by Valentin Schipfer
As you know my blog entries regularly deal with social innovations being realized in bottom-up co-operational projects. Vivid examples are the Bicycle Empowerment Network in Namibia’s capital Windhoek, Babajob.com connecting informal sector employers and job seekers, and the first communication channel for social innovations from informal urban settlements Urbaninform.net . Today I want to emphasise on architecture understood as a dialogic process between Southern and Northern countries. You will find projects which activate local production cycles and invest in local construction and material knowledge as well as projects which depict how contemporary and traditional architecture are blended successfully.
Let’s start in the Mapungubwe National Park in South Africa where Peter Rich activated a 600-year-old construction technique as a structural geometry and basis for his design. The complex vault structures of the Mapungubwe Interpretation Center fit harmoniously into the landscape. In collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Cambridge he transferred this construction technique as a training process to local workers. Rich’s design and choice of construction material was inspired by the impressive and varied landscape around the Mapungubwe plateau. The rolling brick vaults resemble a terrain of hills. Large windows take in natural light and offer generous views. The buildings were completed with the help of local trained workers between 2006 and 2010 for the client South African National Park.
Two other projects with high social impact were realized in two Latin American megacities. For the public investments Gimnasio Vertical in Caracas’ informal settlement Chacao and the Grotão Community Center in Sao Paulo’s favela Grotão Urban Think-Tank drew on many years of research on the informal city. Informal settlements often lack free plots of land for new development. The only way out is the vertical layering of organized activities: The Gimnasio Vertical layers different sports facilities on top of one another in minimal space. Each month, 15.000 area residents visit the sports center. This has a major impact on the reduction of crime rates.
The Grotão Community Center houses a music school and a sports facility. On a steep plot prone to erosion and mudslides, the architects constructed a terraced slope reinforcement. The projects serve as both a landmark and a social meeting point. “Patriotic” hints from my side: The cable car which serves as public transport and connects the Gimnasio Vertical in Chacao with other public transport lines was delivered by the Austrian company Doppelmayr. Hubert Klumpner, one of the founding partners of the Urban-Think Tank, also comes from Austria.
Leaving Latin America’s favela jungle behind, the project Green School takes us to the Ayung River in Bali, located amid rice fields and tropical rainforests. Green School was founded by the American couple John and Cynthia Hardy in 2007. The 1.8-hectare campus consists of over 30 buildings. Locally harvested bamboo serves as the primary construction material for the complex, including the main three-storey structure. Despite its quick regeneration bamboo has rarely been used in construction in Indonesia. The innovative and experimental prototype was developed by a team of architects and designers. Covered with locally grown alang-alang grass, the buildings are open on the sides, promoting natural air circulation and guaranteeing a comfortable indoor climate without AC. Alternative energy sources – like biogas from cow manure, a water heating system powered by bamboo shavings, and 100 solar panels – keep the need for fossil fuels to a minimum. The school curriculum emphasises on food production and sustainable energy conveying values such as integrity and ecological thinking.
In this example I would like to shed some light on public spaces. Students in the Harvard School of Design’s landscape architecture programs founded the Kounkuey Design Initiative in 2005, as I have already reported here. Located seven kilometres south of downtown Nairobi, Kibera is Africa’s largest informal settlement. More than 200.000 people live there, on two square kilometres of land. The Kounkuey Design Initiative holds regularly workshops with residents to assess the needs of the community and develop plans for infrastructures. The first Kibera Public Space Project revitalized a section of the riverbank, turning a former garbage dump into a well-rounded public space, with a park, playgrounds, areas for drying clothes, and a rainwater tank.
As part of Kibera Public Space Project 2 sanitation facilities stand on a waterfront plot. The residents, who usually cannot afford to install bathrooms in their simple huts, can use these six public toilets and four showers for a small fee. In order to promote this knowledge residents participate in projects from early planning through construction – some are even trained to build the structures themselves.
Besides these public buildings and public spaces, there are projects for private housing too. One is the Growing House in Iquique, Chile. It tackles the challenge of financial constraints. The government provided just 7.500 US dollars for the site preparation, infrastructure and structural shell. That’s why Elemental architects designed the housing units as partially completed shell-and-core structures. By doing so, the residents could upgrade the flats themselves. Each floor contains one residence. The architects built out only half of the 72 square meters allotted to each unit, leaving the other half open to expansions and elaborations from residents. After the shell-and-core structures were completed from 2003 to 2004, residents began, designing and expanding their living spaces according to their financial situation and at their own pace.
These best-practices from around the world are evidence of how places can jolt people into action, be it in short-term by help from local workers or residents participating in planning, be it in long-term by making residents upgrade their living spaces or spurring ecological thinking in school kids. No matter how, what they all have in common is the local population taking pride in the projects. In most cases this automatically raises their identification with these places and architectures and entices interested crowds to learn from them. All these examples come from this issue of Arch+ magazine. Further projects and details can be found at the exhibition Think Global, Build Social! which can be visited at Architektur Zentrum Wien until the end of June 2014 .