…which is what architecture, at its roots, is all about. We weren’t taught to listen in architecture. It was ‘this is my idea’ and ‘this is how I go forth’ and, although it sounds clichéd now, no form of community consultation was part of either my undergraduate or masters degree. Whether you’re dealing with a community from Mornington to Mostar, in formulating a concept or a brief there has to be some form of structured consultation to determine the aspirations of the community. In a way, the role of the architect can be a much more powerful one as a peacemaker and a facilitator between different disciplines.
Is that what the organisation you founded, Architects Without Frontiers (AWF), has been set up to do? That’s right. AWF was set up on the premise of my experience in Mostar, when I met an Australian engineer with Engineers for Relief (RedR) who was working on restoring the water in Mostar. The idea came to me, like Medecins Sans Frontieres, what about an organisation called Architects Without Frontiers? It was perhaps fairly naive, assuming that we could change the destiny of Mostar or other cities that had been divided by war, but we’ve gone from working after war to working in zones of fragility and vulnerability, common to both Western and developing countries. After Mostar, how has AWF evolved and what type of projects has it undertaken? The first project that was completed was an orphanage in Kabul for war widows. The request came from an amazing Sydney woman who had set up the not-for-profit organisation Mahboba’s Promise and asked us help come up with a design. At the same time, a Brisbane human rights lawyer asked if we could help rebuild a house for an Indigenous elder on Stradbroke Island. From there, the requests started flooding in. We’ve completed about 39 projects – mostly health and education projects in the AsiaPacific region. Right now we’ve got a women’s cultural hub being completed in Fiji for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We finished a disability daycare centre in Hoi An that was funded by RMIT three years ago. I’ve got a team of architects working in Thailand on a concept for a sustainable office building for the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, an umbrella group of 30 human rights organisations based in Chiang Mai. We were recently asked to design a heart clinic in East Timor. The projects come in in ways that we don’t expect. A lot of them don’t get off the ground but we don’t see ourselves as fundraisers. If we’re going to go ahead with a project, we require the client or the representative contacting us already has firm plans and funds. We can initiate the first phase by engaging a pro bono architect who has the expertise in that building typology to provide a schematic design, and that might be where we stop. If we continue on to design development, we generally get the architects involved and they get paid for their services.
Why is harnessing local expertise and labour critical to a successful project? Over the past 20 years, working with communities who are suffering from extreme poverty, I’ve seen design solutions literally parachuted in; architects with really great ideas come to the site very briefly, draw a few sketches, then get their minions to fly in and do the rest of the work and fly out. In my experience, that generally leads to what I call the ‘triple disaster phenomenon’: in communities like East Timor, Haiti and Sri Lanka, you have the disaster of poverty and political negligence before the physical disaster of an earthquake or tsunami, and then quite often you have the third disaster of design and construction where designers, engineers or aid agencies quickly come in with the ‘you beaut’ solution, and leave it there without thinking through the climatic or cultural issues in which that object is located. We always work with a local partner. In Vietnam, for example, locals did all the contract drawings and the project was built from a local brick factory, using local contractors.
OVER THE PAST 20 years … I’ve seen design solutions literally parachuted in …that generally leads to what I call the ‘triple disaster phenomenon’
Urban Design, and in the summer of 1994 I had an internship lined up at I.M. Pei’s office in New York when I found out that the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, based at MIT, was seeking young architects to work on a project to rebuild the city of Mostar [Bosnia-Herzegovina], which had been destroyed during the Balkans war in the mid-1990s. I was asked if I wanted to be part of the team and, not knowing anything about it, I said “Sure!”. Architecture students from all over the world, and some well-known heritage architects met in Istanbul that summer. We listened to stories about how Mostar had been ripped apart and shared ideas about how we could form a team to rebuild it. A lot of it was pie-in-the-sky stuff, but a few light bulbs went off for me. When I went to Mostar, after the war had ended, I saw architects were largely consumed with matters of form, style, material, colour and how to rebuild what was there. Issues of supplying water or a roof overhead weren’t even being discussed. There was a discord between what the architects were bringing to the table and the real needs of the community. It took me a while to work out we were working in isolation and not being much of a help in helping guide the physical reconstruction of the city. The whole experience in Mostar was both a personal and professional epiphany for me. I sensed in that moment that architects could be so much more than the Grand Design model that I’d been brought up with and had seen working in commercial practice.
44 Mercedes-Benz magazine
2/02/16 3:29 PM
Mercedes-Benz magazine Issue 1, 2016