War ravaged infrastructure, inconsistent power, and a shortage of hot water were a few of the obstacles Morgan State University School of Architecture and Planning students had to overcome in designing a library and student center, called an E-brary, for William V.S. Tubman University in Harper, Liberia.

Thuy Do, Zoia Jenkins, and Zahra Naserdeghan were selected and accompanied by Stan Britt, an adjunct professor at the Morgan school of architecture, to visit the campus of Tubman University during Morgan’s 2014 spring break and participate in a design challenge with students from two other Historically Black Universities:

Howard University in Washington D.C. and Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala.
Each university sent three students along with a faculty adviser. They were then divided into three teams comprised of one student from each school. The teams each came up with a design that they then presented to representatives of Tubman University, local architects, and members of the Liberian government, including Liberia’s vice president Joseph Boakai.

Britt, who has lived in Kenya and Ghana, said, “What I saw in Liberia was in many ways worse than anything I’d ever seen in any other African country.”

The West African country established by former slaves from the United States, Liberia suffered through 14 years of civil war from 1989 to 2003, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. The lengthy conflict destroyed much of the nation’s infrastructure.

That ailing infrastructure meant the students could not incorporate glass into their designs. Four-hundred and twenty-five miles separate Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, and Harper. Previous attempts to ship glass over that distance along the country’s largely unpaved roads had resulted in shattered panes.

The conditions of the roads, which were littered with trenches that had been dug by military forces to impede travel, proved a logistical challenge for the students from Morgan, helping to turn what would have been an 18 hour trip to Tubman University from Monrovia into a 36 hour ordeal that included the breakdown of three of the five vehicles that transported them from the capital.

While the loss of so much time delayed the submission of final building designs until after the students had returned to the States, it also proved helpful in allowing the students more time to observe and study the local culture and resources of the country, enabling them to better adapt their initial design ideas to the Liberian context in which the building would ultimately be constructed.

For Naserdeghan, the experience taught her that “We need to know who we are designing for. We need to know the people, the culture, and the climate, and you have to feel it in order to have a good design.”

Do was inspired by her experience to join Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit specializing in sustainable design efforts in impoverished contexts, according to the organization’s website.

“I would like to get more involved in that kind of work,” said Do.

Do, Jenkins, and Naserdeghan were selected for the trip based on design concepts they each developed in Britt’s ‘Design Studio’ course in the fall semester of 2013. Do was chosen for her utilization of different elevations in her roof design to aid in ventilation and lighting. Jenkins was selected for her use of local basket weaving patterns in her building facade, while Naserdeghan’s design stood apart for her incorporation of a water collection mechanism in her roof design.

Roberto Alejandro

Special to the AFRO