Ahmed Baba Institute / DHK

  • Architect:DHK
  • Location:Timbuktu, Mali
  • Date:2009
  • Area:4800 m2
  • Client:COESSA Holdings
  • Awards:2009 SAPOA Merit Award - International Development Category 2007 Architecture SA Project Award - Outstanding Design in Architecture Category

Ahmed Baba Institute.

Ahmed Baba Institute – Description from DHK.

Timbuktu was a thriving university city for over a thousand years. Historically a seat of Islamic learning, the town had come to house many priceless Islamic texts and books. Written in almost forgotten languages and dialects of North Africa, these priceless but decaying collections were being stored in private homes throughout the city. The Ahmed Baba centre was established to restore this scattered collection.

© Iwan Baan
© Iwan Baan

The world heritage site in the Sankore Precinct occupies a zone between the old mud-brick city and the more modern periphery. Timbuktu was shaped over-time and the complexity of its urban patterns can be explained by the way in which people moved through the city. Overtime, pedestrian movement carved the old city into a complex urban grain of narrow and secretive streets. From the outset of the project we sought to capture the unique experiential qualities of the narrow and secretive streets of Timbuktu. The new buildings form a microcosm of the greater Timbuktu, an interactive experiential route which ties the main auditorium and outdoor amphitheatre to the library, restoration spaces and guest rooms, to form an interactive educational centre.

© Iwan Baan
© Iwan Baan

The siting of the project is a pivotal point in the city of Timbuktu. Three main arterial roads lead to the site. The two outer roads surround the old city whilst the middle one splits it in half. This connects the site directly to the airport. Furthermore the site is at the top end of the old city, at the CUSP between the “old “and the “new”.

At ground level, the complex comprises of a covered ceremonial arrival galleria on axis with the minaret of the old Sankore mosque, a book restoration and digitizing workshop, photographic studio, meeting spaces, library and guest house for visiting academics. These spaces are linked by a system of internal ‘streets’ and courtyards reflecting the historic context.

© Iwan Baan
© Iwan Baan

A cool, temperature stable basement houses the archive, storage and reading room. At the heart of the complex, in the central courtyard, is the auditorium for lectures and public functions.

The first floor houses the offices and visitor accommodation. The generosity of the building extends to the provision of a raked amphitheatre fronting the arrival galleria.  Its single storey outer edges house active retail edges fronting the square. The balance of the public square is left as found, giving the mosque pride of place at the heart of the local community.  It remains a place of public gathering and the local football pitch.

© Iwan Baan
© Iwan Baan

The architectural expression is a synthesis of old and new building traditions.  Thick sun-baked mud brick (traditionally packed and plastered) walls with deeply recessed niches and small openings represent the old which define the movement and key earth hugging forms of the building while the overarching off-shutter concrete provide a contemporary expression of shelter and shade.  These two materials form the main compositional elements.

Sun filtering screens of hand chiselled stone animate the façade and respond to the Moroccan influence on the local vernacular and utilize local building skills. Internally these decorative yet practical devices serve to provide a tranquil and cool environment away from the unrelenting desert sun.

© Iwan Baan
© Iwan Baan


For thousands of years, man has used the mud of the African soil to create, build and define his dwellings – this same mud has been used in the construction of the Ahmed Baba Institute.

Although treated in order to enhance the durability of the mud – more than 60% of the overall walling structure has been built sun dried clay bricks. As the mud requires maintenance after the annual rains, a local mason was commissioned to mix mud with concrete, creating hydrophobic bricks which were then used to make the buildings’ facade rain-repellent. The walls have high thermal mass and the deep recesses shade and trap cool air. Mud construction is an extremely environmentally-friendly method of building as it creates little waste, there is minimal energy consumption in production (low embodied energy), it has high thermal mass and is easy to maintain and recycle– providing a very natural, sustainable resource permitting the Ahmed Baba Institute to naturally reflect and resonate with the culture, the country, the continent and its historic origins. The large floating concrete roof acts as a sun parasol that provides sheltered and cool protection to the naturally ventilated walkways.

© Iwan Baan
© Iwan Baan

Although air-conditioning has been provided in key working areas, the building’s form, placement and size of openings, reduces direct and ambient heat loads to a minimum thus reducing the size of mechanical plant and energy consumption. The basement archive space, further capitalizes on the natural cooling properties of the earth were temperatures remain cool and stable, minimising need for air-conditioning. The use of the locally sourced, stone carved sun screens provides further sun protection and visual animation to openings whilst promoting the use of local craftsmen and labour, in support of the local economy.

Ahmed Baba Institute
© Iwan Baan

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