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Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Humanitarian Engineering: Beauty and the Motorbike

V12 Laraki
V12 Laraki. Image courtesy of the Luke Hayes/Design Museum, London.

A world-traveling conceptual artist has enlisted Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineers (DHE) to work with Moroccan craftsmen on a project he hopes will help revolutionize a country and revitalize an art form.

The Mahjouba Initiative, a long-term effort to design, build, and manufacture an electric motorbike that uses local materials and looks exquisite, aims to reintegrate Moroccan craft traditions into the mainstream.

“Art can manifest in any form, whether it be a canvas or a moped,” says Eric van Hove, an Algerian-born Belgian artist who spent a year as an artist-in-residence at Dartmouth and now lives in Marrakech.

Van Hove conceived of the Mahjouba Initiative after working with Moroccan craftsmen on V12 Laraki, an ornate sculptural replica of a Mercedes engine now owned by Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art. Inspired by Moroccan sports car designer Abdeslam Laraki, who built the luxury Laraki Fulgra using all local parts, except for the engine, van Hove picked up where Laraki left off. He took apart a V12 engine, asked 42 Moroccan crafters to replicate the parts, and reassembled their work into art. Then he drove the idea further: Could the craftsmen build a functional, sustainable moped that contributes to the country’s renewable energy goals?

During his 2016–17 Montgomery Fellowship at Dartmouth, van Hove spoke with Nat Healy ’19, now copresident of the student-run DHE, about a partnership. DHE worked with van Hove to produce a prototype of the moped using materials such as bone, wood, and leather, and accepted his invitation to visit Morocco.

DHE in Morocco
REINVENTING THE WHEELS: Five Dartmouth students joined artist Eric van Hove’s crew to translate his motorbike sculpture, above, into a usable elegant electric vehicle. Image courtesy of Nat Healy. 

“We thought a trip to Morocco would really give us a sense of who the craftsmen are, what they’re interested in, and what we can actually do with this project, because a lot of it depends on what the craftsmen are capable of making and what materials they use,” explains Healy.

Matt Spencer ’19 is leading the DHE project team. Spencer says he immediately “fell in love with the idea of this multidisciplinary project that uses this craft I’d never seen and makes an actual moped, but it’s gorgeous; it truly is art.”

In July 2017, Healy, Spencer, and three other students arrived in Morocco to find challenges unlike any engineering problem they’d faced. As van Hove describes it: “Everything is open-ended, and I mean everything. It’s puzzling at first, but if you get in the mood, it’s really exciting.”

Although interpreters helped them communicate with Arabic- and French-speaking craftsmen, the students found that showing was usually easier than telling. “If you give them a gear and show them how it works, that’s what they love to do,” says Healy. “It was amazing to see what they could do with the tools they have. We’re using laser cutters and 3D printers and giant mills, and they’re doing incredibly precise work with a chisel and a mallet on wood.”

At times the students struggled to reconcile their engineering mindset with van Hove’s artistic vision. For example, a chain-drive transmission, although efficient, wasn’t original enough. “If we use a chain, which they don’t view as particularly special or nice, it’s not going to have the same impact as if we do something completely different,” says Spencer.

“Because it is an art project, it’s not all about the functionality of the bike,” says Healy. “Of course, the bike has to function, but that’s not the number-one priority all the time.”

Back at Thayer, Healy and Spencer are applying their Moroccan experience to their engineering courses. “It’s been amazing to get on the ground and really talk to the people who it’s going to influence and to see the entire process laid out from beginning to end,” Healy says. “A lot of the lessons we learned over the summer and with Eric are really applicable to our classwork now and in the future as engineers.”

DHE continues to work with van Hove and the craftsmen on the prototype. Tuck business students visited Morocco in March to analyze the commercial feasibility of the Mahjouba Initiative, and the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network, with support from the Dartmouth Class of 1968, established a team to work on crowdfunding. Van Hove envisions the craftsmen building the mopeds, which would be priced around $1,500, and hopes the motorbikes are a vehicle for renewed relevance for craftsmanship in a changing world. As he said in a 2013 TEDxMarrakech talk about the V12 Laraki, “Craft is to industry what animism is to religion. It’s the mother of it all.”                     

—Kristen Senz

Categories: The Great Hall, Humanitarian Engineering

Tags: arts, humanitarian service, students

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