Retooling GabonJul 18, 2012
By Barbara Epstein and Mariel Villeré
Gabon, a tiny country with enormous challenges and opportunities, turned to Ben Aranda’s architecture and landscape architecture studio when reimagining the future of its capital city. Their solutions for navigating the park-city boundary just might help position Libreville as a model for the 21st Century.
Referred to as Africa’s Eden, Gabon has the second largest rain forest in the world. With the goal of becoming the first carbon neutral country, Gabon recently set aside 11% of its land for national parks, a ratio of protected territory second only to Costa Rica. Yet, although the country boasts a GDP three times the sub-Saharan average, 40% of inhabitants are unemployed, and over 60% are below the poverty line. As Gabon anticipates growth in tourism and urban development in the near future, the country is exploring the economic viability of environmental action at a scale of global significance.
The Park-City Boundary
Libreville is a city surrounded by parks, and Aranda’s student teams selected sites from different geographical perspectives at the city’s edge. They had to consider the objectives established by the forward-thinking group behind Gabon’s national parks, the ANPN (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux). They were also required to engage a variety of issues:
- Libreville sprawl and the park buffer zone,
- The future of Gabon’s parks,
- Agroforestry & botanical infrastructure,
- Urban environmental sustainability and
- Projected rises in sea levels and associated displacement across the city,
The teams were challenged to produce an architectural prototype within a landscape strategy poised for large scale regional impact. They were expected to be at once visionary and plausible. And they succeeded admirably.
Parallel Process: Investigative Site Research & Computational Design Tools
The students followed parallel tracks of issue-based site research and exploration of parametric tools and modeling, which led to a truly organic design process and inevitable cross pollination. Aranda calls this duality Tooling, an approach designed to bridge large scale drivers of change - the shifting cultural and ecological ground - with the technical sophistication of a “smart” model.
A 5-day research trip to the city and meetings with knowledgeable officials greatly influenced the scope and design of the projects. In some cases the outcome was a long way from the starting point.
Students Alec Spangler and Julia Frederick began their investigation with a study of crystal patterns, but ultimately became interested in boat launch points and the mangrove channel network at the edge of the city. They envisioned an urban waterway that would transition from urban environment via engineered biomimetic water system to nearby Akonda Park. The phased development would eventually include an iconic civic plaza.
Dasha Ortenberg acted as translator for the group during its trip, and worked with Wanjing Ji on a proposal for a pharmaceutical research lab intended to be the cornerstone of a research industry belt. Their plans included regeneration of the forest around the lab to prevent intrusion of the city into the rest of the park buffer zone.
Two hours outside of Libreville, Monts de Cristal (the Crystal Mountains) contain the highest level of biodiversity in Africa. They are a source of hydropower and drinking water for Libreville, but are also slated for future mining, with a hotel planned as part of the effort to expand eco-tourism. This site was selected by Alissa Priebe and Sara Newey for a mining conservation and development scheme. The pair’s investigative work included unraveling the mining process in order to intervene and plan for future development before digging even begins. Their proposal, incorporating botanical gardens and seed banks to support research, is designed to mitigate the expense of reclamation, conserve natural resources, and effect a more efficient mining process.
The Sylvia Bongo Ondimba Foundation provided generous support for the trip and introductions to key officials, who informed the research and planning. Presentations to Gabonese experts and representatives of Bechtel and Island Planning Corporation, which are working with the government to develop a “green Gabon,” provided opportunities for feedback on the projects.
Aranda was thrilled with the results: “Each project was motivated by the student's own independent discoveries and upon reflection I believe the work is radically imaginative for any city in any state of development while also providing solutions that are uniquely sensitive to the context of Gabon...Without exaggeration, the trip to Libreville was the best academic trip we've experienced. “