Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


The multiple connections that bind a building together are rich and varied things. It is hard to imagine, for instance, what factors might unite a Japanese-American architect based in New York, Bauhaus émigrés Josef & Anni Albers and a remote village in eastern Senegal. Yet this unlikely alliance, forged through a series of chance meetings and encounters, has resulted in an extraordinary new building: a cultural centre for the Senegalese community of Sinthian, where a whole range of functions and activities are combined under one soaring, thatched roof. Its name, appropriately enough, is Thread. 

From Dakar, it’s still a good seven hour drive to Sinthian, which sits close to the banks of the River Gambia. It’s a long trip that architect Toshiko Mori has undertaken a number of times. ‘You have to weave around cattle, sheep and donkeys and people on bicycles,’ says Mori, ‘so it’s quite precarious. And you have to travel by day as there are sometimes bandits on the road at night. When you arrive, you see that the region is one of flat grasslands and very beautiful. The people and the children are very beautiful too and incredibly poor. They are impeccably dressed and a wonderful people but they have to do their best with very limited resources.’

The Thread building, designed with Mori’s colleague Jordan Mactavish, is a pro bono project that provides two artists’ residences and a performance space under one parabolic roof. It sits within an off-the-grid compound on the edge of the village that also holds a clinic powered by a solar array. The Thread building is intended as a new cultural centre, performance space and a fresh focal point for the community as a whole, with an open air stage at its heart.  

‘It was important that Thread be close to the clinic and this functional element of the village, rather than removed from everyday life,’ says Mori. ‘In that area they are suffering from water shortages so we wanted to make sure that the roof is also an instrument for rain collection, so that water can easily be collected by the villagers when they need it. Collecting water from wells can keep the girls out of school and means a lot of labour, so this idea of water security is another mission for the building and means that Thread becomes part of the infrastructure of the village.’

The link between Mori and Sinthian comes in the form of writer and cultural historian Nicholas Fox Weber, the executive director of the Josef & Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut. The two first met when Mori was asked to design an exhibition devoted to the highly influential artist and textile designer, who moved from the Bauhaus to the States in the 1930s. Weber also happens to be the founder and president of the American Friends of Le Korsa (AFLK), a non-profit that supports a wide range of projects in Senegal and pioneered the Thread building in Sinthian with assistance from The Albers Foundation.

‘Toshiko did a spectacular job with the exhibition and was very receptive to the idea of what I was doing in Senegal,’ says Fox Weber, who first visited the country in 2003, after a chance meeting with a dermatologist in Paris who was volunteering his services to help clinics in West Africa. ‘She decided that it would be a great subject of study for her seminar students at Harvard, where she teaches, and went out twice with her students. I told her about this dream of an arts centre on the edge of the Gambia River and we were off and running.’

The centre has cost just €150,000 to build, which is very much in tune – as Fox Weber puts it – with the Albers’ maxim of  ‘minimal means, maximum effect’. Thread was built by the community itself using local materials: baked mud bricks, bamboo supports and the undulating grass roof. A programme of visiting artists residencies is already underway, including writers, textile artists, dancers and video makers, who will run workshops with teachers, children and others in the community, with the aim of providing some of the pleasures that most of us take for granted.

As a building, Mori’s project is quite unique in combining two homes, a performance space and rainwater capture and reservoirs within one crafted and contextual building, which references the local vernacular and village huts but with a distinctive contemporary form all of its own.

‘It’s a real hybrid,’ says Mori, who is also working on a new theatre in Manhattan and a pavilion for the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. ‘It’s a hybid both of the existing typologies in the region, like the round thatched houses, but also of these different functions. Some parts are shaded but the centre of the roof is open so it becomes both a gathering space and a performance space, as well a home. It’s not that far from the border with Mali and in this area there is a strong tradition of drumming called djembe. It’s a very active drumming cuture, which is one of the reasons that the middle of the roof is open to the sky. They drum to communicate with the heavens. The sound of what they are doing here needs to ascend upwards.’

Toshiko Mori –
Thread –