Thursday Feature: The Poetics of Social Architecture


Architecture tends to be typecast as a glamorous vocation, staffed by creative types seeking to push the boundaries of form and aesthetics. Social architecture then, seems to be almost an uncool oxymoron. It conjures up images of no-frills pre-fab emergency housing, and rudimentary buildings built from scratch by volunteers. Their main priority is to serve people in need, so it is understandable that poetics will be of lowest priority. But as architects, we can surely do better.

It is certainly heartening and exciting then, to witness a shift in the making of social architecture in Asia, in recent years. A new segment of architects have begun to design poetic architecture, reinterpreting vernacular traditions that ingeniously contextualise the projects, as well as engaging the community through the process. Their works are no longer utilitarian, they are beautifully crafted yet relevant, bringing not just shelter but delight to the people served. Moreover, the locally available materials used are cheap, so poetic social architecture does not have to be expensive.

The renowned Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban, is a pioneer in this field. He is famed for his revolutionary paper tube structures, which characterise his architecture. In the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan, he started his first disaster relief project. Paper log houses were built to house community whose houses were destroyed.

                                                                                                  Image: http://www.shigerubanarchitects.com

It was a cheap, easy-and-quick-to-build, and recyclable solution. And it was ingenious. The foundation comprised of donated beer crates loaded with sandbags. The walls were made from thick paper tubes, with tenting material for the roof. A waterproof sponge tape backed with adhesive between the paper tubes of the walls provided insulation.

He followed up by designing the Kobe Paper Church for the church community there, which is one of his most well known works. It was assembled by church workers in only five weeks by 160 workers, and despite being intended as a temporary building, it served the congregation for ten years before being disassembled.

                                                                                                    Images: http://www.shigerubanarchitects.com

Since then, Ban-san has been the foremost architect designing practical (cheap, fast and easy to assemble) yet ingeniously aesthetic disaster relief architecture. Amongst these projects are the paper log house built in Bhuj, India in 2001, and the Hualien Temporary Elementary School in Chengdu, China in 2008.

                                                                                               Images: http://www.shigerubanarchitects.com

Besides disaster relief architecture, there are a growing number of architects that work on projects for the rural and urban poor in Asia.

Dr Li Xiaodong is an architecture professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. But it is his private practice Li Xiaodong that is gaining recognition in its execution of social architecture that are beautifully relevant to their site. His most famous work is the Yuhu Elementary School and Community Centre in Lijiang, China, which was a community service project. It is a response to the local vernacular traditions, creating an architecture that is appropriate to site and social context. Local materiality (stone, timber, tiles), construction technology, environment, and space were translated into a contemporary architectural expression.

                                                                                                                                                     Image: http://www.lixiaodong.net

Besides designing the architecture, he raised the funds and saw the project through materialisation. He also roped in his students to help in the research, design and building of the project. The local villagers participated in the construction too. Thus, the act of architecturing went beyond design into engaging the social process of making architecture firsthand.

                                                                                                                                                     Image: http://www.lixiaodong.net

Anna Heringer is a young German architect and visiting professor at the University of Art and Design Linz in Austria, with a passion for sustainable development through architecture. To quote her: “For me, sustainability is a synonym for beauty: a building that is harmonious in its design, structure, technique and use of materials, as well as with the location, the environment, the user, the socio-cultural context. This, for me, is what defines its sustainable and aesthetic value.” This ethos is articulated beautifully through the poetics of her architecture.

                                                                                                                                       Image: openarchitecturenetwork.org

Handmade School in Rudrapur, in a poor rural part of Bangladesh, is a physical extension of her dissertation. The co-architect was Eike Roswag. Its architecture encapsulates an intimate understanding of the local materials, as well as the heartfelt spirit of engaging the local community in its creation. The traditional materials of bamboo and earth are innovatively interpreted to create a durable and sustainable construction. A brick masonry foundation anchors the double-storey building, with loam-straw mixture as the ingredients for the earthen walls. The addition of a damp-proof course was the most significant technical advance.

                                                                                                                                       Image: openarchitecturenetwork.org

The ceiling of the ground floor is created by a layering of bamboo beams, boards and earth – expressing the imagination of bamboo creation. The upper storey and roof is a quadruple-layer bamboo frame construction.

                                                                                                                                      Image: openarchitecturenetwork.org

The result is a powerful exposition on materiality, as well as a composition of delightful light-filled learning spaces that bring joy and meaning to the children’s lives. Furthermore, it opened the opportunity for a transfer of skills to the local community – European architects and tradesmen helped to develop the building techniques on site, serving to train the local craftsmen essentially upgrading their skills and thus employability.

                                                                                                                                      Image: openarchitecturenetwork.org

TYIN Tegnestue Architects was established in 2008, and has its headquarters in Trondheim, Norway. They are essentially a group of architects-students that hail from the Norwegian Univeristy of Science and Technology (NTNU), with a desire to meet fundamental challenges through architecture. They work in poor, undeveloped areas, involving the locals actively in the design and construction of the projects. The aim is similar to Anna Heringer’s Handmade School – to facilitate a “mutual exchange of knowledge and skills”. Materials used are locally purchased or collected near the site.

They completed three projects in Noh Bo, Thailand, where the majority of the people are minority Karen refugees. The Soe Ker Tie House, completed in 2009, provided an orphanage expanded dormitory space and delightful play spaces for the children.

                                                                                                                                     Images: openarchitecturenetwork.org

The next projects were the Safe Haven Bathhouse and Library for another orphanage. TYIN Tegnestue worked on the bathhouse together with Karen workers, while a workshop for NTNU students worked on the library.

                                                                                                                                     Images: openarchitecturenetwork.org

After their work in the rural areas, they moved on to the urban situation in Bangkok. Collaborating with the local group CASE (Community Architects for Shelter and Environment) which is run by the “people’s” architect Patama Roonrakwit, the Old Market Library was conceived.

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It is remarkable that a young design organisation managed to realise four sensitively and meaningfully crafted pieces of architecture in such a quick span of time, that empower and bring joy to the communities. The spatial, light and material nuances of the architecture is certainly not curtailed by the social imperative, but has rather been enhanced by the deep understanding of how to create context-appropriate and sustainable buildings.

Beautiful architecture is not confined to sleek, sensual and iconic towers. Rather this trajectory of projects has shown that architecture can have both inner and outer beauty, literally and metaphorically.

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