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African Conference Center Encapsulates Modernism

Rendering of WORKac's proposed Assembly Hall building, L'Assemblée Radieuse
WORKac’s proposed Assembly Hall building, L'Assemblée Radieuse, is located in a parklike setting overlooking Gabon’s capital, Libreville. The building will host dignitaries for the 2014 meeting of the African Union. © WORKac

WORKac’s circular conference center for Gabon, Africa, is perforated by open, oval gardens—and infused with the emerging nation’s optimism.

December 4, 2012—Liberated from the French in 1960, Gabon straddles the equator on Africa’s west coast. With a small population of 1.6 million and an economy built on oil production, the country, led by its president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, is trying to diversify its economy toward ecotourism and sustainable development. (The popular show Survivor filmed a season there in 2008, dubbing the country “Earth’s Last Eden.”)

In 2014 Gabon will for the first time host a conference of the African Union, the United Nations-like federation of African nations. Earlier this year the country organized a competition to design a new assembly hall for the conference, to be located in Gabon’s capital, Libreville. The competition was organized by Gabon’s Agence Nationale des Grands Travaux—the national agency responsible for planning the country’s infrastructure.

The competition was won by New York-based WORK Architecture Company (WORKac), whose proposal is called L'Assemblée Radieuse (radiant assembly). “We started the project doing a lot of research about the country and trying to understand … how to represent this country without relying on a cliché,” says Dan Wood, AIA, LEED-AP, a partner of WORKac. 

Rendering of the Assembly Hall which features three open-air courtyards

The Assembly Hall features three open-air courtyards, which allow
for natural ventilation and cooling and reflect the geographical
richness of Gabon. © WORKac

Located in a parklike setting above the city, the resulting design is a disc-shaped building punctured by several asymmetrical gardens that open to the sky. Each of the courtyards represents a specific ecosystem found in the tropical country. One features a waterfall using rainwater collected from the roof to echo a jungle rain forest. Another nods to a specific kind of grasslands in the country called a wonga wongue. The last is a more typical garden, called the orchard, featuring edible plants.

The ornately shaped courtyards rise and expand out as they move up, like a funnel. “We realized the site is up on a hill. If we tilted the roof it can be seen from the city below,” Wood says. “You can see these three gardens.”

Inside, the 1,000-seat auditorium can be easily divided into two separate auditoriums, and the central gathering space is flanked by smaller meeting rooms and theaters. A reflecting pool on the roof mirrors the main auditorium below.

WORKac also added a flowing pathway that wraps around the interior edge of the building called the Philosopher’s Path. The pathway is semienclosed, separated from the main building by 10 ft. It winds up and down through the four stories of the building as it courses around the building’s perimeter. The outer wall of the path comprises stone louvers. The walkway connects to all three gardens and is meant to be a contemplative place for leaders and dignitaries to stroll and talk while taking in views of the city and the ocean.

Rendering of the Assembly Hall's planned courtyards which features a waterfall

One of the Assembly Hall’s planned courtyards features a
waterfall that uses rainwater collected from the roof. The walkway,
called the Philosopher’s Path, meanders around the building’s
perimeter. © WORKac

The building is sided with African limestone. The interiors of the courtyard are still being determined—perhaps some kind of mosaic tile, the architects say—and WORKac is utilizing several native woods on the interior of the auditorium, including amber-hued movingui wood.

The biggest challenge now is the “unbelievably fast” timetable for completing the building by the summer of 2014. WORKac won the competition in August, entered contract negotiations in September, and began work last month. Schematic design will be finished in November, and construction will begin in February. The project will be basically done in April 2014, allowing a few months for last-minute tidying up before the July 2014 meeting.

Few architects and engineers know how to handle something so big so fast. So Wood turned to an old colleague, Larry Dalziel, AIA, the senior project manager of Epstein New York, which is just now finishing up an ambitious renovation of New York’s Jacob Javits Convention Center. “He was the only person who didn’t seem completely freaked out by the schedule,” Wood says, and adds, tongue in cheek, “Either he’s crazy or he’s the right partner.”

Dalziel says, “When Dan won this competition he called me up and said, ‘Help.’” Dalziel thought it was a fabulous project, but knew it would be a challenge. “He called the right guy. I could conceptualize how you construct a schedule to make this work.”

Interior rendering of the Assembly Hall which features several places for gathering

The Assembly Hall features several places for gathering, including
a 1,000-seat auditorium that can be divided into two spaces, a
banquet hall, and other meeting rooms. © WORKac 

The key was to start from the end and work back, understanding when major components of the building needed to be constructed, and in what order, then going back further to figure out how much time it would take to deliver drawings.

But there’s no margin for error. “Once you make a decision you can’t change it,” he says. “Anything you decide and go forward with, you have to treat it as an existing condition.”

After the conference, the building will be used to house other conferences and nongovernmental organization meetings. When asked about the challenges and opportunities for Western architects working in the developing world, Wood notes that “one of the things that really struck us when we went there was the incredible and very specific history of modernism. You have such an incredible sense of optimism. They have none of the sad qualities here.”

In Africa, modernist architecture means something—it symbolizes an emerging continent. The Assembly Hall is meant, in the end, to honor the spirit of a country looking forward, not back. 



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