Thursday, May 22, 2008

Professional Understanding

During one of our initial conversations here, an architect described an interesting evolution. Originally, architects designed buildings for gods, then it was governments, and now generally, it is for rich people. The question remains, what is next in that evolution? To me, it is obvious, regular people, especially poor ones. I see some serious glimmers of such a shift taking place in the US, but to what extent it continues to happen remains to be seen. Given the state of the built environment around the world, especially in terms of the dwelling unit, it is amazing more architects aren’t involved in lowest sectors of housing. Well, I guess plenty have been historically, but many of the more famous architects are better known for their failures than successes in these realms. Many people here seem to think that informal settlements and slums are not an architectural problem, so why should they waste their time working in such environments? While it may be true that such settlements will not be solved through architecture, architects are absolutely essential in the process. Or, at least, architects who better understand the realities of such communities. But, it is a lot to ask architects to get to know intimately each community they will be working with. There is not much money in this work. I am fortunate, because I can choose to work where there is so little money, but many architects don’t have that choice. It often is a choose between doing good and paying the bills. And there is burnout.

The rewards of being deeply involved in the community processes are tremendous, but the challenges and fallout can be just as great. One of the lessons that is being reinforced here is that the more deeply you immerse yourself here in the community issues, challenges, and organizing, the longer the process will take. While the end result may be good, its impact may be limited due to the extensive amount of energy focused on the community and social issues. And this can be very tiring and difficult for architects to be continually engaged.

The group Architecture for Humanity has been really successful because it has been able to link architects from around the world to projects that really need technical assistance and the skills of architects. Often they are able to link up on the ground NGO’s and communities, where the bulk of the community work has taken place, and architects can focus on solving the problems at hand. I had breakfast with Cameron Sinclair the other day here in Nairobi (couldn’t catch him in San Fran) and he was showing the finalists for an international design competition for a youth center in a slum here. (I, along with some fellow students, entered this same competition, except our site was in Nepal.) Each of these designs were done where the designers live, far away from the realities of the projects, digging up as much research as they could on the web, etc. At first, I was very critical of this process, wondering how in the world we could effectively design for a community we had never even visited and basically knew nothing about? But, there is also a certain level of creativity and freedom which takes place in an unencumbered design environment. On the flip side, dealing with the on the ground realities of social, political, and economic challenges can quickly suck all the creativity and freedom out of the most seasoned designers. It’s easy to talk about the necessity for architecture to really challenge deeper issues, and there are plenty of examples that do, but it is tough. And it is really messy. Yet, when designs are created in absolute vacuums, their results can be disastrous and certainly much messier.

There are many projects now that AFH is involved in and most of them are linking architects from the developed world to projects in the developing world. They are working on numerous soccer fields all over Africa, which will be rolled out FIFA as part of the 2010 World Cup. Another really fantastic project is a school in Rwanda. Once designs are chosen or get to a certain point, the architects will come to the site and be more engaged. But, there is still an inherently limited approach and involvement. And the projects are so appealing because the program involves buildings that will serve to address deep social issues. Having a soccer pitch that will have a community center, a school, a health clinic, and technology center all within its vicinity is fantastic. They might be beautiful, environmentally sustainable, and affordable. But, how do you ensure that the community will have true ownership of the design, maintenance, and fulfillment of such facilities. Is this a truly sustainable practice? Can the design process be done so that the outside help can eventually be irrelevant?

I think relevancy is particularly important to architects. Architects are typically known for being obsessive about details and have strict ownership and control over all aspects of their designs. I think we do a good job of ensuring our job security by making sure we are always relevant. We are the problem solvers, and we love to feel relevant. I know I do. But one of the issues some architects here are struggling with is the need for outside designers, NGO’s, and professionals to eventually become in irrelevant in such communities. In essence, how do you release this capacity to the community? And is this really necessary? I mean, for the longest time, architects were completely irrelevant to just about everyone, as people have always found ways to provide housing for themselves. Of course, this isn’t necessarily about architecture, and it is an issue people all over the world struggle with, but I find it wonderful that an architect here is not only asking that question, but truly searching for an answer.

In Kambimoto, the process has been messy, time consuming, and grueling. Even so, the lessons learned and opportunities achieved have been deep and fundamental. Yet, it is still not truly a sustainable project, but it is pretty darn close. Unfortunately, the intensity of the process necessitates big changes in small areas. Meaning, it make take 5 years to upgrade 100 families to quality housing the right way. But, in Nairobi, 60% of the population (5 million people) are living in slums. It will not happen over night, and needs to take place incrementally, as the professionals slowly relinquish control to the community. And that is what makes incremental housing so essential….

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