Matthew Barac commends Architecture Sans Frontières pioneering approach in providing valuable aid for vulnerable communities
Two chunky timber tables have been pushed together at a trendy east-of-central London café and we’re all jammed together to listen, above the convivial din, to Isis Nuñez - one of a stable of volunteers who together keep the ambitious Architecture Sans Frontières-UK (ASF-UK) programme going. She is describing the concept of minga: a Latin American principle of community housekeeping that ensures cities like Quito in Ecuador, the site for ASF-UK’s forthcoming Change by Design workshop, keep functioning.
In the indigenous language of Quechua, minga means the coming together of a neighbourhood for mutual benefit, and it is seen - particularly in poor communities - as a collective obligation. If help is needed, to fill potholes in a street or to help with the harvest, a local leader will ‘call a minga’. Each household dutifully sends someone along to work alongside neighbours on whatever it is that needs to be fixed, moved, or built.
Nuñez tells us about the development opportunities that the community in Quito has already identified: ‘they have many ideas for public spaces for their very dense neighbourhood, but don’t know how to articulate them in spatial terms’. She and her colleagues, who have organised several Change by Design workshops over the last three years, see their roles, and those of the 15-20 participating architects, engineers and students - drawn from Europe as well as the workshop’s geographical region - as comprising a task force mobilised to address the challenge of making such community aspirations a reality. Along the way, workshop participants learn invaluable lessons about how to deliver professional services in contexts often overlooked by architects.
But the philosophy of ASF-UK, a charity registered in 2007 and linked to an international network of similar groups, is based on the principle of doing the exact opposite of rushing in to help far-flung communities in need. Melissa Kinnear, who runs the organisation with a volunteer team, explains: ‘although we have professional skills and plenty of enthusiasm, we know little about life on the ground. The real experts are the people who live there, so we’re not coming in to save the day, we’re coming in to learn, from them, about what the solutions might be. We want to be a catalyst for development, not a bunch of foreigners saying how it’s done.’
This approach has been fine-tuned to form the backbone of ASF-UK’s portfolio of workshops, summer schools, publications and - perhaps most impressively - an extended family of experts and alumni who, unlike most Western architects, are equipped to add value to vulnerable communities: groups who have human resources but don’t have professional know-how, access to funding, or the confidence to bring their ideas to life. For ASF-UK, architectural practice therefore has to be strategic. This principle is at the heart of a Europe-wide initiative to develop an educational curriculum attuned to humanitarian and development needs. Entitled ‘Challenging Practice’ and supported by a Leonardo Da Vinci programme grant, the course builds ‘on the skills and experience gained at university and in practice, but challenges professionals to broaden their field of concern’, ASF-UK communications manager Sarah Ernst relates.
This broader, more challenging context for practice is evident in the ‘tool kit manual’ produced at the end of the Change by Design workshop that took place in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. Working with the ‘roofless movement’, which supports grassroots claims to housing in the community of Paraíso, Nuñez and her ASF-UK colleagues encouraged workshop participants to develop visual and methodological tools: concepts, props and social processes that can be used to focus discussions and collectively make decisions. ‘We diagnosed and analysed the spatial situation of Paraíso to identify needs related to the slow process of consolidating homes, and produced a set of design guidelines.’
Diagnosis and analysis were pivotal to the pedagogy adopted in the 2011 workshop in Mashimoni, a slum settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. Participants faced the challenge of making sense of the informal housing proliferating everywhere - a task that naturally entails trying to understand the fit (or lack of it) between social needs and spatial fabric.
Alex Frediani, who joins Nuñez on the ASF-UK team for the forthcoming Ecuador workshop, highlights the value of not only diagnosing and analysing existing problems and assets, but also visualising how life could be better for the local community: ‘groups of students, architects, and residents worked together to produce posters showing a portfolio of options’. That there should be a choice - that a better urban future might be available - is in itself a reminder of design’s potential to foster change.
This article is part of a series examining the state of architectural education across the world. More discussions of academies and schools from other nations can be found in Pedagogy