Amanda Coen

INTERVIEW: We Talk to Architect Charles Newman About 15,000 Bottle Caps for Africa

by , 02/22/13

15; 000 Bottle Caps for Africa; Under the Acacia; Charles Newman; Charles Newman Design; recycled materials; recycled bottlecaps; reused materials; repurposed materials; social design; low impact; traditional techniques; Maasai; Maasai culture; Kenya; Africa; Village Earth; Habitat for Humanity; Inhabitat; Engineers Without Borders; Jess Teutonico; Loita Hills; Greystone Learning Center; Greystone Aviation; Internet Society; Adele’s Literacy Library

Inhabitat: What have been some of the greatest challenges in managing a project in a remote environment with a completely different type of infrastructure and culture?

Charles Newman: This different type of infrastructure is no infrastructure. Working in Maasai land is difficult because of the lack of roads, making delivery of materials extremely difficult – often cost prohibitive, and the use of local materials is even more important. Further, with no source of water, construction is largely reliant upon the rains and effective water catchment systems are invaluable. Happily though, this remote location provides beauty that is unmatched by other parts of the world. There’s really nothing like working while a herd of wildebeest graze upon the horizon.

Inhabitat: In terms of design, how do you attempt to fuse indigenous Maasai materials and design with standard building techniques?

Charles Newman: Upon learning of Under The Acacia’s completed projects, I noticed stone being used as the primary building material. Stone is an excellent choice, but stands in contrast to the surrounding manyattas and bomas (homes). In the design of the Learning Center, I strove to blend standard stone construction with a new method of wall construction that modernizes that of boma construction. We had hoped to incorporate cow dung into the design, though with most cows having migrated to greener pastures at the time of construction, our design simplified to a ferrocement method. Most commonly used in the construction of water tanks, the method still resembles the waddle and daub method used in boma construction.

Inhabitat: Please speak a little to the inspiration you draw from Maasai jewelry and how it is evident in your design? What role did Maasai women play in the construction process?

Charles Newman: Maasai jewelry is unique throughout the world, and can be recognized as such because it follows a distinct set of rules. There are primary colors and secondary colors, each color has a symbolic significance, and different pieces of jewelry are worn for different occasions. Here we have a unique cultural art form that if incorporated into the design of the building, could instill the ownership so necessary to the success of such a project.

Being a white man, I realized early on that there was no way I would be able to design in such a language. The only people qualified to do so are the women themselves. Extremely organized and hard working, the women drafted the construction documents through scaled versions of jewelry that they designed specifically for the Learning Center. In the last days of construction, the women worked alongside the team of masons to install almost 50,000 colored bottle caps.

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