Third World Architecture: Part II

February 20, 2010

After thinking a lot about my last post on third world architecture, I wanted to write up some examples that can argue better than I could:

Darfur is home to over two and a half million homeless people, which is staggering when you think about it. In one refugee camp, I found a group that designed a pretty amazing and creative solution that helped thousands of refugees. The government would not allow any permanent structures to be built in the camp, so the group BOLD (Building Opportunities & Livelihoods in Darfur) found a different solution that could address multiple problems at once. They started a program that employed over 3,000 refugees in one camp (where grass was plentiful) to weave grass mats that were then sold for a small profit to a camp in North Darfur (where grass was not readily available).  These mats were then used with bamboo stakes to construct shelters for the refugees.  This program was made possible by understanding all of the material, economic, and social variables that existed and by designing a solution taking all of these variables into account.

Or in 2004, a young architecture firm in New York named I-Beam Design created an innovative housing design for displaced persons in Sri Lanka following the tsunami that hit there.  They employed only basic carpentry tools and wood pallets to create homes for many villages.  The use of wood pallets, which are usually seen in the shipping industry, was a new approach to an old material.  The firm used them in creative ways by filling them with different local materials to build floors, walls, and roofs. This approach was sustainable, easy to build, and affordable.  This innovation is now being used today across the world.  This is the kind of thinking that architects are trained to do, and is what we have to offer the third world.  Like all artists, we are trained to push our ideas in ways that have not been done before.

If you want another example, check out Samuel Mockbee and Rural Studio. I have always loved his quote, “Everybody wants the same thing, rich or poor… not only a warm, dry room, but a shelter for the soul.” It really embodies a more personal side of the work that needs to be done in the developing world. 100 million people are homeless, and 1 billion people lack adequate housing. Those that do have shelter probably live in mud huts that are too cramped, tin shacks that leak, or wood structures that do not insulate.  Although these shelters may keep the rain off their backs (or not), they do little past that. Samuel Mockbee did one of my favorite projects of all time: the METI School of Rudrapur in Bangladesh, which is a school (images attached) hand-built by the village that truly embodies this meaningful innovation that I love.

I am also working through two case studies that I found in Design Like You Give a Damn (great book btw) to show examples of projects that allow us to begin to understand what makes a housing project successful in the third world. I have not done a case study in a while, and I thought that instead of diving into a discussion on why and how architects can work in the developing world, I would just try to show it. They should be up in the next few days.

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