The design proposal for the mobile school for Burmese refugees, by in situ studio with Matt Weiss and David Hill-AIA, is made of a series of collapsable frames that can be easily demounted and rearranged to accommodate a change of location or growth in a community. The proposal for the school, which won an honorable mention in the Building Trust International Competition, can be erected in one day in a collaborative effort, with twelve people assembling the frames and small groups cutting and weaving bamboo on site. The school provides a center for the community and claims territory for sustaining the community’s future. More images and project description after the break.
One-hundred and forty-four frames, the structure of a new school, arrive on site a bit after nine in the morning on three flatbed trucks. The three-hour trek to Kwe Ka Bung has been challenging. Just one week ago these people learned the landowner of their former settlement site would be pushing them out to develop the land. Many families have left their homes behind, along with much of the infrastructure for producing food and dealing with waste. Thankfully, demounting the school that has now arrived required only one afternoon and twelve workers.
Families gather at the new settlement and begin to arrange salvaged goods and materials. They begin to rebuild their homes. Awaiting them on the flattest area of the site are fifty-four concrete footings, installed four days ago by an advance party. This is the new school site. Twelve people begin to build the school. They attach foundation sleeves to the footings and hoist large hinged A-frames into place. In three groups of four, they then install floor frames, pinning them to the A-frames and creating a stable triangular section.
Others pitch in, hanging frames above the floor frame cantilevers, forming generous, shaded porches along the length of the structure. They attach wall panels to stabilize the frames and enclose classrooms, offices, support functions. A smaller group of people is busy cutting bamboo into joists and weaving floor mats. Bamboo thatch shade screens are draped over the porch overhang frames. A richly textured, quilt-work façade takes shape at the center of their new settlement.
The importance of the school in this roving community is hard to overestimate. The children, following the plight of their parents, are not refugees. Their education stands to free them of the stigma of being nomads. This school is their future. Yet, only a quarter of the footprint of the school is given to classrooms. Beyond the support spaces, nearly half the footprint is dedicated to elevated, exterior public space. These generous porches wrap the entire school framework and provide a central gathering point for the community. Though the school building is entirely demountable, the structure holds a sacred position in the community, reminding us that temporality does not imply provisional cheapness.
The school’s infrastructure is itself an educational device. Energy is collected by photovoltaic panels on the porch overhangs. Water is collected by deep gutters and directed to cisterns under the porches. Collected water is used to support gardens that splay out from the porch edges a stark contrast to the run-off scoured erosion common to other nearby settlements. During the day, classrooms are bathed in natural light admitted at the apex of each A-frame unit. All spaces are naturally ventilated, with the porous walls of the main classroom array capturing prevailing winds. The school is a model of sustainability and cultivation, an environment that belies a tenuous situation.
Though these people have been deprived of the right to purchase land, the school frame:scape is their device for claiming a refuge. It will be moved again at the whim of a new landowner, leaving behind footings in a fertile garden, a trace of the life-giving learning center of a mobile community. The community will find a way to adapt its flexible framework to a new site, claiming a new territory for sustaining their future.