When Robert Hull heard he was headed to Afghanistan his first response was “where is it?”
It was 1968. Hull, who grew up in Moses Lake, had just graduated with a degree in architecture from Washington State University and was looking to see the world — as well as stay out of the Vietnam War.
So he joined the Peace Corps. He hoped to head to Tunisia, where it was rumored there was money for big architecture projects, but instead he ended up stepping off a plane in Kabul.
“It was a mud city, not much traffic, the only pollution was from … the bread shops that fired up in the evening.”
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He fell in love with that mud city and the rest of the country. Over the course of the next four years, he designed buildings in Kabul and Herat, a city near the border with Iran.
Through his time in the Peace Corps, Hull developed an appreciation of Afghan design.
“Mud: It’s so beautiful, sustainable and relevant,” he says, describing the architecture he admired in Afghanistan’s villages.
Hull’s commitment to natural materials and sustainable design can now be seen in projects across the Pacific Northwest, including the much talked-about, super-green, “net zero” Bullitt Foundation building on Capitol Hill.
Over the 40 years since he left Afghanistan, Hull — now of the Seattle firm Miller Hull Partnership — paid close attention to the country that nurtured the early years of his career.
From the Soviet invasion to the rise of the Taliban and the War on Terror, Hull says, it was horrible to watch from afar as a country he knew as “absolutely safe” descended into “perpetual war.”
Then, a few years ago, he received a phone call from Sadiq Tawfiq, who was born and raised in Afghanistan and now lives in San Diego. Tawfiq grew up admiring Hull’s work in his hometown of Herat — specifically a building Hull had designed to become a hub for the then-burgeoning tourism industry.
“What Bob did that was different,” says Tawfiq, “not just one box on top of another [the building was] unique, there were curves and domes.”
So when Tawfiq, who has raised funds to build a number of schools in the Heart region, decided he wanted to build a clinic, he tracked Hull down to be the architect.
Tawfiq wasn’t the only force pulling Hull back to Afghanistan. About a year ago he also began working with philanthropist Janet Ketcham and the Seattle organization Ayni Education International to help design a girls school in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Ketcham, who had already funded three schools, wanted the fourth school to be different.
“I’ve been all through the Middle East, and they have the most beautiful architecture,” says Ketcham. “And I wondered ‘why wouldn’t we do something that includes those influences?’ ”
Last fall, Hull traveled to Afghanistan for 10 days to help with logistics on both projects.
“It’s so much more intense and the pollution is so bad … I hardly could recognize Kabul,” says Hull. “You couldn’t get on the street much because you’re still pretty much a target.”
Though he was shocked by how Kabul had changed, he was also inspired. He plans to prioritize Afghan architectural traditions in these projects, something he says has been forgotten in these decades of conflict.
He’s also excited to bring the sustainable design he’s so passionate about — a passion born while looking out on the beautiful mud villages of Afghanistan as a young man — to a country strapped for resources.
Tawfiq’s clinic is still seeking funds. But Ayni says it will break ground on the girls school this spring. Hull says he will build the school to capture the power of the sun, emphasize natural ventilation and use composting to ensure good sanitation.
When asked if he will incorporate his beloved mud, he laughs, explaining that it might be hard to get the Afghan Ministry of Education to OK such a humble material for a public building.
“Well, maybe the roof, …” he says; “mud makes a great roof.”
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SeaStute