Atelier Koé – A Life Close To Nature

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In today’s day and age, people are increasingly aware of the environmental degradation caused by the reckless exploitation of natural resources. Global and local initiatives that promote sustainable living are seen as the only way forward. Atelier Koé (pronounced ko-ay) is one such venture founded by the French architects Richard Rowland and Hippolyte Gilabert in 2013. The current team also includes Clément Dagneaux. It aims at crafting low-cost, self-sustainable, eco-friendly mud buildings, built the old way – using soil and water obtained from the construction site itself.

Richard Rowland and Clement Dagneaux of Atelier Koé at Alliance Française de Trivandrum Photo Credit: Bindu P Murali

Richard Rowland and Clement Dagneaux of Atelier Koé at Alliance Française de Trivandrum
Photo Credit: Aswin V. N.

Since 2013, Atelier Koé has trained and employed more than 80 bricklayers, providing daily work to between 20 and 30 local earth masons on any given project. They have also made it a point to employ female construction supervisors and engineers. Richard Rowland and Clément Dagneaux recently came to Kerala to work on a potential architectural project. Alliance Française de Trivandrum hosted and interviewed them on February 17, 2016. Some excerpts from this interview are reproduced below:

When and why did you decide to create Atelier Koé?  

Richard: Atelier Koé was created in November 2013. The journey started in 2008 during our personal construction project. At that time, Hippolyte – a 25-year old architect who had been interning at the architecture school of Nantes – contacted us. He wanted to explore the real world and hence applied for an internship with us. I was happy to take him on. Hippolyte had initially applied for three months but ended up staying for a year. Having learnt a lot from each other and working very well together, we decided to extend our collaboration.

I am 50 years old, Hippolyte to me represents the next generation. Indeed, he brought a lot to the work I was doing – hope, energy and new knowledge, products of his generation. Later, Clément came over. He was more advanced in his studies and came to observe what we were doing for a short period of time. After finishing his studies last year, he joined Atelier Koé. It was then that Hippolyte and I realized that the architectural work that we had been doing was good and needed to be promoted.

Keur Leah - the Rowland Family home in Senegal which set the ball rolling for Atelier Koé Photo Credit: http://www.atelierkoe.fr/

Keur Leah – the Rowland Family home in Senegal which set the ball rolling for Atelier Koé
Photo Credit: http://www.atelierkoe.fr/

In addition to Hippolyte and Clément, could you introduce us to your other team members?

Richard: Basically, they are people we met along the way who showed great promise. For example, Elage Lo – a local man from the village – has a real talent for organising and human resources. Our construction chief Vieux (Old) Coulibaly is extremely nifty with his hands. We have had up to two hundred people working in the organisation. Sometimes, it could be a kid from the street who came to show us what he could do. If he really wants to learn how to work on construction sites, we pair him with an experienced worker. After a while, the mentor normally gets back to us and tells us that the apprentice has learned enough to work by himself. The salary grid is established according to a certain hierarchy: level of experience and studies.

What’s the essence of the philosophy which characterizes your building projects?

Richard: Behind the philosophy of Atelier Koé is the desire to push public consciousness towards accepting this kind of construction. The projects also have an educational purpose. We want to show that once you open source to people and teach them the techniques, they can appropriate them for their needs in any way they choose. We believe that the constructions should not be erected with the idea of lasting forever. They should appear as natural as possible in relation to the local environment and should be allowed to die after a certain time. This is the meaning of durable development: it has its own life expectancy. When a building disappears, it should simply go back to the ground as if it had never existed.

Al Hamra - a project by Atelier Koé in Dakar

Al Hamra – a project by Atelier Koé in Dakar Photo Credit: http://www.atelierkoe.fr/

In your opinion, can Atelier Koé truly represent a viable alternative to conventional architecture?

Clément: Atelier Koé is not a conventional architectural firm because it works as a whole. Indeed, we draw, design and build collaboratively. In addition, Richard, Hippolyte and I could never finish our projects without the unflinching cooperation of all our workers. The human factor is primordial – it comes before the financial or even the technical aspects of our constructions.

Richard: At Atelier Koé, we insist that the construction cost, financially as well as ecologically, remain minimal by selecting local materials. Thereby, the chain of intermediaries (contractors for example) is erased. Consequently, the risk of conflicts with the people who paid for the project is minimised. Thus, in comparison to other architectural firms, we reduce the cost of a project by 20 to 30 %.

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Al Hamra – a project by Atelier Koé in Dakar Photo Credit: http://www.atelierkoe.fr/

You are French and have lived in America. How do the two influences reflect in your projects?

Richard: Actually, my life in France and in America represent another phase of my life. I became familiar with construction at the age of 5 and since then it has been an ongoing process. I am a self-taught man and have accomplished beautiful architectural project in the US. The shift I took was in response to the emergency created by mainstream architecture where the goal is profit generation.  Our goal, on the other hand, is to respond to local needs and to use local resources. The essential consideration is to minimise the ecological impact of the project.

Why did you choose Senegal?

Richard: Senegal was in some ways a coincidence but, paradoxically, not so much. I had lived in USA for twelve years and was running beautiful sustainable architecture projects there. After a point, I hit a wall philosophically. Sustainable architecture in the States catered to just the wealthy elite whereas I wanted people from all walks of life to benefit from it. Therefore, I started looking for a place where I could set up this kind of project. A friend of mine had told me many times to go to Senegal. It did turn out to be an ideal destination because it was very cheap. Furthermore, the Senegalese government grants you absolute freedom to construct any building irrespective of the location and the method. After spending six months in Senegal with my family, we went back to the States. However, the more we thought about this project, the more sense it made to shift base and hence we moved to Senegal for good.

Your projects are getting increasingly popular in Senegal. Would you be interested in spreading Atelier Koé abroad – in India for example?

Richard: The principle of construction at Atelier Koé is universal and timeless. Human beings have been building the kind of habitations we promote for more more than 10,000 years. It would be our pleasure to promote the concept all over the world. We belong to a global movement and are by no means the only ones striving to recreate natural constructions. We have had some interesting projects in Greece working with stones which are the local material there. We also found a nice contact in Kerela through whom we discovered that the earth there was very rich. It is also full of big stones. To top these factors, this region has immense reserves of water. In our view, Kerala has immense potential to host our projects. We are always on the lookout for new materials and new techniques. The diversity of contexts in which we work helps us to enrich our knowledge and our projects.

Richard Rowland talking about Atelier Koé at Alliance Française de Trivandrum Photo Credit: Bindu P Murali

Richard Rowland talking about Atelier Koé at Alliance Française de Trivandrum
Photo Credit: Bindu P Murali

Your projects extend beyond just sustainable architecture and advocate a sustainable way of life. Would you like to comment on the same?

Richard: If you do not have a sustainable mindset, you cannot obviously conduct the kind of project we support. I grew up in Pornic which is a small town in Loire-Atlantique on the North-West French Atlantic coast. I like to compare life to living on a sailboat – if you detach yourself from the material world, the basic needs for sustaining life become important. What we advocate is definitely a finer connection to the environment.

Timothée PIGEON

Alliance Française de Trivandrum

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Rédaction

Directeur de publication : Délégation Générale de la Fondation Alliance Française en Inde et au Népal

Rédacteur en chef : Laurent Elisio Bordier

Rédacteur/Coordinateur national : Siddharth Bhatt

Rédacteurs, contributeurs : Guillaume, Abhirami, Alexandre, Chintan, Cléa, David, Eleonore, Elie, Kanika, Karine, Nita, Thomas, Malvika, Marie-Joëlle, Meera, Mayuri, Mitushi, Alice, Prutha, Romain, Ritika, Manas, Supriya ...