SALA students abroad in Cairo at the LafargeHolcim Foundation Forum

Jun 26, 2019

MArch students participate in the 6th forum on "Re-materializing Construction"

The construction sector uses a considerable amount of materials, energy, and water. Using better material protocols could have an impact on reducing emissions and dependence on resource extraction from the natural environment. Every three years, the LafargeHolcim Foundation hosts a forum focused on achieving a more sustainable built environment. The 6th Forum’s theme was “Re-materializing Construction.” The goal of discussing “Re-materializing Construction” was to rethink material use for individual buildings and logistical chains for distributing materials across regions. This April, thirty three students from all over the world were invited to join over 350 academics, architects, engineers, urban planners, and building professionals to further develop the discussion of sustainable construction. Based on a poster competition, students were selected to participate in the forum, which includes keynote presentations, workshops, field trips, and many other opportunities. Marion Gelinas and Emily Kazanowski, graduate students in the MArch program, presented individual projects to the LafargeHolcim Poster Competition.  

Autonomous Housing for an Indigenous Sovereignty, by Marion Gelinas, is a house proposal for the Atikamekw people of the Wemotaci Indian Reserve, in Haute-Mauricie, Northern Quebec. Through a collaborative design approach and the democratization of the construction process, existing local Aboriginal knowledge will serve the community’s economic autonomy. The house proposed here came as a result of research, on-site visits and exchanges, and extensive discussions with members of the community. It responds to their most pressing needs and it also aims at addressing the question of their cultural identity.

Cows, Diapers, and Bread, by Emily Kazanowski, seeks to use locally sourced material as non-waste formwork. The project is a proposal for an architectural concrete experimentation lab located at a LafargeHolcim factory site in Untervaz, Switzerland and in partnership with ETH Zurich. Inspired from various projects that engage with unconventional materials for formwork, such as the Truffle House by Ensamble, Gay Vatican by Cero9, Concrete Igloo by Jonatan Egli & Jean-Marc Stadelmann, Pumpkin Apse by Paolo Soleri, and Refugi Lieptgas by Nickisch Sano Walder Architekten, this project seeks to promote and develop sustainable methods of working with concrete.  Locally found materials are used to generate unusual spaces and forms. Several concrete pour experiments, such as the use of wool, wax, diapers (absorbent gel), and bread, were used to generate new forms and methods to be implemented in student residences in the project. Other programmed zones of the project are defined by the various materials used as formwork. Each building describes its formwork and construction method in its architectural form.

Below, Emily and Marion share their experience of travelling to Cairo for the Forum, and sharing their work with the international community:


We arrived in Cairo, Egypt, a wonderfully overstimulating chaotic and old city. The whiplash between contemporary and ancient was unsettling and fascinating. 

The extreme contrast and mixing between now and then, formal and informal, western and local, calm and chaos, new Cairo and old Cairo allowed for unusual experiences and critical analysis. 

Standing on the edge of Manshiyat Naser, also known as Garbage City, with trash under our feet hearing the garbled sound of prayer echoing from distance speakers while black smoke rose from burning garbage piles was an unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was an urban landscape unlike anything we had seen before. 

On the same day, we arrived at the Pyramids of Giza for an evening light show. We saw the fading light of the sun illuminate the pyramids and define silhouettes of camels returning their passengers down the roads back to town. Time froze for a moment with sensory clash of ancient Egyptain landmarks, 1960’s actors voices, and our contemporary presence. The collapse of so many eras in one space was awe-inspiring and hilarious in the same breath.

We had endless opportunities to strengthen our academic positions, professional networks, and cultural awareness. 

Academically, the mixture of keynote presentations, workshop topics, field trips, and discussions saturated our minds with content. Our design considerations were expanded. An example, Anne Lacaton suggested that construction may not be necessary in given circumstances: 

“If less is more, maybe nothing is everything”

When asked for a proposal for Place Léon Aucoc in Bordeaux, Lacaton & Vassal Architectes determined that the existing park was successful and nothing needed to change. The suggestion that nothing could be a design solution was certainly unique!

The topics of the forum and the thought-provoking speeches aligned with and reinforced the experiences of Cairo. Local knowledge and local materials were proven through good and bad examples. The visit to the Nubian inspired building complex made of local mud into adobe and the careful placement of walkways allowing for natural airflow showed success of constructing using local inspiration. On the other hand, buildings in New Cairo had heavy influence from the West. Large office buildings had extensive glass windows creating unnecessary desert dust maintenance concerns and thermal comfort issues. The importance of designing to a local context was emphasized.

One of the most shocking moments of disbelief came after a presentation by the Egyptain Housing Ministry. The vast scale of 15 proposed and developing cities emerging out of the desert gave an opportunity to think critically. The ministry explained separate residential, cultural, commercial zones for the cities. Also, despite rising sea levels there were new skyscrapers being constructed directly on the oceanfront. What we have been taught about successful communities and sustainable design was not present in these proposals. The importance of conscientious designers in combination with political will was greatly highlighted and gave us an opportunity to critically analyze our surroundings.

Professionally, it was a thrill to be in such close proximity to some of the most note-worthy architects of our generation. The nerdy rush of meeting famous architects and professionals usually only interacted with through books, articles, and drawings was unbelievable and often left us a bit star struck. What are the chances of getting to sit next to Christine Binswanger, Senior Partner of Herzog & de Meuron, for an hour long bus ride? Finding your way to breakfast with Anne Lacaton, Principal of Lacaton & Vassal Architectes? Or taking a field trip with Alejandro Aravena, Partner Architect and Executive Director of Elemental? At the Forum it was everyday!

Our cultural awareness was deeply broadened. We were taken on a field trip to see informal housing settlements in Egypt by a local professor at the American University in Cairo. We saw the ingenuity of the Egyptain people. Making do with what surrounds them. Al-Azhar Park, one of the few public parks in Cairo, was created on a landfill. Street boulevards were some of the few other public spaces in the city. People used them as unexpected social gathering spaces. 

In addition to the multi-sensory experiences of the city of Cairo, there was also a chance to meet other students from various geographic locations in the world. Hearing about other student experiences and their own points of view enriched the poster competition and the forum itself. Sharing new knowledge with people with common interests and goals created bonds that we can take into our professional careers. We have new friends and contacts in Mexico, Switzerland, Singapore and more!

Overall, the LafargeHolcim Foundation’s 6th Forum on “Re-materializing Construction” provided us with personal, academic, professional, and cultural experiences and opportunities we are unlikely to come across again. The eccentricity and complexity of Cairo created a stimulating backdrop for all these events to unfold... Where else can you see world wonders, converse with famous architects, and be critically challenged to analyze the built environment?