A new breed of socially conscious architecture is springing up all over the developing world. Since ancient times, architects have primarily worked in service of the wealthy and powerful, designing and inventing methods of building everything from Angkor Wat in Siem Reap to the skyscrapers of Hong Kong. In the past decade a handful of architects working across the globe have emerged from the shadows, setting aside the mantle of high design to focus on the fundamental issues of poverty alleviation, community empowerment and sustainability.
In 2001, Hollmen Reuter Sandman Architects established an NGO based in Finland called Ukumbi. Ukumbi set to work in Rufisque, Senegal, designing and building an internationally acclaimed centre for women. One tenet of Ukumbi’s design philosophy is that “architecture grows most naturally from familiarity with local culture and an understanding of local spatial thinking”. Hollmen Reuter Sandman are not alone in identifying the important role culture plays in sustainable design. Other notable architects and champions of this new approach are Francis Kere of Burkina Faso, and Anna Heringer, an architect working in Bangladesh.
Both Kere and Heringer are recipients of the prestigious Aga Khan award, which was set up to applaud outstanding sustainable design in the Muslim world. A common thread between these architects, and the growing number of others inspired by them, is their effort to involve the community from the very beginning and to truly understand the subtleties of different cultures’ dwelling practices.
In a world where big development often subdues seemingly small local issues, the new social architecture works from the outset to build a platform for intensive community participation. Communities are involved in every step of the process, learning from and teaching the architects how to best meet their needs. Often communities are involved in the actual construction process, simultaneously strengthening and sometimes reviving their own traditional building techniques for future generations. This give and take method of working between community, culture, design and invention clears a space for new solutions to be discovered and put into action against poverty.
In a time when a significant percentage of all global emissions are generated by the construction industry, the philosophy of a new social architect tirelessly seeks out local sustainable building materials such as earth, stone, bamboo and geographically specific plants that can be harvested for thatching roofs and reinforcing walls. When modern industrial materials such as concrete and steel must be used, they are balanced by recycling local waste to fantastic effect. For Ukumbi a grid of old car wheels placed within a wall become an elegant ventilation solution; old glass soda bottles become pixilated points of colour, ushering light into a building and eliminating the need for expensive and imported glass windows.
TYIN Tegnestue, a non-profit design group based in Norway, has ingeniously recycled old truck tyres into urinals and toilets for a bathhouse located in a Karen orphanage along the Thai-Burmese border. A recently completed project in the Cambodian village of Chi Phat in Koh Kong Province now has its own social architecture project to show the world. The community based ecotourism office, otherwise known as CBET, is a joint venture between Wildlife Alliance and the community of Chi Phat. This recently completed 500-square-metre building is one of the first examples of a bamboo structure in Cambodia that elevates the material to its full capacity. The raw material was harvested directly from the village and over a two year time span community members soaked the bamboo in water with minerals to increase its durability. A combination of design expertise from SM Architects Cambodia, construction methodology and demonstrations from bamboo expert Jorg Stamm, and the hard work and local knowledge of the Chi Phat community, CBET was able to create a truly sustainable structure to support a growing interest in ecotourism in the area.
As Cambodia continues to rapidly develop, I hope to see more architects creating socially responsible and sustainable projects in the Kingdom. Surely by directing our attention to this beautiful culture and the needs of the people, we can all contribute to this noble endeavour, if only by spreading the word.