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Afghan Health Clinic Marks Return to Roots for Robert Hull

By David Hill

This article originally appeared on Architectural Record.

July 24, 2012
Robert Hull was a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, he's returning to the country to build a health clinic for a nonprofit organization.
Image courtesy Miller Hull Partnership
Robert Hull was a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, he's returning to the country to build a health clinic for a nonprofit organization.

Seattle architect Robert Hull remembers Afghanistan in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a poor but peaceful country, with people who were kind and tolerant of foreigners—a far cry from the war-torn nation of today.

Hull's design for the 20,000-square-foot clinic is based on a traditional caravanserai, a kind of walled roadside inn for weary travelers.
Image courtesy Miller Hull Partnership
Hull's design for the 20,000-square-foot clinic is based on a traditional caravanserai, a kind of walled roadside inn for weary travelers.
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Hull, then fresh out of Washington State University with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, served as a Peace Corps volunteer with five other architects in Herat, about 500 miles west of Kabul. They designed sustainable schools based on traditional Afghan structures, with arches, domes, and vaults. Hull returned to the United States in 1972 and eventually founded the Miller Hull Partnership with another former Peace Corps volunteer, David Miller. Afghanistan became a distant memory as Mill Hull grew into one of the Pacific Northwest’s top design firms.

Now, 40 years—and many buildings—later, Hull has designed a medical clinic outside of Herat. He was asked to work on the project by a California businessman, Sadiq Tawfiq, who grew up in Herat but left Afghanistan in the 1970s to get a master’s degree in education at the University of California at Irvine. When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Tawfiq remained in California and opened an Afghan import shop in Laguna Beach. Since 2002, he has funded several schools and orphanages in Herat through a nonprofit he started, the Afghan Amity Society. “All over Afghanistan,” Tawfiq says, “we need clinics and hospitals. Many haven’t been updated in the last 30 or 40 years.”

Hull’s design for the 20,000-square-foot clinic is based on a traditional caravanserai, a kind of walled roadside inn for weary travelers. The idea, Hull says, is “to create security, to protect from the harsh desert and as a place of comfort for those in need of medical care.” The structure will employ traditional Persian “windcatchers,” or ventilated towers (which are sometimes used in combination with underground water reservoirs), and passive solar panels to augment a hot-water boiler system. Brick vaults and thick walls made of mud “are still the architectural vocabulary,” Hull says.

Tawfiq is currently raising funds for the project, with construction set to begin in 2013. The clinic will be built on land donated by Herat University, which plans to build a teaching hospital next door. Hull is working pro bono; he plans to travel to Herat for the first time since 1972 as the project moves forward. “I’ve come full circle,” he says. “I’m going back to my architectural roots.”

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