Third World Architecture: Part I

February 18, 2010

A simple Google search would tell you that more than 100 million people in this world are homeless. With a little more digging, you could find that close to 1 billion people (close to 1 in 7) lack suitable housing. And with just a little more digging, you could start to find people who are working to change that number.  There are tons of non-profit groups, government organizations, and individuals from around the world struggle to develop new ways of housing the homeless. But what about architects? I hear the word “housing” and expect to see it followed by “architect.” But in discussions of the developing world, it rarely is.

At first glance, architects may not seem like the right choice to solve this problem. Don’t architects only build fancy buildings that have no real relevance to the third world? The third world does not need skyscrapers. Why is it not the engineers who are building houses? After all, they are the ones who have the structural and material understanding that the developing world needs. They know how to build a house, and they can build it efficiently and economically. So why architects?

For me, the answer is found at the very essence of architecture. Architects design. Beyond all else, that is the heart of an architect. Design is about creating something that fits the needs of a user; architecture is about creating a space that fits the needs of a user. However, architects do not only design architecture, they also design processes, aesthetics, and strategies. This distinction is an important one to make when talking about architecture in the developing world because these traits are the ones that prove to be invaluable. Housing projects are simple to build; pile some concrete blocks and metal sheets together to form four walls and a roof, and you have a cheap house. Do it multiple times and you have a housing project. And if you get the help of someone who understands the trade of building houses, you can build a good housing project.  But that is only one fragment of a larger, often unnoticed picture.

Design is not something that is useful only to the elite; it is something that all people should be able to take advantage of. Architecture has no less of a place in the hut of an Indian villager than it does in a new museum for an American university, just as architects have no less of a place in Europe than they do in Africa. The reason architects are not often found in the developing world has to do with the essence of design; it is not a skill that is needed, only one that is wanted. In the developing world, it is hard to justify a want when there is already so much need. It comes down to a question of wealth. However, this problem of “want” can be addressed from either side of the spectrum, and there are many architects who have the means and want to give to those in need.

Architects who work in the developing world design structures that are applicable to the conditions and surroundings of their place. They do not only design the building itself, but also the processes that go into the building. There are economic, social, and material problems that need to be addressed and designed for, and all of these challenges present opportunities for innovation to the architect.

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