Extending a hand

Extending a hand

Restoring Common Ground in Bosnia and Herzegovina

This article and interview first appeared in the 6th Holcim Awards Magazine 2020/2021

The Most Mira Peace Centre in Kevljani, a village in the north of Bosnia and Herzegovina, aims to reunite and reconcile ethnic groups that were split by war and have lived apart until this day. In developing this new cultural center, the architect employed a participatory approach that goes beyond the typical design process.

Extending a hand

In 1992 a brutal war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina that cost an estimated 100,000 lives. It began with the breakup of Yugoslavia and was fueled by tensions between the local ethnic groups. The scars of the Bosnian War have not healed even after a quarter century. The war brought together the paths of Vernes Causevic and Kemal Pervanic. “I grew up in a multi-ethnic Yugoslav neighborhood in Sarajevo, which was transformed into a war zone almost overnight. I lived through 497 days in the besieged city and was seven years old when we were forced to leave for London,” Causevic recounts. At that time, Kemal Pervanic, then 24 years old, was imprisoned in a concentration camp where thousands of people were incarcerated. “Everyone experienced the war differently, and as bad as it may sound, it’s the driving force for both of us,” says Vernes Causevic. He and Kemal Pervanic are peace builders. Both are committed to helping people in their homeland find their way back together.

Extending a hand

Vernes Causevic studied architecture at the University of Nottingham in the UK and received his master’s degree and professional qualifications from London Metropolitan University. He worked at various architectural offices in Germany and England before opening his own office in 2015, Project V Architecture, in London and later the Sarajevo branch with his partner Lucy Dinnen. They co-teach a masters design studio at the University of Sheffield School of Architecture which re-imagines Sarajevo as a laboratory for exploring alternative models of resilience for uncertain futures.

Kemal Pervanic is a filmmaker and writer. After the war he received a Bachelor of Science in Management at Royal Holloway, University of London and a Master in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution at the University of Bradford in the UK and then trained as a human rights advocate at Columbia University in New York. When he first returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina, he realized how many mis representations of the war were circulating. To prevent the youth from a future of division and hatred, he founded Most Mira in 2005. Most Mira means “Bridge of Peace.”

Extending a hand

Kemal Pervanic had the Bosnian-British non profit organization registered in 2008. His latest project is the Most Mira Peace Centre. With this new cultural and meeting center, the organization aims to create a place for people in the north of Bosnia and Herzegovina where new and lasting friendships can be forged across ethnic and religious boundaries.

Vernes Causevic initiated “Architecture for Democracy,” a participatory education and learning program that he developed with Kemal Pervanic for Most Mira. “Architects have a social responsibility to set an example of resisting war and environmental destruction,” believes Causevic. Most Mira is a work of passion for him. It just bubbles out of him – and it’s infectious when he talks about the new cultural center or about how he found his way to the project in 2014 and how he convinced the Most Mira staff of the need for a sustainable architectural process.

Extending a hand

The war ended in 1995. How deep are the wounds still felt today?

Vernes Causevic: The country is more divided now than ever. The imposed Dayton Peace Agreement is based on each of the three ethnic groups keeping to themselves. In many towns, the children go to separate schools and have no exchange with each other. Sometimes two separate schools with separate curricula exist under one roof, separated by walls and fences. In teaching history, each ethnic group teaches its own version of the truth. Everything is over-politicized, and at the same time the country is blocked and lacks impetus. Things might seem okay from a distance, but dysfunctional chaos lies beneath the surface.

Is the Most Mira Peace Centre meant to counteract this?

The center is intended to become a meeting place where young adults can learn about the impact that war, politics, and post-war divisions have had on the region. It should also be a place where children and young people can learn about art and theater and develop their own performances and a shared version of the future.

Where will the peace center be located?

The site is located between two separated villages: Petrov Gaj, where Bosnian Serbs live, and Kevljani, with its Bosnian Muslim returnee population. A war-torn house on the site will be transformed into a lively public facility for cultural and reconciliation activities. Most Mira is counting on the power of dialog to build a more peaceful society.

How does one approach a reconciliation project as an architect?

I’ve been dealing with the issue of social responsibility and political engagement in architecture since my student days when I initiated sustainable return and revitalization projects in marginalized post-war communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Everything is interrelated, from what I experienced to the culture and building materials, and for me it’s central to develop a common understanding of a building and its con text to enrich the design. The community inherently knows the place much better than the architect. So it’s important for architects to enable people to inhabit the process of developing a building long before it’s built, by curating an environment to facilitate exchange and to test ideas. That’s why we developed a participatory and holistic architectural process we call “Architecture for Democracy.” The building was designed through research and workshops in the field and with the aid of educational residencies and community engagement.

What happened at these workshops?

Over the course of four years, we conducted around ten courses in which students from London, Banja Luka, and Sarajevo dealt intensively with local conditions, environmental issues, building materials, and sustainability. Through this collaborative approach, a vision and mission for the peace center slowly emerged. In the research work, it was always about defining the practical approach step by step and developing the building as a living culture and peace project. These workshops are kind of peace-building performances in themselves, which we are recording.

We plan to eventually make a film and a book about the project. With the workshops we also wanted to get into contact with the locals and interact with them. To make the process transparent, we reviewed key design stages not just with the client but also with the community and future users of the space. We tested ideas and experimented with the materials of the place throughout the design process, engaging the community in making physical models, sampling materials, and holding live building demonstrations and interactive exhibitions to learn together and build trust. This was extremely insightful and helped shape the design.

“Architecture for Democracy” is driven by contextual research, the development of new architectural processes, and the desire to make meaningful projects that have social impact. It’s an architecture that aims at common wellbeing while preserving the eco logical foundations of life. Vernes Causevic uses each design project as an opportunity to research new ways that people can live and work in the built environment in a more holistic and sustainable way.

Do you think architects should try to makethe world a better place?

With their buildings, architects can accelerate processes, slow them down, or steer them in a different direction. Doing that requires thorough understanding of the subject, the site, and the construction method. Architecture can have an influence, and without taking a holistic approach we would never have been able to address the needs of this highly sensitive society in the north of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

How is the peace center progressing?

The plans are finished, we have received the preliminary building permit, and if nothing else comes up, we will soon start construction. A major fundraising campaign has generated the necessary money for the building envelope, over 300,000 euros. We expect the building envelope to be completed in 2022. We will fundraise to complete the interior work during the construction of the envelope.

One goal is climate and carbon neutrality

In our workshops, we analyzed all the possible influences on the climate and the environment as well as potential savings to be gained through circular economy strategies. Our rammed earth structure is well insulated, with wood-fiber insulation and triple-glazed wood-frame windows. Water is scarce in the region and the connection to the municipal system is unreliable, so we are harvesting rainwater as a secondary water supply. This also conserves groundwater.

Why rammed earth construction?

Rammed earth is symbolic of the recon ciliation process. We are not only mixing different soils and clay colors but blending materials from ethnically divided communities and historically meaningful sites into a new whole. It’s our recipe for peace. Rammed earth walls are economical, very strong, and have good thermal properties, which lowers the heating costs and carbon emissions. When people see the stunningly beautiful walls, they want to run their hands over the surface.

You worked with the Austrian rammed earth specialist Martin Rauch. Has local knowledge of this construction method been lost in the region?

That surprised me too. With the war, not only have people been displaced, apparently knowledge has disappeared as well. We had to understand the advantages and disadvantages of the material, and how to use it in a contemporary way. We are lucky to be able to collaborate with Martin Rauch.

With this clay, have you in a way reinvented the vanished heritage?

It might be fair to say that we are in the pro cess of doing that. In our studies, our mapping of industries, materials, and resources showed that clay was one of the preferred building materials before the war. Instead of firing it, by mixing clay with local waste materials such as crushed stone, slag, and gravel from the nearby quarries, iron-ore mines, and abandoned clay pits, you could say that we are reinventing the heritage. We also want to provide vocational training for local builders, engineers, and architects.

What are the advantages of the green roof?

The green roof insulates the building from the cold in winter and from the heat in summer. It supports biodiversity and buffers rainwater runoff. The roof is also expected to help attract bird populations that disappeared when occupying forces cut down trees during the war. These are important microclimatic and ecological functions.

What sort of program is planned for the peace center?

We want to continue with knowledge transfer, in a way to continue what we initiated with the workshops. Martin Rauch’s visit was exemplary. In the courses, the students and local craftspeople learned firsthand how wonderful it is to work with clay as a material. That’s why we are focusing on such educational and informational programs, as well as cultural, dance, and theater performances for young people and children. The peace center will include a theater, art studio, and crafts workshop on the ground floor and provide accommodations for up to 14 people upstairs.

The operation should be financially self-supporting in three years. Is that realistic?

Most Mira is fundraising for the first three years of operation. Future revenues will include proceeds from the art and theater events and from rental income. We also want to generate income from summer school programs, which will include architects and design students who will develop local products from natural materials as part of completing and furnishing the center and as part of developing social enterprises to ensure future sustainability.

What are you personally taking away from this project?

This is a task for life. This project is just the beginning of what we want to achieve in this community. It’s a catalyst. I want us to have a positive influence on architectural and construction culture in Bosnia and Herzegovina and use this as a vehicle for social change. Day by day, I realize what a valuable contribution we can make with the peace center. We are creating a place with room for everyone. For me it’s also impor tant to realize that it takes very little time to destroy something, but it takes many years and generations to rebuild it. When I look at the many happy faces of the children and young people working on something positive together, it fills me with great joy.

“There is hope,” says Vernes Causevic – hope for renewal and a return to social normality in which the different ethnicities peacefully coexist with one another. “With the peace center we want to extend a hand and finally break through the invisible barriers between the communities.”