CONTEXTUALIZATION: REDEFINING SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT AND ARCHITECTURE, Part II, Fall 2013

Section II – Expanding the Definition of Architecture  

Upon its introduction, sustainable development denounced the contribution of the built environment and its current patterns of energy consumption to the destruction of natural ecosystems.  According the International Energy Agency, Southeast Asia’s energy-related CO2 emissions will almost double, reaching 2.3 Gigatonnes by 2035, mostly due to its power generation mix of heavily reliant on fossil fuels, with natural gas (44%) and coal (31%) dominating outputs (Birol 18). As of 2010, the building sector is attributed to 1/5th of the world energy consumption and contributed to an increase in emissions of greenhouse gas by 5.1% (US Department of Energy).  The staggering statistics have brought emphasis globally on the built environment as one of the main focuses of intervention in sustainable development, enabling the creation of the “sustainable building” industry to drive technological innovations. The latter aimed to reduce buildings’ carbon footprint and restore their relationship to the environment. However, in application, this created a disproportionate, skewed and unbalanced model for sustainable building as it engendered the environmental paradox and pushed aside the socio-cultural contexts in which those technologies are implemented; rendering them ineffective beyond the developed world. Therefore, contextualizing the concept of “sustainable building” broadens the latter definition to include socio-cultural and economic ramifications in the architectural design process; therefore reevaluating its clientele to achieve greatest good for the greatest number.

At the age of consumerism, Architecture became an object of commodity and the expression of an iconic brand of the rich, quite explicit in the architectural fabric cities such as Dubai (Image 1). Although, it is often defined as the physical framework within which socio- cultural and economic exchanges occur, the traditional architectural process globally merely reflects the complexity of such context, mainly due to the fact that buildings have historically reflected the artistic and philosophical expressions of the few who have the privilege to design them and the few who has the capital to commission them. In other words, the exercise of shaping the built environment within which global communities interact is not inherently democratic, as it solely controlled by 1% of the world population. Therefore, contextualizing sustainable development through the lenses of architecture not only seeks to reconcile the built and natural environments through technological means, but also seeks to understand the socio-cultural nuances in using architecture as a response to the needs of the other 99% of the world which does not have access to technology. Andres Lepik, a curator at Museum of Modern Art, elaborated on this new architectural typology and sees it as an expanded definition of sustainability that moves beyond experimentation with new materials and technologies to include such concepts as social and economic stewardship (12). Thus, the advocacy for socio-cultural engagement in the framework of sustainable development redefined a code of ethics and reestablished relevance of the architectural profession, as it now serves greater percentage of the world’s population and aimed to address global issues at the wake of global crisis.

This new typology also has led to the emergence of diverse arrays of business models within architectural practice to design holistic solutions to achieve sustainable development in a global context. Few examples include the Community Design Collaborative acting as community design centers that provides pro bono preliminary design services to nonprofit organizations around the world (Sehnert); humanitarian organizations such as Architecture for Humanity, a global network 50,000 professionals spread across 58 chapters in 15 different countries, aiming to create thoughtful and inclusive design that enables lasting change in global communities in need of water, sanitation, power and  shelter (Sinclair and Stohr); non-profit architecture firms such as Mass Design Group, seeking to improve health economic and social outcomes working with communities in countries such as Rwanda, Haiti, Liberia and Uganda (Murphy et al); and the 1% Pro Bono Program, run by Public Architecture, a non-profit organization which engages traditional architecture firms to donate one percent of their time to this new architectural typology (Peterson). The diverse array of models also led to the emergence of several terminologies such as Public Interest Design, social impact design, socially responsible design, transformation design, embedded design, community- driven Design, community design, social/economic/environmental design and many more (Glossary). Those models and terminologies reflect the variety of approaches and the inherent dynamism and energy which embodies the professionals who are dedicated to this new architectural typology. This provides an evolutionary picture of a large network of practitioners who understand the critical role of socio –culturally responsive architecture in achieving sustainable development and seek to redefine architectural practice by bringing their expertise to global communities in need, particularly in developing countries.

In order to engage global communities, the architectural process ought to be democratized through a “participatory design process” in which the contribution of all stakeholders results in architecture of consensus. This approach actively involves and engages all potential stakeholders in the design and planning process from the very start of a project in order to allow the community to inform and direct the project and take ownership over its progress (Glossary). The result is a dialogue in which the architect cedes parts of his or her authority actively seeks the input of the stakeholders and neighboring communities prior, during and after the completion, marking an important departure from the modernist ideal of the architect as the mastermind who designs everything (Lepik 12). Therefore, the end product is not the result of the artistic expression of a team of architectural designers and engineers, but the product of a socially, culturally and economically diverse body of individuals, a platform for community engagement and a model of equity.

The Gando Primary School in Burkina Faso is a model of this new architectural typology increasingly being deployed in developing countries, responding to the socio-cultural, ecological and economic context to build equity, restore communities, enhance human capabilities and spur economic development. Responding to Burkina Faso's limited natural resources and its 28.6% literacy rate, Gando Primary school was designed ­­to provide educational opportunities to the children of the Gando community and perpetuate the opportunities which the architect was given through his education (Central Intelligence Agency). Designed by architect Francis Kere, a native of Bukina Faso, the primary school consists of three rectangular classrooms placed in row and made of red adobe bricks walls with a corrugated metal roof top supported by light girders (Lepik 34) (Images 2). In 1998, he set up an organization called School Building Blocks for Gando and was able to raise enough financial support for the construction of the school. In his choice of material, Kere rejected the traditional construction method of concrete blocks to decrease the cost of construction and decided to use adobe bricks as primary material. The latter were made on site by the community and the process was used as a tool to educate workers about modern, inexpensive and safe methods of construction, while hiring local craftsmen to build the corrugated roof (35). The Gando School is an exemplary project which only satisfies the spatial requirements of needed for education, but also uses its building process as a tool to engage stakeholders, instill ownership, create employment and improve the skills and knowledge of neighboring community members. Since its completion in 2001, the numbers of teachers of the community tripled due to the high enrollment of 150 students, and the school had recently expanded to include a fourth classroom, a library (Image 3), and teacher housing (Image 4) (34). In 2004, in recognition to its holistic approach to sustainable development, the Gando Primary School won the $1 million Aga Kahn Award, and replicating the Gando model in other African countries such as Mali.

Furthermore, the Butaro Hospital, in Rwanda is another example which takes on holistic approach to sustainable development through the lenses of healthcare, architectural education and economic development to bring the power of architecture in a context in which it was previously inexistent. Completed in 2011 by Mass Design Group, headquartered in Boston, the Butaro Hospital is a 65, 000 square feet district hospital with155 beds, managed by Partners in Health and designed to deliver the highest quality of care possible for the population of Burera, a region in Rwanda that has long lacked access to high quality health care (TED “Alan Ricks”). From its passive ventilation system to its outward layout of patient beds to nature, MASS created a highly ventilated environment to mitigate the spread of airborne diseases, such as TB and improve patient morale, by inverted the typical hospital ward, where beds face inward (Image 5-6). As designers and contractors, MASS and PIH trained and paid nearly 3,900 area residents to excavate the site and build the facility with mostly local material, while dividing the labor among six teams, each working two-week shifts, to enable six times the employment than a traditional construction project (Murphy). In 2012, the project expanded to include Doctor Housing near the hospital to accommodate medical staff. Through its construction training program, MASS has partnered with the Kigali Institute of Technology in Rwanda to create the country’s first architecture degree program, which recently graduated 24 students, consisting the first ever generation of undergraduate architecture students in the nation.  In a country where the profession of architecture did not exist per se and the word for “architect” was inexistent emerged the word "umuhangamuguhangainyubako" in Kinyarwanda, the national language means “an expert in inventing or creating buildings (TED “Alan Ricks”). In the wake of civil war, the Butaro Hospital brought together architects, builders, and doctors directly to a community in need, providing a dignified space which not only heal the local population but a country as a whole (Image 7).

Torre David, an unfinished tower in Caracas, Venezuela presents an unconventional approach to sustainable development as its unforeseen incompletion created the basic architectural framework, therefore requiring the resourcefulness and creativity of communities to shape its identity. Located in the capital with an urban population of 2.1 million inhabitants, Torre David is part of a complex which consists of six buildings: El Atrio (Lobby and conference room), Torre David including a heliport, Torre B, Edificio K, Edificio Z, and 12 stories of parking (Davidson)Torre David was originally intended to be a symbol of Caracas’ bright financial future but construction halted because of a banking crisis of 1994 and the sudden death of the tower’s developer, David Brillembourg, whom the tower is named after (Image 8). Stimulated by an acute housing shortage of about 400,000 units in Caracas, the 45- story skyscraper is known as the world’s tallest informal settlement and is currently housing more than 2500 people (Davidson). Spread across 28 stories, the tower is is the home of approximately 750 families, who managed to obtain electricity legally and rig up toilets to a rudimentary plumbing system. Motorbikes ply the adjacent parking structure’s spiral ramps, ferrying supplies up to a distribution center on the tenth floor, which serves the various convenience stores, an unlicensed dentist center, haircut shops and other small family-owned boutiques located throughout the tower (TED. “Iwan Baan”). The informal settlements in Torre David, although the results of unforeseen financial circumstances, reflect the resourcefulness and resilient character of communities in the developing world to attain self-sufficiency (Image 9-10).  What is often overlooked as serendipity and infamous squatting can be understood as model for contextualization, in which communities are given the essential structural framework, and then fill in the blanks using their own creativity and local expertise based on their essential need. With contextual architectural guidelines, local expertise and confining to local economy, this model could be used to respond to shelter and housing solutions across the world.

By broadening the definition and clientele of architectural practice to consider socio-cultural and economic complexities beyond technological means, the building sector has the potential to create long lasting impact especially in the context of the developing world. The Gando Primary and the Butaro Hospital are exemplary projects which architecture moved beyond its means of satisfying spatial requirements, to be implemented as a process which is participatory and an educational tool, builds equity, fosters unity, spurs economic development and transforms communities. In the case of the Torre David, the physical architectural framework not only satisfies the housing needs of community, but also reflects the economic and socio-cultural complexities of its inhabitants. Contextualizing architecture dramatically closes the gap, enabling low income communities to achieve sustainable development. 

Continue to Part III, here.