Whether architects design a school in Mzamba, a small town on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, or in the Berlin district of Wedding – there is a lot of common ground just as there are significant differences. What they share is their approach in using architecture as a tool to improve people’s lives. As regards schools this means building a suitable space for children and young people that does more than just teach them the times tables. The exhibition “Think global, build social” currently on show at Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) in Frankfurt looks into what social building actually means in present-day Germany, South Africa, and other countries. What solutions can architecture offer to those who cannot themselves assume the role of the client?
Three years ago, Andres Lepik, today director of the architectural museum at Munich Technical University, began to investigate the output of architects who do not produce signature architecture and whose work does not feature in glossy magazines or at cocktail parties. Now he has brought his exhibition “Small Scale, Big Change”, which he originally curated for the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2010, to Germany and transformed it to suit European taste buds by shining a light predominantly on German architects. Lepik’s main interest is in the social mission of architecture within the world’s global network. He teamed up with Peter Cachola Schmal, Director of the DAM, and Dietmar Steiner, Director of Architekturzentrum Wien, to host an international symposium to explore additional aspects on the subject. In his efforts, Lepik seeks to achieve a paradigm shift, to spark a new debate. Expectations are high and the bottom line is: away from celebrity architecture and towards embracing social responsibility and sustainability.
Less aesthetics, more ethics
According to Lepik, the call for a more ethical stance in architecture has been resonating for quite some time now. Back in 2000, in his role as curator of the Architecture Biennial, Massimiliano Fuksas already shaped the attitude “less aesthetics, more ethics” as the new professional ethos, Lepik explains. However, at least as far as the Biennial is concerned, most of these promises have not been delivered. In 2002, Lepik continues, the makers of the Brazilian pavilion set the focus on the favelas in São Paolo. And not just that: Following the 2008 financial crisis the world had taken on a more contemplative tone, the wheel of capitalism was spun with less verve, and under the notion of “sustainability” a sense of ecological and social awareness had cropped up on the agenda. The trend also infused the architectural world, whose protagonists were used to identifying their profession by adjectives such as bigger, better, higher, by materials such as steel, glass, and concrete. It soon became clear that there was a demand not only for beautiful villas on Lake Geneva, but just as much for solutions for socially pressing issues in all corners of the planet, which was home to a growing number of megacities and sprawling slums. Lepik touches a sore spot here – and rightly so. And raises several other issues at the same time.
It is no coincidence that the projects presented in this exhibition are authored by architects who dare to think outside the box. They regard themselves as “global citizens”, think global and act local (to use the familiar phrase) at home as well as abroad. In developing countries, architects like these tend to familiarize themselves with the local conditions. This includes the culture of the people who live there just as it does their specific building traditions. They know how to cut costs, build inexpensively and communicate the necessary methods to others. In this sense they are providers of development aid. In their home countries, the industrial states in the West, they raise funds to finance their buildings. Examples include Francis Kéré, who in his native country of Burkina Faso erects schools made of clay, Emilio Caravatti from Monza, who designs schools in Mali, Hubert Klumpner from the “Urban-Think Tank” in Zurich, who plans to create a community center in the favelas of São Paolo, Peter Rich from South Africa, who is brining traditional African clay construction up to modern standards, Line Ramstad from Norway, who today lives in Mae Sot in Thailand, where she and her colleagues at “a.gor.a architects” create house after house on stilts – and Anna Heringer from Germany, who shot to fame with her girls’ school made of earth in Bangladesh.
In Germany, commitment such as this flows into projects that foster a variety of social approaches. These include educational facilities such as “learning spaces” at the Erika Mann Schule in Berlin, planned and built by “Die Baupiloten”, a Berlin-based architectural cooperative, or affordable residential space for the middle class following the do-it-yourself principle in conjunction with the International Building Exhibition (IBA) in the Hamburg district of Wilhelmsburg by the architectural duo Anne-Julchen Bernhardt and Jörg Leeser (“BeL”) from Cologne.
And it is not just established architects who are keen to embrace new horizons; budding talents have likewise signed on to the new trend, as the exhibition demonstrates with a range of exemplary university projects. Initiatives such as the “Design Build Initiativen” at RWTH Aachen University, buildings for “Orange Farm e.V.” and by “Baupiloten” illustrate the manner in which up-and-coming architects and engineers build schools in South Africa or in Berlin – the theory as well as the actual construction on site. For the architecture students at RWTH Aachen this dual approach meant flying to South Africa at the end of their project and building the planned school complex hands-on together with the local villagers. After all, it is these joint building activities that demonstrate to the students how their designs affect and impact on real life. Learning together, building together – this is also the motto at “Orange Farm e.V.” by Munich architect Markus Dobmaier, who gets students from Munich Technical University on board to construct educational institutions in the townships of South Africa. His credo: “Assuming responsibility, not dreaming up striking designs, transforms architecture.”
Globally networked, locally built
All the projects presented in the exhibition clearly show that this kind of construction only leads to good results if a community emerges, if all those involved are included and communicate openly. Line Ramstad from Norway, who with a number of colleagues initiated the “Gyaw Gyaw” project in Mae Sot, Thailand, in recent years, inquired into the local culture and people in a particularly thorough fashion. “Gyaw Gyaw” roughly translates to “slowly, step by step” and Ramstad succeeded in integrating the relatively poor Karen people living there into the project. Now there are a number of temporary dormitories and a hospital with a facility building, for which the landscape architect took inspiration from traditional Thai architecture, using high-quality bamboo piling and leaf roofs. In other of the projects presented too, the future users of the building lent a hand. This is not only economically advantageous, but the two parties can also learn a lot from each other. This is knowledge transfer in practice – cutting-edge technical know-how combined with traditional building methods. This produces in part beautiful as well as practical buildings, such as those by Francis Kéré or Peter Rich. Moreover, proponents emphasize, this approach increases identification with the building, while sometimes even breaking with tradition. For instance in the project by Heringer in Bangladesh, which also involved women, who do not usually work on construction there.
Sustainability as a side effect
The benefits of natural construction materials are praised so highly in the exhibition, and vividly presented in the form of bamboo structures or casings for clay bricks, that visitors will not be able to help wondering whether they too might want to have their house built from clay or bamboo. Be it Caravatti in Mali, Rich in South Africa, Kéré in Burkina Faso or Heringer in Bangladesh, they all used clay for their projects in a contemporary way by either mixing it with cement or forming it into bricks.
Next to clay it is bamboo that is suitable for many projects, for example in Bangladesh, Thailand and Columbia. Frankfurt-based architect Andres Bäppler also works with bamboo. In his native Columbia he builds schools, houses and bridges and trains his compatriots in using the traditional construction material once again, meaning they no longer need to import wood from Canada. Indeed, clay and bamboo have considerable advantages as building materials: They are inexpensive, available in large quantities, easy to work and favorable in terms of building biology. The fact that both clay and bamboo are resource-saving and recyclable to boot, i.e. sustainable, is ultimately simply a side effect, which however makes it no less important.
Yet the use of local materials did not always meet with residents’ approval. We can read in the explanations on some of the projects that in other countries too people assume that modern architecture should be made of glass, steel and concrete, as in those countries where such buildings were first built.
DIY construction for the middle class
What form does successful social building take in Germany? One example is provided by Susanne Hofmann from the “Baupiloten” in Berlin. She and her team implemented “learning landscapes” at the Erika Mann Schule, explicitly including students of the school in the design and planning process. Architects Anne-Julchen Bernhardt and Jörg Leeser from “BeL” in Cologne take a similar user-friendly and interactive approach, having designed a “Smart Price House” for the IBA in Hamburg/Wilhelmsburg. Based on Le Corbusier’s concept of the domus maison, they created a DIY house that can easily be replicated and is thus intended to be affordable for the middle class. Despite having the freedom to retract walls as they pleased or design the façade in different ways, ultimately, the architects realized, most residents wanted a uniform, white façade.
A school made of clay in Gando, a community center in the favelas of São Paolo and a “Smart Price House” in Hamburg – what projects like this have in common is that they seek to create architecture for people who cannot otherwise afford high-grade architecture. Buildings that are not realized at the expense of nature, but that integrate natural cycles, guiding principles that are also central to the Aga Khan Award, the Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction or initiatives such as Architecture for Humanity. Sometimes the common ground between the projects on show can get a little too colorful, especially as the conditions for these buildings are highly different in economic, social and geographic terms. Not to mention building law. Another not insignificant point is whether and how architects can make a living from such jobs. In industrialized nations in the West there is state funding available for social building, but it is a different story in less developed countries. Perhaps Lepik has indeed bitten off more than he can chew.
Little significance for wider society
Of course, ultimately the projects on show are worthy of praise and have an exemplary function. They prove without a doubt that and in which way a transfer of knowledge can succeed in development cooperation, and how building as a community, using the construction materials available and on the basis of local craft traditions can be combined with cutting-edge technical know-how to the benefit of both sides. Yet the significance for society as a whole that such projects can attain, which are often one-offs and at best imitated in surrounding regions, remains to be seen. Whatever such approaches can achieve in countries like Bangladesh, South Africa and Columbia, it would certainly be no mistake to complement them with collaborations with local universities, to consolidate what has already been achieved.
At the beginning of the symposium South African architect Peter Rich commented, somewhat derisively, but not without reason, in allusion to Germany’s role as political leader that “Germans are healing the world”. Can and should we really show people in non-Western nations how buildings are constructed? This point divided opinion at the symposium. Maybe it is indeed as Bernadette Heiermann, Professor at RWTH Aachen University, put it: “We are not changing the world, but we are taking small steps toward a better one.”
Video interview on the exhibition with curator Andres Lepik:
Think global, build social! Architectures for a better world
June 8 to September 1, 2013
Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM), Frankfurt/Main, Germany
Catalog: Special issue of the magazine Arch+, nos. 211/212, 176 pages