The new colonial architecture

by David Week on 15 June 2011

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I saw today a picture of a school in Cambodia, designed by Finnish architects.

It is very nice looking. It photographs very well. It will be picked up and circulated widely in the architectural press, online and off. Without doubt.

You can see more here.

In the comments box, I wrote this:

This is artistically a very pretty building. Whether it works or not is another matter. Why are timber structural members exposed to the elements? Why are those same elements embedded in mud? Why, in a tropical monsoon climate, are two-storey walls unprotected at their lower levels? Why are the covering for openings, in this same climate, made only from translucent fabric? Where are the lessons drawn from the local Cambodian architecture, which has none of these “features”? Why is it that no-one questions the premise that Cambodians need architects to fly in from Finland to teach them how to build?

Today we are in the era of the micro-NGO. Everyone is going to fly into Haiti to help the Haitians. Everyone will start their own NGO. Everyone has a new nostrum for poverty. Architects are joining in the land rush. They are designing buildings for poor people and schools in Africa, in Haiti, in Indonesia, everywhere.

But:

If you pick up an architectural magazine in any OECD country, you will find out two things:

  • Architects in the West work for the rich, or large corporations
  • Photographs are more important to them than words.

Architects sells themselves through imagery. They sell themselves on being unique. In the architectural market, the ideal is that you can look at a building and say “Oh, that’s a Murcutt.” Or a Kahn, a Wright, a Gehry, a Morphosis or a Zaha Hadid, just as you can recognise a Picasso, a Rothko, a Freud, a Bacon. They define themselves as “designers”, even when 90% of their daily work is not about designing anything.

A landmark study of the profession in the 1990s concluded that if architecture continues to follow this path, the profession will end up as facade designers, with every other aspect of building controlled by someone else, and the whole controlled by project managers.

Architects aren’t happy about this. Some architects aren’t happy about a life spent serving corporations and rich people (or, as often, rich persons’ spouses.) They like the idea of democratizing the profession, and of serving the poor, the public and humanity.

The problem is that the induction of the profession by history and market runs deep. It is almost impossible for an architect to stop thinking about what something looks like. Or to stop thinking about “design”. Or to stop drawing.

(The anthropologist Bruno Latour said of architectural drawings:

Euclidian space is the space in which buildings are drawn on paper but not the environment in which buildings are built—and even less the world in which they are lived.… )

Architects are trained to operate in a medium of dissociation from which they find it hard to escape.

What’s the alternative to building beautiful, flawed buildings that will never be replicated or learned from, because they exist as strangers in a strange land? What’s the alternative to this beautiful school in Cambodia, which might as well be in Bangalore or Lesotho?

The alternative is to recognise that what people have been building locally already makes sense. When thousands or even millions of people work in an environment to build their own shelter from their own resources, and communicate to each other—through seeing and talking and experiencing—the results of their efforts, the result is already very damned smart. It’s already efficient. It’s the wisdom of crowds, massive parallel processing, or evolution: choose your metaphor. It is already sustainable because it has already proved that by sustaining itself year in and year out under lean, harsh, minimal conditions.

Therefore, you are not going to wander in and turn the whole thing on its head: not if you want to do something that works. Or something that lives beyond your plane ride out.

But maybe there are gaps you can fill with your foreign knowledge. Maybe there are insights you have from outside, not available inside the local culture. How can you tell?

Well: you ask. What are your problems?

Then you suggest: this, this, this, and that. You will abandon many of your ideas. You might co-create, or collaborate, or have long loud discussions. Out of these might come a few improvements.

How do you know if these improvements are really helpful? You ask.

But how do you know for sure? (Maybe your new friends are being polite.) You know when you come back a year later, and the improvements are being replicated, not just in the project in which you are involved, but by other people, with whom you have no connection.

The technical term for this is “diffusion of innovation.”

But you will find it hard to take any kind of photograph of this. And even if you manage to do so, chances are it won’t be pretty.

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