[First published on www.ecobuildonline.co.za]
Architects and designers use the term “people-centred” design rather loosely. It has become a rather superficially applied term that gives the impression of a type of design that considers people first, or at least cares about their well-being. But what does it really mean and how can we apply it meaningfully in design so that it’s more than just a word, but a reality?
With the rise in an emphasis on “sustainable” architecture, there is a lot of focus on green building technologies and creating sophisticated systems that save energy and water. Green buildings create better environments for the building’s users which is a drastic shift from the modernist buildings of the 50's and 60's that were built to be functional only, and little was known about how inhabitants might be affected by lack of natural light and poor ventilation. It was about cost and financial return first and people last.
This fundamental shift has affected the way that we design the interiors of our buildings; spatially, functionally, and materially, as well as changing the way we create the envelope around the interior spaces (to incorporate more openings for natural light and ventilation for example). Green buildings are but a small part of our built environment. We have the ability to influence social connections between people by designing spaces that consider people first – to make reference to that which is outside ourselves (and outside our object building).
Andre Spies of Twothink Architecture, says that people-centred design should emphasise the “spaces in-between buildings rather than the buildings themselves”. He refers to examples of vernacular architecture where traditional mud buildings, by their physical layouts around a centralised space, created safe spaces for the community to gather and herd cattle. In Cape Town, the steps and alleyways of District Six consider how pedestrians move and pause between buildings. These spaces become connective fibres that create patterns and weave delicate connections between people and places. These are community spaces where “life” happens. Spies calls this “democratic space”, where cultural difference is respected, where equality happens, and where safety is created by a feeling of belonging.
Indian architect, Rahul Mehrotra, presented a body of his work at the Architecture ZA conference in Cape Town in 2012, and received a standing ovation from an audience that related to the need to cross the social divides in our own country. Mehrotra’s work demonstrates that there are ways of encouraging different communities to interact with each other by arranging spaces in different and unexpected ways. He calls these "collective thresholds”.
A beautiful example is a house designed for a young filmmaker which includes an outside portico that is used by the middle class inhabitants on weekends and by the locals in the village during the week as a public space. Because the locals feel that they have been recognised, there is a mutual respect between the two parities, although they are of such opposite classes.
Another example is a block of public toilets in an informal settlement which was conceptualised as a “community centre” where children can come to study at night. The caretaker has the “penthouse” on top and is able to watch over the block to make it a place of safety. Mehrotra said that architecture consists of a lot of privileged authorship and prefers an approach where the stamp of an architect is not obvious. Even his larger, more commercial buildings are more like “places” than objects – containers for people in which they can express themselves. Here, people come first.
Designer, Stephen Lamb of Touching the Earth Lightly redefines “people-centred design” as “human-hearted” design. His passion is creating design that seeks to address social issues of dignity and safety (food and shelter) first and foremost. He expresses the need for architects and designers to move away from a self-referential approach and to “listen and respond to the simple, everyday needs of people in tangible, logical, and meaningful ways”.
Lamb’s “Green Shack”, which he worked on in association with artist Andrew Lord, illustrates how simple (yet innovative) design can be used as a tool to deal with physical and social problems. Some of the main concerns it deals with are fire, flooding and food security. The green vertical veggie gardens which grow on its north and west walls are its namesake. Lamb emphasises that the Green Shack is a representation of a set of ideas that are meant to instigate a “conversation’”. Design should be an iterative process that changes to incorporate a society’s needs. He also challenges the notion of what is “beautiful”. Is it a perfect geometric form, or the latest item of fashion, or is it something that responds to people’s real needs?
For me, as an architect, “people-centred” design is about broadening our perception of what architecture actually is and what role architects should play in society. “People-centred” design is about allowing people to “own” their buildings, whether it be new community centres or their own homes. These should be places where people feel that they belong and are recognised. It’s about allowing each person to hold their own concept of “home” within themselves whatever that may be and whatever form that may take.
Design is powerful because we have the ability to create connection in tangible ways. We can affect change in the now by applying our knowledge of space. It’s not necessarily an easy task, and Spies says that “we will probably never master this slightly ‘utopian’ idea of people-centred architecture entirely”, but through an iterative process that challenges and questions conventions, we can make a start.
Building within a building - The Francis Gregory Library, Washington, USA
Taking in so much creative information can be overwhelming! Not that my creative box is full, just that I need a little time to "chew on the cud" before the next bite! But no rest for the overambitious! I've been attending the Masterclass "A piece of the city" with Atelier Bow-Wow, Andrew Makin, Elena Rocchi and Ora Joubert, today and tomorrow. More about that soon!
The final day of the conference had two main speakers. I unfortunately missed the full presentation from the first speakers Atelier Bow-Wow, a Tokyo firm consisting of Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kajima. Though working with them at the Master class will provide some opportunity to gain insight into their way of thinking, I'm hoping.
Architecture as commodity...
Ghanian born, David Adjaye was possibly one of the most publicised speakers due to present at the conference, and his work definitely reflected the appropriate hype, though I think it lacks the humility and sensitivity of the work of Rahul Mehrotra and Joe Osae-Addo. He has developed a high profile and reputation as an architect and has thus acquired some weighty commissions, which have provided him with a lot of creative and intellectual freedom. The question that begs is, what opportunity is there for architects who are still making their way in the world to express themselves on similar canvasses? Indeed I found his approach to come from a decidedly western, first world stance, where the subtleties of the developing world are simply not adequately understood. He is in a priviledged position and I appreciate the intellectual integrity, theoretical rigour and artistic expression that comes out in his architectural language, but I wonder whether his architecture hasn't become a commodity - a formula.
He says that he doesn't have a signature style (in the Frank Gehry sense) but he has found that there are about twelve "tropes" that he has been exploring and developing over his career so far - the "building within a building" for example, seen in the Francis Gregory library, Washington, USA. There is no doubt (in my mind) that his buildings are beautifully crafted objects that are works of art as well as architecture. Though they seem to be missing the essential "spirit of place" that is the essence of Mehrotra's work. The buildings are self referential as opposed to "softening thresholds" (Mehrotra's term).
Who are the starchitects?
I managed to ruffle his tail feathers during our interview when I asked him what he thought about being labelled a "Starchitect". I heard this term for the first time several years ago in Architectural Review and since then the term has surely made its way into the dictionary. Adjaye says that the term is essentially derogatory and though, after the fact I had a lively conversation with some colleagues on the topic who disagreed, I have often used the word myself in a somewhat derogatory manner. To me it speaks of celebrity architects that develop their style into a brand so that a client will ask for a building by...so-and-so because they know that it will look a certain way. And then the architectural "style" of the architect is applied as a dressing that doesn't necessarily respond to the sensitivities of site, location, etc. It's a complex topic, and though I think that each of Adjaye's buildings stand with their own unique architectural integrity, the more I thought about, the more I was convinced that he is actually a starchitect whether he likes it or not. Not in the sense that he makes precocious applique architecture, but in the sense that it is self proclaimed architecture, slightly arrogant and not entirely underivative. And he is a true celebrity - charming, handsome, well-spoken - its not surprising why. Even the way the interviews were being conducted in such an "official" manner I felt as if I was interviewing the president!
Traversing an old water furrow
My day at the conference didn't end there as I went on a walking tour called "Reclaiming Camissa" with architect and historian Caron van Zyl. A completely fascinating look at original water sources and systems in ye olde Cape Town which had me at one point wading in my jeans though thigh-deep water (300 ecoli count which is apparently undrinkable but perfectly safe) in one of the old spring chambers in Vredehoek. I also enjoyed taking some interesting pictures of the city from a different perspective. They'll be up in a photo journal shortly.
On the whole, I have been overwhelmed by this conference. It has come at a time when I really needed an inspirational injection and I'm coming alive again and getting excited about all sorts of crazy project ideas. One more day at the Masterclass tomorrow - its not over yet!
As I interview Rahul Mehrotra, Indian architect, urban designer and conservationist (and final speaker of the day) the pieces of the puzzle of the day's words and ideas start to fall into place in my head, as if the presentations of the speakers have been specifically coordinated as to to tell a story about the way that architecture could be taking shape in our country.
The morning session with Kibwe Tavares caused a sensation, specifically amongst the students I noticed, as he showed some short film clips of the work he has done with his animation studio, Factory Fifteen, over the last year. He also showed the visually astonishing "Robots of Brixton" which is the animation piece that he created for his final year Architectural thesis project at the Bartlett Institute in London. In it he creates the vision of a post apocalyptic future dystopia (one of the recurring themes in his private not commercial work), where robots are a slave workforce to the human race. A riot takes place, during which flashbacks to the 1981 riots in Brixton, are shown. The result is a dessimated machine littered street scene upon which note the film ends. Although the film piece expresses elements of a story, the narrative is disjunctional. It's like a graphic novel that alludes to a story (rather than telling it), most of which must be pieced together in the mind of the viewer; leaving a set of unsatisfactorarily answered questions at its finish. It's somewhat existentialist and disturbing. In this sense the film portrays its message purposefully.
What does this have to do with architecture? As South African trained architects the concept of this film as a final year thesis project is unfamiliar. We are so used to the practical and physical applications of our building ideas. Some perhaps looked upon this kind of architectural education with disdain (as a reflection of the disconnected, immaterial and globalised spirit of our time), others with a hint of jealousy (myself included) at the freedom of unique expression allowed. This is why I say it caused a sensation amongst the students. Tavares is the first to admit that "it's not real, is it?", but he loves the freedom it allows him to explore and express the essence of his creative self. There is architecture in it, as the images of dystopia involve images of reality (Brixton in "Robots") layered with almost paristic futuristic architectural structures. These however are two dimensional as the animator focuses on the visual of the camera shot only - detail is added where it must be, but omitted where not. I think what grounds his work is that it invokes relevant social messages, as opposed to being indulgently introspective.
Rescripting architectural education...
So much more to be said. I attended the next session called "Rescrpting education" and found there to be such contrast between the education at the Bartlett Institute for example and the way we are thinking about architectural education in South Africa. One of the main differences is that we face such stark external realities here - our society has desperate needs that need to be addressed. Britian seems to have a kind of collective amnesia about their own social problems. Not to say South Africa doesn't! Thorsten Deckler and Alex Opper presented a particularly interesting project in Ruimsig which the students of the University of Johannesburg worked on with some of the local planners. They assisted in "reblocking" the urban structure of the community. This concept (which I was intitally sceptical of) involves giving identity to the existing urban layout of the houses. Since informal settlements are commonly seen as negative, this is a way of giving significance to the inhabitants - a way of recognising their claim to exist within this space.
Rahul Mehrotra's work also looks at giving significance and recognition to community through the creation of spaces that cross social boundaries. These crossings he calls "collective thresholds". Heinrich Wolff mentioned earlier that the problem with Johannesburg is that people deny where they are and this is an issue that needs to be addressed in South African cities. We can no longer be embarassed by our social issues, and avoid them by creating imaginary worlds (like Century City and Tuscan golf course estates). Mehrotra demonstrates that there are ways of encouraging communites to interact by arranging spaces in different and unexpected ways. A beautiful example is a house designed for a young filmmaker which includes an outside portico that is used by the inhabitants on weekends and the locals in the village during the week as a public space. Because the locals feel that they have been recognised, there is a mutual respect between the two parties, although they are of such opposite classes. Other examples include public toilets which were reconceptualised as a "community centre" where children can come to study at night. The caretaker has the "penthouse" on top. The audience was inspired by a project in Rajasthan where low cost housing and shelters for local elephants was built (a competition won by Mehrotra's firm). Water is very important to the elephants and what was created is a series of water bodies in existing sand pits on the site (from quarrying in previous days). Water has now collected in these pits and the site is lush and green. What is also significant is that the relationship between keeper and elephant is key and there is a ceremonial process of care - for example bathing with the elephants at the end of each day. The spaces allow for these intangible experiences to take place without stifling and limiting them. Mehrotra mentions that the other entries to the competition mostly involved "fetishised" interpretations of traditional architecture which were entirely innappropriate for the social context.
I am inspired to ask Mehrotra, whether the process of forming ideas also begins with a collective approach. He believes strongly in collaboration and empowering the members of his design team. Architecture today consists a lot of privileged authorship and he prefers an approach where the stamp of the architect is not obvious. I remark that his buildings seem to be more like places than objects - containers for people in which they can express themselves as opposed to buildings that express purely themselves and are secondary for people.
Again there is much more to be said yet I'm looking forward to the image of architecture that the full picture of this conference will inspire.
Puppets unmask us
So I'm hoping that word does not get out about me not being a very experienced twitterer (ahem I mean tweeter). It took me ten minutes to send a tweet on my unintelligent phone this afternoon (I can't even get whatsapp)! That aside, it's practicallly impossible to smoosh an overload of ideas on architecture into 140 character bite sized chunks. Twitter is a bit like fast food in that way.
Fighting to exist...
Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of the Handspring Puppet Company started off the day talking about their own perceived connections between their work - puppetry, and architecture. Puppeteering is an influential medium because people are fascinated by puppets - puppets expose the fragility of our humanness. For a puppet, the basic everyday interactions we take for granted are a struggle. Puppets must fight for every breath of life. And architecture too, is inanimate until it is layered with the lives of its inhabitants. Jones and Kohler spoke of a human being's untapped ability to develop extreme perception to sensory experiences (like that experienced by autistic people). When facing a sensory experience our brains search for the big picture. We exclude what we can't make sense of. We must do this in order to survive in a chaotic world.
I feel a bit like that after today - as if my mind has been filled by a cacophony of ideas and complex thoughts that I'm trying to make sense of and not quite getting there...yet. Its similar to the design process. As a student I would spend hours in the library filling my mind with ideas (mainly visual) for my next design project until I would go home and let them blend in my dreams over night. There was always chaos and confusion, and then there was the fight - the fight for this idea to claim life. And each day, each thought, each small nuance, would shape this idea into something worth talking about. And the design project would begin to take shape.
Robert Silke gave his perspective on current architectural scripts (trends). In architecture, a design project cannot take on a life all of its own as it is defined mostly by constraints. "We are not fine artists", says Silke, and we unfortunately can't move within the same freedom. I have always loved the challenges (but not the headaches) that constraints bring. Coming up with an idea is easy, but responding with a creative solution to a complex problem is hard - and that's what we architects (try to) do. A problem is that we are rendering ourselves powerless by responding to the constraints enforced by developers. We can write our own new scripts.
Enrico Daffonchio spoke about his fine art which looks at the sensory perceptions and consciousness of space. He uses imagery of the human body, dreams and memory. The post lunch session, "Engaging the city" involved an architect, an urban activist, an archaeologist and a choreographer and will take some time to unpack from my ideas tank. Four provocative views and individual compelling takes on space and social consciousness. What is evident is that our cities are ruptured and we need to find new ways of bringing change, meaning and healing.
What I enjoy about Joe Osae-Addo, the final speaker's work is that he is bringing about (albeit small) change and meaning by looking at the everyday and the specific. There is a striking contrast between some of the ethereal concepts of the earlier presentations, and the robustness of the building materials that Osae-Addo works with. Its almost as if, unlike the puppets where the human puppeteer injects life into the puppet, the materials Osae-Addo explores are the perpetuators of a sensory experience - the inherent life and possibilities within them are drawn out and given cognisance.
If you've read to the end, you've only read a small taste! And its time for me to go and put these ideas into my dream box tonight. I wonder where they will take me tomorrow...
This blog is about...
My thoughts as I go about visiting interesting places, attending exhibitions and conferences, and the architectural world we live in.