An Architect in Kabul

A Columbia University professor brings modern design to postwar Afghanistan.

After the American-led invasion that toppled the Taliban in 2001, New York-based Swiss architect Frederic Levrat joined the legions of international aid groups streaming into Afghanistan to begin the process of reconstruction. His wife, Zolayka Sherzad, an Afghan native and fellow architect, was already doing humanitarian work in the country through School of Hope, a nonprofit she founded in 2000. Levrat’s motives were less altruistic: “Forget philosophy,” he says, “I was seduced.” But he was quickly confronted with the stark realities of a country devastated by more than 20 years of civil war. Before long Levrat began offering his expertise for a series of projects to reconstruct downtown Kabul, build health and education facilities, and help restore civil society.

“There is no electricity, no roads, no qualified workers, no indigenous material,” says Levrat, who worked with the likes of Peter Eisenman and Tadao Ando before taking on a different sort of design challenge in Afghanistan. “My last project had been a conceptual construction made of laser-cut translucent Plexiglas with a margin of error of less than .25mm. Nevertheless, nothing compares to the questions raised by the reconstruction of an entire city, civil society, and culture.”

Afghan authorities immediately recognized the value of Levrat’s expertise, installing him in the newly formed City Center Reconstruction Authority to plan the rebuilding of Kabul’s old town and business district. Lacking funds and infrastructure, the agency never instituted Levrat’s vision. “Anybody who had any skills had left the country, so the first step was simply to entertain what was possible,” he says. Filling the knowledge gap, however, was a small group of expat professionals, among them Abdullah Rafiq, who had abandoned his computer business in Thailand to return to Afghanistan. In 2004 Levrat and Rafiq won a bid to construct 18 primary schools and 36 clinics for USAID.

Since most of the reconstruction money was being funneled through foreign firms, Levrat was particularly interested in employing local labor. “You don’t really have a local construction company, so there are two or three large Turkish companies making a fortune out there. The problem is, What’s the capacity building? What’s the learning curve? How much are Afghans involved in the process?” A simple interlocking brick system that Rafiq imported from Thailand ended up perfectly suited to the task. The bricks could be built on-site by unskilled laborers, stacked in durable straight walls, and reinforced by rebar threaded through holes in the aligned bricks. Within a few days of signing the contract, 80 local workers were being trained in a former wheat field to produce 5,000 hand-pressed blocks a day. To date 12 schools and 25 clinics have been built.

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