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Two decades ago, the demolition of the two sixth century monumental statues, the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban was one of the most rigorous attacks against the country’s historical and cultural heritage, leaving a rift in a nation already in turmoil. Carved into the side of a tremendous sandstone cliff in the Bamyan Valley, its location lying on the ancient silk road in central Afghanistan occupies a pivotal position as the capital of the homonymous province, as well as being the cultural and political centre of the Hazara ethnic group. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Bamyan is a place of both natural geological beauty and exceptional significance, to Buddhism and the local culture.
Back in November 2014, UNESCO, with the economic support of the South Korean government convened an international competition to build a cultural centre as an endeavour to preserve the existing heritage and promote the social and cultural development of the region. Of the 1,070 proposals from 117 countries, the design entry by Argentina-based M2R Arquitectos received the first prize, their intervention finding genesis in the site's conflict, reacting to it with resilience and hope.
Conveying restraint and measured composure, the new Bamyan Cultural Centre spread over 2,450 sqm "seeks to create a new vital centre for communicating and sharing ideas. Therefore, our project tries to create not an object-building but rather a meeting place; a system of spaces where the impressive landscape of the Buddha cliffs intertwines with the rich cultural activities that the centre will foster," shares M2R Arquitectos. According to the firm, the cultural architecture is not 'built' but rather 'discovered' because it remains unhurried, carved out of the ground, comprising three independent buildings catering to functions of culture, education, and administration respectively.
The introverted, grounded, and almost impalpable horizontality of the Bamyan Cultural Centre finds a straight contrast with the powerful backdrop of the former, extroverted verticality of the Buddha statues, against the immense mountain range stretching at leisure at the back. A “primordial” and soft architectural strategy is adopted, resulting in a rooted structure with a nominal negative impact on the site. The minimal architecture quietly assimilates into the cultural and archaeological remains of the landscape, "taking advantage of the thermal inertia and insulation of the ground, while acknowledging the local building traditions," the design team observes.
The gently unfurling building with next to no ornamentation finds preamble with a public Buddha garden that extends imperceptibly, instead of being greeted by the structure itself. The project sits below this access level, leaving the panoramic view of the Bamiyan Valley and the Buddha cliffs in full, unobstructed view. The Centre's rooftops stem a series of viewing platforms where visitors and locals are encouraged to congregate, contemplate and experience the landscape and its varied history through the years, and receive glimpses of the activities within the building.
A soft ramp aligns itself with the giant Buddha statue niche to the west, guiding the visitor down to a plaza lying at the centre of the Bamyan Cultural Centre. This plaza is designed to be an open space for cultural activities. Interstitial, street like spaces are formed by virtue of the placement of the three sand-coloured buildings where the program of the centre is divided. The public activities are hosted in the Performance and Exhibition Building, while the Research and Education Building is home to the semi-public activities of the program, and the Administrative Building features spaces for private, official activities. This separation of the program into the three volumes allows each to work independently, reducing the cost of maintenance and heating.
Referencing the intangible, mighty nature of time's passage, the interior design of the Bamyan Cultural Centre remains utterly sans decoration, unlike the exterior surfaces that find subtle detailing with textures of repeated rectangular tiling, minute square voids and a modest play of shadows. The straight cut geometry and composition of the volumes partakes in stillness, with minimal three-pointed and flat-arched doorways as perforations. The exterior sobriety is not wholly detached from the aura of restraint inside the structure, exhibiting no unnecessary showiness, also witnessed in the usage of straightforward materials and natural finishes.
“By their sheer austerity, the building favours a contemplative and reflective attitude,” shares M2R Arquitectos. Discreet yet carefully cut skylights pierce the built forms to create lines of light, forming relief for the otherwise bare surfaces. These slices of light create lines that traverse the path of the sun through the sky, making visible the passage of time, and giving it physicality.
The vaulted spaces of the exhibition area orient themselves in line with the axis of the western Buddha niche, and frame clear vistas towards it, giving a dramatic and historic backdrop to the contemporary cultural manifestation. “This makes visible the contrast and continuity between Afghan’s past and present apparent,” they add. The performance hall has a diagonal opening that is oriented towards the eastern Buddha niche, integrating it with the performances taking place inside.
“The spaces of the Cultural Centre are designed to respond to the richness of Bamiyan’s culture and to give a sense of history by making time tangible. Although architecture cannot deal with time directly it can nonetheless affect human perception of it… The visual silence of the interior and exterior spaces, the rich presence of natural light, and the integration of the cultural landscape of Bamiyan, all work to create a space that gives a deep sense of history,” the architects say.
Some might confer that excessive ornamentation in architecture is evocative of narcissism, and if architecture can emote with clear, delineated and legible forms, coherently inserted within its context, the more powerful and intentional it is. The powerful Afghan landscape and its tumultuous history essayed the grounding guidance for the architects to design the tranquil and grounded architecture of the Bamyan Cultural Centre that shines in its restraints and quiet build. The intended simplicity of the project’s composition is contemplative, responding with grace and sensitivity, to a landscape that has known deeply, pain, destruction and unrest, beholding the sentiments of its people who yearn for amity.
Name: Bamyan Cultural Centre
Location: Bamyan, Afghanistan
Area: 2,450 sqm
Year of completion:
Architect: M2R Arquitectos
Design team: Manuel Martínez, Franco Morero, Nahuel Recabarren, María Cantó Armero, Javier García Librero, Marcos Jaso, Juan Córsico, Mateo Gamba
Site Engineer: Eng. Amin Asifi
Structure: FS Group Engineering
Acoustic Design: Arau Acústica
Thermodynamics and Fluid Dynamics: IS Group
Construction Consultant: Alberto Baulina
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