[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.
In September 2012 following the Architecture ZA conference in Cape Town, I attended a Master class that was linked to the conference called “A piece of the city”. Having never attended a “master class” before I was not sure what to expect and found myself thrown into a crazy world where I had no idea what I was doing – much like university. This was a place where all the knowledge I had previously gained needed to be put aside. There were new things to be learnt and experienced.
It was an intense two days which required a tremendous amount of self reflection and a delving into the psyche of the place and people of the area we were exploring, the edge of District Six latterly known as the “Fringe District”. As the name would suggest, this area is a pivotal connection, a “fringe” between the vacant land that once was filled with the buildings and the life of District Six, and the built up area along Buitenkant Street, mainly consisting of public administrative buildings such as the Magistrate’s Court and the Police Station. In between these are churches, apartment blocks, convenience stores, coffee shops, and even the Mavericks “gentlemen’s” nightclub which lies on the corner nearest Truth Coffee where the master class was held. In between these buildings exists the life of the area - the intangible connective fibres that create life within this space and community. We discovered over the course of the two days that the area functions somewhat like an eco system in which balance is created by each person, activity and space and to take one of these away or to change it dramatically would in fact swing this delicate eco system out of kilter and contribute negatively. To formulate an appropriate architectural intervention was the task proposed to us, but during the course of the workshop it became clearer that we needed to lay down the idea of “concept” and self and move into the realm of other, where in fact we were the other. This is the place in which you can face rejection but it also the place in which you can find acceptance. We struggled to move past our architectural obsessions with form and object, to the very start of what should inform design. That is, space. And more importantly, people that live within a space and the activities that take place should be recognised and protected. Though the question that remains is, how can one interject in space in order to change negative social patterns and to reinforce good ones without breaking the connections in the existing eco system that cause it function effectively?
We tentatively began to engage with the area by walking the streets, and as architects habitually do, taking notes of building typologies, forms, heights, photographs, etc. Others extended themselves into the social realm by engaging with the people who spend each day (and some each night) in this place they call home. And slowly a layered community was discovered, movement patterns uncovered, and a gently woven inner city fabric began to emerge. Each person a strand that by existing contributed to this tapestry they call life. Various types of people work here. Notably car guards hover on the street payments in their orange bibs, beckoning those that emerge from cars to feed their (always) hungry parking meters. An interesting occupation that would not exist in a city that is not controlled by the motor car. And this occupation leads to a host of activities that take place intangibly on the pavements, on door thresholds and on the streets. These are the social meeting spaces where the car guards have their lunch, or where they meet to have a break and interact with each other. These are the places where they are human beings and not “just a hassle”. Another fascinating occupation is the pushing of the recycling trolleys through the neighbourhood along indefinable pathways. These trolleys are collected from a central depot in the city each morning early, from which they are driven along their various routes till the end of the day where they return to their home at the depot. This is a constantly moving and changing activity as the trolleys do not seek out a destination, but exist for the journey along which they travel (perhaps a metaphor for the way we should intentionally live our lives). People interact with them as they pass by. Similarly, the car guards move to and fro till they too take their leave at the end of each day and leave no trace behind them.
I struggled to connect myself with the area. I am so used to arriving and leaving by car and taking little cognisance of place, usually focusing on my task at hand and looking for a destination. However this time I was traversing it by foot, and noticing things as if for the first time, like the beauty of the old buildings, and the smelliness of the streets and car exhausts. I noted an intense struggle of opposites, of things trying to connect with each yet remaining for ever only minutely out of reach, like Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” that adorns the ceiling of Rome’s Sistine Chapel. The point being that, there is no thing to be found, as if a prized treasure. No thing to be changed or intervened with. There is architecture in the existing buildings that live on the street, but here space and people become architecture too. So being asked to express my findings in some sort of visual format, I was at a loss, because my mind had only just begun to open up.
A “classmate” (many of whom felt just as perplexed as I) urged me to find my own way of expression. “Do a dance, if you like,” she said. And so I realised that I was going to have to step out of the way of my own preconceptions and start letting this place mould me instead of me trying to mould it. And I realised that this exercise would not be about me finding something else that needed to be changed, but about changing myself. I sat for a moment thinking of the thing that I best could do and thought, “I can write!” So armed with my pen, I walked out into the street and decided to look and listen. And so my pen became my secret weapon – my contribution to this world that I did not quite belong to. Perhaps I could add something intangible too; perhaps I too could find a way of belonging.
Firstly I was looking for a place to sit. The Police building was most unwelcoming – as it had spikes on the plinth in front – for pigeons perhaps or for people?
This blog is about...
My thoughts as I go about visiting interesting places, attending exhibitions and conferences, and the architectural world we live in.