arch-peace editorials

12 September 2008

One question

I pose a single question – ‘what role can an architect play in improving the lives of the poor?’ I also ask this question of myself as I work to use my architectural skills in communities beyond my own – in Isaan in rural Thailand and in Australia’s ‘top-end’.

There is much historical evidence of hope, of failure and of varying states between. Many great architects (and some poor ones too) have pondered the same question. Hassan Fathy (mentioned in July’s editorial), was lauded by architects for his famous New Gourna project to help the poor in rural Egypt. However in reality the village was only reluctantly inhabited by its residents – many of whom went on to actively undermine many of his initiatives. Local politics, coupled with his failure to truly understand his clients, led to this mismatch between aims and outcomes.

Le Corbusier’s dreams to house the workers in ‘machines’ led to generations of people living in the most soul destroying conditions. As much as he should be respected as an architect, his vision was subsequently distorted to produce housing that could crush the human spirit.

Even projects based on architects working alongside residents to build houses lead to unmet expectations and compromised outcomes. Christopher Alexander’s Mexicali project combined architecture students with residents to design and build a collective group of houses using his ‘pattern language’ approach (mentioned in the April editorial). However the self-help project faltered when Alexander left and in the following years the collective spirit, with which the project was initiated, was lost and conflicts ensued over resident’s rights to collective space.

There are numerous examples of an architect’s involvement in these sorts of compromised outcomes – not to mention complete failures such as much of the Australian government’s attempts at indigenous housing.

As I ponder this I wonder if we should be reminded to re-evaluate how we measure success and reconsider what architecture can really be about. Many architects (and clients) measure their success with their building’s size and cost. However we are all well aware that many of our favourite places and spaces have never involved architects with formal training and this vernacular can be very powerful.

I believe that architects working with the poor must be prepared to look for (and embrace) small victories, with modest means free from commercial obligations. There is so much to get wrong; money is tight, politics intervene, expectations are almost impossible to quantify and technologies are not always compliant; but there are moments when new understandings are made and solutions found – however modest they might seem.

My involvement with a Thai NGO first revealed to me that the architect’s specialisation at understanding links between form, technology and space plays only a partial role in the overall picture. Outside agendas, politics, and the unknowable aspirations of your client, all conspire to complicate or shut down options that should be explored – particularly when a multitude of sustainability issues are at stake. But the architect is in a unique position to work with this complexity and must contribute.

Have I had any modest success?

Yes I have had small victories. I was invited to critique a prototype house designed for the Thai NGO. These houses were to be mass-produced for factory workers in a hot/humid climate and many of the ideologies driving the project were worthy. I made suggestions to improve the cross-ventilation (reducing the need for air-conditioning), change the planning (to suit local needs) and reduce costs. Upon construction I was pleased these initiatives were successful. However ultimately I believed that the design was compromised by the initial choice of construction technology and made myself unpopular by suggesting it was unsuitable. I was not surprised when production ceased.

I have also critiqued a prototype house designed for an indigenous community in the ‘top-end’ of Australia – and again made myself unpopular with the governing bodies. The house was designed (ironically by a Tasmanian company located in Australia’s deep south) without substantial eaves and without the capacity to cross-ventilate effectively. The poor detailing and poor workmanship of the preceding trades frustrated the contracted builder. The local community stood by and watched – they had never been consulted at any stage. I was amazed that the designers included no suitable public/private spaces – where were the residents going to hang out?

These experiences reinforce the need to take the time to sit and watch the complex mechanisms that govern everyday life in these communities. An architect – trained in methods of observation and with mechanisms to record this – is in a unique position to put in the effort to identify housing patterns distinct to that culture and make the case for their inclusion. We might not get it all right but we might just improve the chances for some small victories.

I’ve also been able to sharpen my questions and see the importance of linking these with a complex sustainability agenda. The actual construction technology plays a significant role with many flow-on effects – economically, environmentally and culturally.

It may seem paradoxical but I also see the value in spontaneous and innovative prototypes – speculations on what housing might be. Constructing basic shelters with collective teams of locals and intruders to challenge the status quo is revealing. (No-one is expected to live in these – they are to provoke ideas and facilitate discussion). But I do believe that the architect has a role in taking steps towards a new architecture that is simple so to enable residents to easily add and modify as required. The house should be lightweight and designed to not require air-conditioning. People should have outside and inside living spaces. They should be arranged so residents have both public and semi-public places to hang out. They should not financially cripple the residents so they compromise education and health. Oh, and did I mention that these houses must meet the community’s aspirations?

Simple heh?

In the next few months I will test this with two projects – one in rural Thailand, the other in Australia’s Northern Territory. It will be fascinating to design and build structures to provoke discussions across both cultures. There is much for me to learn and hopefully some small victories on the way.

David O'Brien
Architects for Peace, September 2008


Nikos A. Salingaros said...


You might be interested in the two recent posts on the P2P Foundation Wiki:

Just let me know if any of these ideas interest you.

Best wishes,

beatriz said...

Hi David, really good 1 question!
Regarding the objectives, I was thinking of "la ciudad abierta", the 'open city' en Ritoque, Valparaiso Chile. This is a 270ha of land (sea side) that the university bought in 1969-1970 for students of architecture, artists, engineers... to experiment with structures, materials, forms and ideas. This is a magnificent and inspiring place—where ideas about urban transport and poetics can meet. It looks at technology as a tool and not the driver of processes, so it is about thinking how to live.

The 'city' has some rules... it has to be hospitable, open, ecologically minded, welcoming and it is a place for conversation and learning. What is also interesting is designers have to know how to build (self-built). There is a book published recently about the city, I saw it in Readings not long ago.
You can find more (although all in Spanish of course) at:

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