What development teaches you about architecture

by David Week on 20 September 2010


I recently registered for a new initiative of The Guardian newspaper concerning global development. (Thanks to Craig Zeliger of the Peace and Collaborative Development Network for alerting me to this.)

In introducing myself on this site, I felt like saying something about how development has changed the way I understand my profession. I think this is useful start to a broader line of inquiry. Here’s what I wrote:

I was trained as an architect at U C Berkeley, which at the time had a very social orientation to the profession. In 1978 I moved to Papua New Guinea to start working on my first project, which means I’ve been working in development some 32 years now. I’m currently working on activities in Laos, Cambodia, Lesotho, Indonesia, Eritrea and Rwanda.

Over time, I started to realise that no matter how good your professional training, development is an interface between your culture and that of others, and you need to learn a whole new set of skills.
I also learned that you have to take a whole set of professional biases, and turn them on their head. Architects are trained to focus on the building as an object.
  • I’ve learned that I have to focus on buildings as the product of a long social process involving many hands and minds, and used again by whole other group of people, many of whom will see it other than as the producers imagined it.
  • Whereas architects are trained to produce one-off buildings that are 100% better than those around them, in development you need to learn to think of making a 1% improvement in hundreds or thousands of buildings.
  • Architects are trained to put their names on things: in development, the best architect remains nameless, and the makers and owners of the buildings say (correctly) “it was we that did it.”
  • Architects are trained to shape things. In development, you need to learn to help people to attain their goals and ends.
  • Architects are taught to produce a pretty image for a magazine. In development, you learn that a great building is one that is beautiful to the person that uses it—and that’s not always something that can be captured or understood through a photograph.

This is my firm: http://www.assai.com.au

This is my blog, where I’ve started to attempt to capture some of things that development has taught me, both professionally and personally: http://www.architecturefordevelopment.com

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