, commissioned the Norwegian firm Snøhetta to design a grand library in Alexandria with the goal of rekindling the city’s reputation as a seat of learning. In 2001, a year before the inauguration of the library in Alexandria, then South African president Thabo Mbeki traveled to Timbuktu on an official visit, helping to found the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project and set in motion plans to construct an impressive new home for the manuscripts.

dhk Architects of Cape Town designed phase one of the $8.36 million, 50,000-square-foot Institute, creating an archive of 20,000 manuscripts and a public library with reference materials on the culture of the region. Andre Spies, the project architect for dhk, designed the institute and now heads his own practice in Cape Town called twothink architecture, which completed phase two — fitting out the interiors.

Spies describes Timbuktu as being “like a dry Venice.” Just as Venice must resist sinking into its lagoon, present-day Timbuktu must fight against the encroaching Sahara Desert. The ancient city unfolds as a series of garden courtyards tucked behind imposing walls along narrow streets cloaked in deep sand drifts. Spies derived his design concept from the juxtaposition of ancient and modern Timbuktu. “The new city is much more rigid and is laid out on a grid, while [the old city] grew sporadically over time.” His design creates a hybrid of building and street, contemporary and traditional. Circulation paths create “wall play” similar to the organization of the city’s streets, where openings between buildings vary in width and are “very organic,” according to Spies. The complex connects the new city to the old city via outdoor hallways and aligns its main artery with the minaret of the Sankoré mosque, a 15th-century structure made with mud and declared by UNESCO to be a World Heritage Site.

To respect the vernacular architecture of the region, Spies chose to build primarily with mud, which requires maintenance after the annual rains. He found a local mason who mixed mud with concrete to make the facade rain-repellent, and he purchased mud bricks from craftsmen on the streets.

Because the archive and conservation lab required more protection, the architect specified standard concrete-block cavity walls for this portion of the building. By placing the conservation lab so it faces a hallway, he let visitors watch technicians at work. And by bringing visitors down a long ramp to the subterranean archive and a small exhibition space, he created a sense of procession. An air-conditioned, 300-seat auditorium and an
outdoor amphitheater can accommodate symposia and lectures. To connect the various programmatic elements, Spies designed expansive outdoor hallways that converge at
a courtyard.

Head librarian Baba Tandina says he enjoys watching schoolchildren fill the library, which is particularly cheerful in the late afternoon when light filters through ornate, carved screens. The screen configurations — radiating diagonals, zigzags, and pyramids — derive from manuscript graphics and West African textile patterns. The airy double-height main gathering space hosts rows of desks and shelves of books, while the upstairs provides space for private study. To reduce the amount of sand blowing into the library, the architect placed entry doors off the courtyard (rather than the street) and designed the courtyard so scholars could congregate there and enjoy air cooled by a fountain.

Overall, Tandina prefers the new institute to the old one, which he describes as stuffy and too warm for the manuscripts. He knows that air conditioning is a rare luxury in Timbuktu and that many visitors will have never encountered a glass exhibition cabinet before.

Yet Tandina and his staff are concerned about the dependability of the building’s modern conveniences. If machines break down in the desert, technicians are 500 miles away. To test the consequences of an outage, they shut off power for two weeks, and they were reassured when the temperature of the archive room remained nearly constant. He also wishes the new fire management system had manual controls.

The introduction of a new building is challenging in the low-tech, mud-built setting of Timbuktu. Albakaye Ousmane Kounta, the Malian writer, poet, and storyteller, criticizes the building as “too modern.” Whereas fortresslike walls concealed the internal configuration of the former institute, the new one blurs inside and out with outdoor hallways arrayed along a “free plan.” This modern approach is uncommon in West Africa, where public and private spaces are strictly demarcated to keep out sand, roving donkeys, and itinerant people. The new design encourages access and openness, but it has drawbacks as well. In addition, some spaces — such as the auditorium — have rigid functions not easily adapted to other uses. Since the Institute is not yet equipped to host conferences, the auditorium will probably go unused for a while.

In time, the staff of the Ahmed Baba Institute will adapt to their new complex, which will enrich Timbuktu and become a locus for international scholarship. For the time being, though, Timbuktu is adjusting to the new facility. This illustrates how architecture pushes change, which is exactly what Andre Spies intended to do with this remarkable project.

Caroline James has worked extensively in product design and architecture. She is currently pursuing an M.Arch. at Harvard.

Architect:
dhk Architects
twothink architects
86 Hout Street Cape town, 0027 82 8900 414

Location: Sankore precinct, Timbuktu, Mali

Completion Date: January 2009

Gross square footage: 50,000 sq.ft.

Total construction cost: $8.36 million

March 2011
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