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Lecture Mali at the Design Academy

04 februari 2009

Lecture Mali at the Design Academy

Arie van Rangelrooy confesses: he is not a hippie. When he leaves for Mali in the seventies, it is not to follow some spiritual or mystical path...
A year before graduating, the practical student is indeed advised to go to Djenné for a "spotting" mission by a teacher seeking for volunteers (mission that was to become his graduation project).

Djenne, it is a historically important small city in the Niger Inland Delta of central Mali. It is one of the oldest known cities in sub-Saharan Africa and its historic city center was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.

This happened some years after Arie van Rangelrooy went to this place, where he was researching the city, the architecture, the urban planning, the living spaces, …

He traveled to another continent to stay there one year. During this year he was productive in measuring, drawing and archiving the cities architecture. This work lead to the protection of the city by UNESCO.

During the stay he connected to the people, their way of living and the culture. "We all know about misery and the huge differences between both lifestyles, but when it comes to seeing it, to experiencing it for real, you realize how hard their life can be and how lucky and disconnected we are" he says, still touched.
At this point, his African experience became all about exchange. Exchanging techniques, skills. Collaborating with local maçons, contributing to increase their efficiency, to facilitate their practice, yet not spoiling their ancestral building protocol. A humble observation and dialogue, he expected to have a proper social purpose.

He would go outdoors during the day, measure the streets, houses and rooms, while in the evening he would put all of this into plans. As there was no electricity and minimal contact with the outside world he would archive even the smallest ornamental decoration.

During the lecture he was talking passionately about the city and it’s architecture. And it is just the kind of architecture that makes the city interesting. Architecture of mud.

Why? Being close to the Sahara desert, the area lacked building materials such as wood and stone. People learnt to build houses with the mud from the Niger River. When the mud is mixed with rice husks and straw and fermented for a month, it becomes very tough, thick and rain resistant. To build a house, local people first lay sun-dried mud bricks. The brick walls are covered in mud plaster. This protects the inside of the house from the heat.

He talked about this, showing related pictures. Also reminding us of how this tradition was preserved. As the centuries passed by, the inhabits would restore their houses during the dry season. Although when Arie arrived this tradition went lost, as he arrived in a bad economic situation, where you have other priorities.

After the work of Arie and the protection of the site, the city was restored and now even grows again. Arie regularly goes back, and works together with master mud builder Boubacar Kouroumanssé. Together their busy with building an museum and school, using century old techniques. The changes with what Arie archived 20 years ago, is the fact that they now include electricity and running water into the building process. Also the “making a plan and reading the plan” is introduced in the process.

During the talk we had after the lecture, van Rangelrooy emphasized on the importance of social commitment in the practice of applied arts.
We also mentioned the difficulty to commit oneself in projects that make sense still making a living... According to Arie van Rangelrooy, this balance between ideals and survival is to be achieved once one has "showed its mettle".

Wise Arie first made a nice career in the Netherlands before recently going back to Mali. He finally reached freedom of creation through social commitment because he was wise. Wise enough to wait. Wise enough to grow.

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