"A bit star struck"

University of British Columbia students at the Holcim Forum

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    Meeting Alejandro Aravena at LafargeHolcim Forum for Sustainable Construction

    "It was a thrill to be in such close proximity to some of the most note-worthy architects of our generation."

Recognizing the critical importance of encouraging the future generation of industry professionals, the Holcim Foundation supports promising talents on various levels. While the Holcim Awards competition enables students and young professionals to challenge their approaches against their peers, the Foundation’s invitation to participate at the Forum makes the experts of tomorrow a part of today’s debate. Marion Gelinas and Emily Kazanowski, graduate students in the MArch program at The University of British Columbia (UBC) from Vancouver, Canada, share their experience of travelling to Cairo for the Holcim Forum, and presenting their work to the international community. 

Last updated: July 09, 2019 Vancouver, Canada

“It was a thrill to be in such close proximity to some of the most noteworthy architects of our time.”

We arrived in Cairo, Egypt, a wonderfully overstimulating and chaotic city. The whiplash between contemporary and ancient was unsettling and fascinating. The extreme contrast and mixing between now and then, formal and informal, Western and local, calm and chaos, new Cairo and old Cairo allowed for unusual experiences and critical analysis.

Standing on the edge of Manshiyat Naser with its “Garbage City” quarter – where trash is underfoot and the garbled sound of prayer echoes from distant speakers while black smoke rises from burning garbage piles – was an unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was an urban landscape unlike anything we had seen before.

On the same day, we arrived at the Pyramids of Giza for an evening light show. We saw the fading light of the sun illuminate the pyramids and define silhouettes of camels returning their passengers down the roads back to the city of more than 15 million inhabitants. Time froze for a moment with sensory clash of ancient Egyptian landmarks, 1960s actors’ voices, and our contemporary presence. The collapse of so many eras in one space was awe-inspiring and hilarious in the same breath.

We had endless opportunities to strengthen our academic positions, professional networks, and cultural awareness. Academically, the mixture of keynote presentations, workshop topics, field trips, and discussions saturated our minds with content. Our design considerations were expanded. An example, Anne Lacaton suggested that construction may not be necessary in given circumstances: “If less is more, maybe nothing is everything”. When asked for a proposal for Place Léon Aucoc in Bordeaux, Lacaton & Vassal Architectes determined that the existing park was successful and nothing needed to change. The suggestion that nothing could be a design solution was certainly unique!

The topics of the forum and the thought-provoking speeches aligned with and reinforced the experiences of Cairo. Local knowledge and local materials were proven through good and bad examples. The visit to the Nubian inspired building complex made of local mud into adobe and the careful placement of walkways allowing for natural airflow showed success of constructing using local inspiration. On the other hand, buildings in New Cairo had a heavy influence from the West. Large office buildings had extensive glass windows creating unnecessary desert dust maintenance concerns and thermal comfort issues. The importance of designing to a local context was emphasized.

One of the most shocking moments of disbelief came after a presentation by the Egyptian Housing Ministry. The vast scale of 15 proposed and developing cities emerging out of the desert gave an opportunity to think critically. The plans include separate residential, cultural, commercial zones for the cities, and despite rising sea levels there were new skyscrapers being constructed directly on the oceanfront. What we have been taught about successful communities and sustainable design was not present in these proposals. The importance of conscientious designers in combination with political will was greatly highlighted and gave us an opportunity to critically analyze our surroundings.

Professionally, it was a thrill to be in such close proximity to some of the most note-worthy architects of our time. The nerdy rush of meeting famous architects and professionals usually only interacted with through books, articles, and drawings was unbelievable and often left us a bit star struck. What are the chances of getting to sit next to

Christine Binswanger, Senior Partner of Herzog & de Meuron, for an hour-long bus ride? Finding your way to breakfast with Anne Lacaton , Principal of Lacaton & Vassal Architectes? Or taking a field trip with Alejandro Aravena, Partner Architect and Executive Director of Elemental? At the Forum it was everyday!

Our cultural awareness was deeply broadened. We were taken on a field trip to see informal housing settlements in Egypt by a local professor at the American University in Cairo. We saw the ingenuity of the Egyptian people. Making do with what surrounds them. Al-Azhar Park, one of the few public parks in Cairo, was created on a landfill. Street boulevards were some of the rare public spaces in the city. People used them as unexpected social gathering spaces.

In addition to the multi-sensory experiences of the city of Cairo, there was also a chance to meet other students from various geographies. Hearing about other student experiences and their own points of view enriched the poster competition and the forum itself. Sharing new knowledge with people with common interests and goals created bonds that we can take into our professional careers. We have new friends and contacts in Mexico, Switzerland, Singapore and more!

Overall, the Holcim Foundation’s 6th Forum on “Re-materializing Construction” provided us with personal, academic, professional, and cultural experiences and opportunities we are unlikely to come across again. The eccentricity and complexity of Cairo created a stimulating backdrop for all these events to unfold. Where else can you see world wonders, converse with famous architects, and be critically challenged to analyze the built environment?

This edited report was first published in the news channel of The University of British Columbia, School of Architecture & Landscape Architecture

Student poster competition

The Forum brought together faculty members and students of leading technical universities associated with the Holcim Foundation. Post-graduate students presented their concepts in a poster exhibition that showcased their innovative concepts living up to the “target issues” for sustainable construction.

Marion Gelinas (pictured left) presented a proposal for autonomous housing for Atikamekw peoples. The Canadian Aboriginal First Nations endured seizing of ancestral lands, conferment to reservations, social and economic exclusion and poverty. The proposal uses local resources, construction knowledge transfer and energy autonomy to address housing shortages at the Wemotaci Indian Reserve, in Haute-Mauricie, Quebec.

Student poster – Autonomous Housing for an Indigenous Sovereignty 

Emily Kazanowski (pictured left) proposed an architectural concrete experimentation lab located at Holcim’s cement plant near Untervaz, Switzerland. It proposes the use of locally-sourced natural materials including hay, building materials, inflatable materials, soil, snow, wool and wax to generate unusual spaces and forms that eliminate construction waste of conventional concrete formwork.

Student poster – Cows, Diapers & Bread