Recent events in Wisconsin have gotten me thinking about activism in all its forms. Each of us can be more active as a citizen of their local, regional, national and even global community but architects have unique opportunities to effect change for the better. Its easy to forget that responsibility in the daily grind of deadlines and dollar signs. But many people are seeking ways to improve the world around them and we can all find inspiration in their work.
My quote this weekend came from Small Scale Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement, an excellent exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art last fall. I was lucky enough to stop by when I visited Brooklyn for a friends wedding in October. I was impressed by the exhibit as a whole and by each of the projects presented. These three particularly caught my eye. The image are my own snaps, the text is taken from the exhibit website – which is well worth checking out.
METI – Handmade School, Rudrapur, Bangladesh
“In 2002 architecture student Anna Heringer and several of her classmates at Kunstuniversität Linz conducted a comprehensive analysis of the civic and economic structure of the Bangladeshi village of Rudrapur. They identified a lack of educational opportunities for villagers, and Heringer designed the Handmade School, her master’s thesis, in response. In 2004 she approached the local nongovernmental organizations that were already operating a school in the village, and they adopted her design as a framework for expansion. After a year of planning and fundraising they broke ground on the project in 2005 under the guidance of Heringer and Berlin architect Eike Roswag, who assumed the job of construction manager.
“The structure is made primarily of earth, a traditional building material in the region, to which Heringer added local clay, sand, and straw for increased durability. A number of improvements upon local building traditions were introduced, such as a brick foundation to strengthen the structure and a plastic moisture barrier between the foundation and the walls. Resident unskilled laborers were trained in the building technique and performed almost all of the construction. In the completed school, thick earthen walls enclose three ground-floor classrooms and a system of play caves for students; the second story has an earthen floor and walls of light and airy bamboo latticework. Local fabrics add bright color throughout. With its innovative approach to traditional methods and materials, Handmade School has stimulated interest in architecture and set new regional standards for building.”
“While studying architecture at the Technische Universität Berlin, Diébédo Francis Kéré learned that the small primary school in his hometown of Gando, Burkina Faso—a village of around 2,500 inhabitants—was in disrepair. In response he started Schulbausteine für Gando e.V. (School building blocks for Gando), an organization dedicated to creating a better school. Kéré designed a building of traditional unbaked mud bricks, an easily available and highly sustainable material in the region, but one that had fallen into disregard. To increase their durability Kéré introduced a human-powered machine to compress the bricks and he designed a large overhanging roof to protect the walls against rain and heat, leaving space between the ceiling and roof to increase air circulation and create a pleasant interior climate. Community members collaborated on the erection of the school, becoming trained in construction in the process. The brick elements were hand assembled on site, and the roof structure was welded without heavy machinery.
“Attendance at the school has been extremely high since it opened, in 2001; applications far outnumber available spots. Thanks to the broad international recognition this remote project has received, Kéré and Schulbausteine für Gando e.V. have been able to build an annex to the school and houses for the teachers. There are plans for the erection of a library and women’s center in the immediate future. With this project Kéré has demonstrated that the engagement of one architect can have a lasting positive effect on the welfare of a community in an extremely poor country.”
$20K House, Alabama, United States
And lest we think that innovative socially conscious architecture is only needed in third world countries we have a more local example. I have a lot more to say on the subject of the Rural Studio, which is an amazing institution, but for now, the exhibit text:
“Rural Studio, founded in 1993, is a satellite school of Auburn University whose mission is to educate the “citizen architect”—to teach architecture students design and building skills along with the ethical and social responsibilities of the profession . To date, Rural Studio has completed about 120 private and public projects. Among these is the $20K House, a research project that aims to address the dearth of affordable housing in Hale County (in western Alabama) and represents a broadening of the school’s scope and potential impact. Forty percent of the region’s nearly 6,500 residents are eligible for federal housing loans, but few can manage loans over twenty thousand dollars; many, often elderly or disabled, live in trailers, whose value and quality depreciate precipitously. In an attempt to ameliorate this situation, every year since 2005 a new group of Rural Studio students has designed a house that can be built for twenty thousand dollars and is a potential model for low-income rural housing. So far nine designs have been drafted (one a year, except in 2007–08, when four were developed in tandem) and built by the students with help from their instructors.
“Informed by their predecessors, the 2008–09 team has come closest to creating a viable prototype. After nearly a year of design development, client presentations, and critiques the house was distilled to the most elemental details, minimizing cost and accelerating construction time. Set on a pier foundation, the six-hundred-square-foot house—the home of Hale County resident David Thornton—is open inside except for a core that neatly encloses the bathroom and separates the bedroom from the rest of the space. The result is an airy, well-ventilated space suited for the extremes of Alabama’s climate. Dave’s House is the first $20K House built by a local contractor in real time, a step toward formalizing a repeatable model and a new paradigm for low-income rural housing.”