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Compund Solution: A New School For Afghanistan

Sicilian journalist Maria Grazia Cutuli was killed while reporting in Afghanistan. Now, her brother, an architect, has created a school to her memory and a new message of hope for the country’s future generation

A small, cobalt blue fortress set against a backdrop of the Hindu Kush mountains under a great dome of sky − deep blue in summer, pregnant with snow in winter − the Maria Grazia Cutuli School is a dignified, intelligent and quietly beautiful symbol of local defiance. Its two-storey library rises above blue-painted walls surrounding a cluster of blue-painted single-storey classrooms; it says here is a place of learning, as much for local girls as boys, in a district once dominated by the Taliban and a place that has seen invading armies come, fight bloodily, win, lose and go, not just over the past 30 years but as long as history has been written in this warring region of the globe.

One of the truly good works of the United Nations in recent years has been the construction of schools across Afghanistan, although in strictly architectural terms there has been little to write home about. Speed has been of the essence in an attempt to help shape a civic society, a semblance of democracy, some degree of freedom and the rule of law. Here, though, some 12km from Herat − an ancient gateway to Persia, a staging post on the Silk Road from the Levant to China, and a city destroyed entirely by Genghis Khan in 1221, and rebuilt several times since − is a school with soul and identity very much of its own.

Borrowing from the idea of a regional village, with its clustered and organic − or happily shambolic − plan, the Maria Grazia Cutuli School is unmistakably its own place. Three shades of blue paint do much to bring it to the attention of passers-by. Here are the blues of the summer sky, of local tiles, of lapis lazuli, of gowns and burkas worn by local men and women, whether today or in portraits of time past. The primary school is tucked behind walls for defence, and not just against the uncertainties of conflict but also against what can be the unmitigated harshness of the local climate.

It is a special place, though, not just for its brilliant and brave use of colour and for its empathetic plan, but because it owes its existence to a specific person and a specific event in Afghanistan’s recent and troubled history. The school is named after Maria Grazia Cutuli, a Sicilian journalist who was killed by gunmen while on assignment here for the Corriere della Sera in November 2001. Cutuli, 39, was shot to death along with three other journalists on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul. An experienced foreign correspondent, she had previously reported from Rwanda, Israel and Sudan.

Her brother, Mario Catuli, is an architect and president of the Maria Grazia Cutuli Foundation. In collaboration with three firms of young Roman architects − 2A+P/A, IaN+, ma0/emmeazero − he has created this Afghan school in memory of his sister and in honour especially of the uncountable number of women and children who have been caught up in decades of war and whose education, especially, has been demeaned and even denied by angry men with guns.

It seems only appropriate, then, that the new school should blossom brightly in this heavily charged and demanding landscape. What seems remarkable is that it should have happened so very quickly. Workshops involving architects, educationalists, Afghan authorities and the Foundation, among other concerned parties, began in March 2010. Plans were presented in May and the first stone was laid in June last year. The buildings were completed in February 2011, and the trees and vegetable gardens were planted by the end of March. The school opened in April this year.

Distinguished only by colour, the school follows the pattern of settlement common in this part of Afghanistan

Construction is simple and straightforward. The eight linked classrooms and ancillary buildings − staff room, secretary’s office, caretaker’s house and lavatory block − are made of reinforced concrete and solid brickwork. Windows are framed in iron painted red. Roofs are concrete, interiors plastered and painted white. The buildings are sheltered by trees and overlook vegetable gardens − ‘green classrooms’ − tended by children and teachers. They have been positioned to catch light and shade at the appropriate times of day and to catch breezes in the hotter months of the year. The surrounding wall − concrete and plain − flanks a site measuring 40 x 50m. Construction cost no more than €150,000 (£132,000).

The box-like buildings are capped with hints of cornices, and with their well-proportioned window openings imbue the school with an elementally classical character as if, although brand new, it might have stood here for generations. This sense of rootedness is all-important in Afghanistan; such initiatives, no matter how well intentioned, need to appear and to feel a part of the local culture and landscape rather than being regarded as an alien imposition.

A sign of peace, the school picks up from the surrounding architectural and planning tradition of small settlements huddled, hugger-mugger, behind walls, with a tower here and there rising from their midst. Planned along the lines of such local villages, the blue school visibly belongs to the area, although the clear geometry and crisp construction of its individual buildings suggest a new sense of purpose and rigour. Seen as a whole, the compound fits into and stands out from the surrounding landscape, a balance that is hard to achieve as competently as it has been here, especially given the truncated timescale of the project. It is clear, from the plan of the school, the methods of construction employed and the unapologetically bold palette of blues, that decisions were made with acute and sensitive intuition.

Ancient Romans had the enviable knack of arriving at an unknown place and planning and building an entire city in next to no time; this took confidence and a sense that things should, could and needed to be done there and then. Just such conditions prevail in Afghanistan today: things − including new schools − need to happen at a finger-snapping pace to save further avoidable conflict. Such timescales lead all too often to overly involved decision-making, or lack of it. Here, on the fringe of Herat, the opposite has been true; the result is heartening.

As the architects themselves say, the school does not claim to solve major problems of the day by applying political theories and utopian design concepts; its aim has been to meet the needs of a moment. And, what a moment: from the civilised comforts of Rome, architects and their photographers flew out to the opening of the Maria Grazia Cutuli School on board Lockheed C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft and Lynx helicopters, while the ceremony was conducted with armed soldiers patrolling from the compound’s flat concrete roofs.

No one knows, of course, what the future holds for Afghanistan. Here is one of those junction boxes of the world where great and lesser powers push through on their way to what they suppose is power and glory, yet is more often than not hubris, and an immense loss of life. Here, though, in the long shadow of age-old conflict and the even longer shadows of the enveloping Hindu Kush mountains, is one small outpost demonstrating, vividly, what architects can bring to countries like this, at low cost, at remarkable speed and in what can appear to be the least propitious circumstances.

Architects 2A+P/A, IaN+, ma0/emmeazero
Structural and services engineer Studio Croci Associati
Project management Mario Cutuli
Landscape consultant Luigi Politani
Photographs Antonio Ottomanelli, Giovanna Silva

Readers' comments (1)

  • Truly inspirational, magical and a beautiful building. Also very brave bunch of creative people...I am an Afghan and a aspiring architecture student and this has given me a first real footstep to work and stride towards achieving my goal in creating and making people's lives better. I hope one day I can have my act together and achieve a similar feat.

    Thank you for everyone involved!

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