The new colonial architecture

by David Week on 15 June 2011


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.


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.

  • Kmojadidi

    What a wonderful project!  Thank you for sharing.

  • Sam

    interesting ideas as necessary article. I dont think the profession can be micro-sized to facade design any time in future though. Perhaps im being defensive?! .but at another level, we could talk about the ‘International style’ in a similar way, i think its not solely to do with architects but its to do with the way we choose to live now.i.e. our association with imagery, our need for Capitalist statements 

    • I think you’re right. The term “ocularcentrism” comes to mind. Your observation led me to find this Malaysian architect’s blog entry:

      which has a history of the architectural obsession, going back to Plato.

  • Getafix

    I have my doubts about your overall thesis. I work in Bangladesh and the solutions being adopted for construction through the wisdom of the ‘crowd’ here are generally pretty poor. Equally, while there are interesting (and fast disappearing) examples of well-adapted local vernacular structures, much of what has been built here for millenia is actually profoundly unsuitable for human habitation in a disaster-prone environment. Many traditional structures are poorly equipped to deal with the heavy rain and high temperatures that have afflicted this region since time immemorial, let alone the floods and cyclones. Rebuilding your house on an annual basis may be the only option for those in utterly poverty, but as Bangladeshis become rapidly wealthier (economic growth is currently at around 6% per annum), they expect considerably more long-term stability from their houses. I question whether your entire assumption about traditional construction techniques being best adapted to their environment is true. The speed with which most people are abandoning their mud and bamboo huts for masonry and concrete structures suggests the crowd itself is far from sold on the old ways of doing thing.

    • Hi Ben. I agree.

      But I didn’t say “traditional”, I said “local”.

      Where I work—Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos—people are opting for concrete frame with masonry infill, wherever possible. I have colleagues working on schools in Cambodia. They are all concrete frame with masonry infill. So are the schools I am working on in Laos. The villages are given a choice: that’s the choice they make, almost universally. Same in Aceh, where I worked post-tsunami.

      This choice, not traditional or impoverished structures, is what the local wisdom is saying.

      “Traditional” buildings, even where they still exist, are strongly in disfavour, locally. Therefore, they do not qualify as the wisdom of the crowd. Neither does the mud brick used in this Finn-designed building.

      A study by a World Bank colleague—Serge Theunynck—showed that of all the systems of school construction used by the Bank in Africa, only the use of local, contemporary construction and production systems has proved capable of the speed and low cost required to get countries to EFA.

      You note the poor quality of the buildings of the poor in Bangla Desh. But in terms of their total economic situation, these bad buildings may represent a highly rational rationing of scarce resources. I’m not saying that the wisdom of crowds produces high quality buildings. I’m saying they produce the right kinds of buildings for the situation, which includes the economic situation. As economy changes, what is “right” might well move towards “higher quality.”

      If you think you can do better than the local crowd, the test is simple: introduce your innovation, and see if spreads like wildfire—like kerosene lamps, like corrugated iron, like mobile phones. If yes: kudos to you. If not: you’re missing something. That’s my thesis.

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