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18 CAA CONFERENCE Society Architects and Emerging Issues Dhaka, November 26-27, 2006


Consuming Knowledge / Constructing Knowledge Wes Janz Associate Professor of Architecture Ball State University Email:

Key words: squatters, knowledge, CapAsia, Abstract

1 Introduction One billion people--typically called squatters, informal settlers, displaced persons, or homeless (it’s a big category)--claim leftover spaces in cities and live in unauthorized dwellings often made of scavenged or recycled materials.1 When my students are my age (53) there will be two billion leftover people, or 1 in 4 worldwide. In his book Shadow Cities, Robert Neuwirth states that squatters “mix more concrete than any developer. They lay more brick than any government. . . Squatters are the largest builders of housing in the world—and they are creating the cities of tomorrow.”2 It can be argued that these men, women, and children are among the most prolific designers and builders in our planet’s history. With that said, we know next to nothing of leftover people’s building cultures, construction processes, or architectures. Few, if any, designers, architects, or planners believe we can learn anything from them about planning, designing, or building. If anything, “shadow cities” and informal architectures are often the prime targets of relocation schemes and bulldozers. 3 Engaged 1

The title for this paper comes from an article written by Joshua Hammer about the President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and some of his rivals. Arthur Mutambara is one such possible successor. When asked of his recent educational and professional background (Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, visiting professorship at MIT, and consultant to McKinsey & Company, among others), Mutambara said: “I have the pedigree . . . I’m an African, so why can’t I set up a consulting firm for Africans? Why can’t I leverage my wisdom in an African environment? We are sick and tired of being consumers of knowledge. We want to participate in the construction of knowledge.” See Joshua Hammer, “Big Man,” The New Yorker (June 26, 2006): 34.


Robert Neuwirth, Shadow Cities (New York: Routledge, 2005), 10.


See Robert Neuwirth’s blog: “squattercity” @

Wes Janz

architects, it seems, do architecture on behalf of someone else: see Habitat for Humanity, Architecture for Humanity. Or the architecture is done for the architects (or architecture students). Such is the case at the celebrated Rural Studio of Auburn University, where the first sentence of the mission states clearly that the primary intention “is to enable each participating student to cross the threshold of misconceived opinions to create/design/build and to allow students to put their educational values to work as citizens of a community.” 4 The designers’ best intentions often do not involve local understandings, talents, and needs. Agency cannot be extended if design is done for someone else or one’s self, if “they” consume (purchase, use, accept, take, appreciate) what “we” produce. I suggest that such a relation—we produce, they consume—is the dominant economic model for the architectural profession around the world. Architects are very comfortable with such an exclusionary approach. We readily accept our place within the economic constructs of clientage and patronage. We are delusional about an imagined professional status alongside lawyers and doctors. Most of us are drawn to the material aspects of building; concerns for the social, cultural, or political realms are often secondary, if considered at all. And each of us is the product of an enculturating and professionalizing set of conventions that dominate curriculum and licensure issues around the world. To put this another way, what is taught in a structures, or building technology, or history course in an architecture curriculum in Dhaka is probably quite similar to what is being taught in an architecture program in Buenos Aires, Berlin, or Baltimore. And the primary concerns of the American Institute of Architects are probably quite similar to those of the Institute of Architects Bangladesh. Privileging a leftover person--knowing him or her and understanding the local culture of building 5-inverts conventional sensibilities. We stop giving people what we think they need in order to help them create what they think they need and what they can actually make and use. The discourse becomes more honest: intelligence resides with us and with them. Squatters are engaged, not as consumers, but as constructors of knowledge.

2 Co-Constructors Several architects are notable not only for their engagement with local populations, but their intention to create knowledge with local persons. Kyohei Sakaguchi came to know of a subculture of squatters in Tokyo. His photographic and drawn documentation of the “zero yen houses” is supported by written comments that often remark on ways in which the local communities are organized to live, build, and move. 6 Jalal Ahmad and his collaborators--including local masons and carpenters--designed and built “improved housing models” in four flood prone villages in Faridpur, Bangladesh. Several aspects of this work are worth noting. The locals were responsible for selecting those persons most in need of new housing in their community. Local builders were consulted in order to ground the design and construction in local knowledge. And the buildings are very small and simple. 7 Vijitha Basnayake of Sri Lanka does not rely on drawings to communicate with builders. Rather, drawings are used to help clients maneuver through official bureaucracies--bankers, government officials--in ways that are comfortable to such groups. Basnayake designs primarily using physical 4

“Rural Studio Mission,”’mission.htm (accessed September 28, 2006).


Howard Davis, The Culture of Building (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).


Kyohei Sakaguchi, Zero Yen Houses (Tokyo: Little More, 2004).


Jalal Ahmad, Fuad H. Mallick and A.Q.M. Abdullah, “Local Resources and Participation in Design: Two Projects in Bangladesh,” Open House International 28, no. 3 (2003): 49-57.

18 CAA Conference, November 26-27, 2006, Dhaka, Bangladesh

models to communicate with himself, his staff, clients, and contractors and subcontractors. The drawing of drawings done for the bankers is a time to refine ideas; the models are central. The architect visits the job site nearly every day, talking with the building contractor, sketching in a job site journal that becomes a kind of official document, showing details and design ideas that the architect and contractor agree upon, in the field, at a particular moment. 8 Jaime Nisnovich has written a “how-to” guide for the construction of slum dwellings in and around Buenos Aires, Argentina. He engages local building cultures, materials, and construction techniques. And he takes responsibility for being an architect, evidenced in his desire to provide an overview for the process, to promote better building practices, and to educate the public regarding design and construction.9 Sheila Kennedy and Frano Violich designed the “Portable Light” project, using energy efficient solid state (LED) technology to provide small amounts of light, powered by solar collectors. Among their directed research projects is “Nomads & Nanomaterials” which, according to their website: “explores the intersection of design research, technology development and social action [for] the nomadic Huichol (Wirr√°rica) people who live in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico.” Among the elements of the project is a “community power bag” to generate solar electrical power, “portable storefront” wearable poncho that generates electricity and allows the wearer to use it as an illuminated market through which to sell craftwork, “portable workshop” that harvests electricity, provides illumination, provides a lighted workspace and weighs 14 ounces, and a “portable reading stool.10 Margaret Crawford has her own questions regarding social responsibility that have connections to constructing knowledge; these are presented in the article “Can Architects be Socially Responsible?” Crawford’s answer to her own questions: “as the profession is presently constituted, no. Both the restricted practices and discourse of the profession have reduced the scope of architecture to two equally unpromising polarities: compromised practice or esoteric philosophies of inaction.” She does offer two approaches that might help in the construction of knowledge. One focuses on “existing material conditions rather than on idealistic projections of future technical capabilities”; the other seeks “compelling stories about social needs” such as the homeless, individuals excluded from the real estate market, communities threatened by decay or development, and elderly, poor, and minority groups with inadequate housing.11 Crawford’s challenges--to foreground people and building materials that are immediately available-are central to the four “constructing” projects featured in this article.

3 Constructions

3.1 Arbor: Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (2001+) In late 2001 I began the construction of an arbor in my backyard. It represents my explorations in designing and building with nothing, responding to new circumstances and opportunities, and working on one small building, continuously. Made of no cost materials, the structure is


For more on the work of Basnayake, see Robert Powell, The New Asian House (Singapore: Select Publishing, 2001): 134-9.


Jaime Nisnovich, Manual Practico de Construccion (Impreso en Kalifon S.A.: Buenos Aires, 2004).


For more, see the “Portable Light Project” at the Kennedy Violich website:


Margaret Crawford, “Can Architects Be Socially Responsible?” in Out of Site, ed. Diane Ghirardo (Seattle: Bay Press, 1991), 27-45.

Wes Janz

impermanent, incomplete, and in need of constant attention. No money, no electricity, and no trucks are allowed, even though I have money, electricity, and a driveway. 12 At one level, knowledge, expressed as gaining confidence, was gained through building, every day, for several years. A beautiful, “award-winning” pavilion was crafted, daily, with the waste provided by our consuming society and my neighbors. At another level, as understood by others and not me, the daily work became a kind of meditation for me, as my mother died fifteen months after construction on the arbor began. Working on it, every day, quietly, brought a rhythm to my life, a different kind of energy, as I dealt with the loss of my second parent and good friend.

3.2 Timber and Mud Pavilions: Kadubedda, Sri Lanka (2003)

I am co-director of CapAsia, a ten-week, South Asian field study offered through the College of Architecture and Planning at Ball State University in 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2005. 13 Among the 2003 highlights: participation in a build-design-build project with faculty members (Madhura Prematilleke, Vijitha Basnayake, and Varuna de Silva) and 45 undergraduate students at the University of Moratuwa in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where our challenges included: no money, the Sun, teams made up of cross-national students, shockingly different hand tools, no electricity on site, and only ten days in which to complete both pavilions. One team constructed a pavilion made primarily of scavenged wood materials (dismantled wood packing crates, disassembled timber pallets, and handsawn tree trunks); the other, a pavilion built of rubble from demolished campus buildings, solid concrete cubes leftover from experiments at the nearby Engineering College, and an earth/sand/cement mixture poured into plasticized sacks (donated by a local fruit and vegetable market) that were sprinkled with water, then pounded into place. (Most of these materials were found as we walked from the bus stop just outside the University of Moratuwa campus to our on-campus construction site.) 14 For the Sri Lankan students, just building was a radical departure from their standard school experiences. For the U.S. students, designing and building in a different country, with persons who (might) speak English as a second language, in a society with its own perspectives regarding the environment, locally available materials, recycling, America and Americans, provided new insights into another local culture. They also were asked to build using only leftover materials found alongside the road as we walked to the construction site. As important, if not more so, each gained insights into his or her own self in relation to the “other,” rethought his or her place in the world, and questioned, fundamentally, how one chooses to engage the world and its people first as a fellow human being, then as architect, planner, or designer.

3.3 Timber Pallet Workshop: Muncie, Indiana, USA (2004)

There are approximately 24.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Countries with the largest IDP populations are Sudan (5.4 million), Colombia (1.7 – 3.6 million), Uganda (2 million), The Democratic Republic of Congo (1.6 million), Iraq (1.3 million) and Turkey (356,000 – over 1 million).15


See “26262625: A Collaborative Project,” in GLUE, vol. 5 (Muncie, IN: Ball State University, 2004), 129-37; and “AIA Indianapolis Presents its Top Ten for 2003,” AIArchitect, (accessed August 1, 2006); and




See “CapAsians ‘Build to Learn’ in Colombo, Sri Lanka,”,,17046--,00.html


“Global Statistics,” Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, OpenDocument&count=1000 (accessed August 1, 2006).

18 CAA Conference, November 26-27, 2006, Dhaka, Bangladesh

In 1999 a proposal by I-Beam Design, submitted to an Architecture for Humanity competition seeking ideas for transitional housing in Kosovo, utilized timber pallets leftover from international relief efforts. I-Beam partners Azin Valy and Suzan Wines imagined that inserting locally available materials -- building rubble and straw -- into pallet cavities would create insulation, privacy, and additional stability. Timber pallets have great upside: they are a pre-built, modular, hollow core building system readily available in many urban settings. In September 2004 Valy and Wines visited Ball State to co-facilitate a four-day workshop with thirtyfive persons from our architecture department, including four faculty members and students from every year of the program. Six timber pallet structures were constructed; each was notable for its unique configuration, relationship to other structures, reliance on hand tools, and detailing system. Built in a public space on campus, the structures stood for one week and were used as temporary classrooms and informal gatherings spots. More importantly, issues regarding disaster relief, alternative building materials and systems, and housing for displaced persons became topics considered across many campus settings.16

3.4 “Catalyzing” a new Kalametiya, Sri Lanka (2005+)

The Sumatra-Andaman earthquake of December 26, 2004 produced the most devastating tsunami in recorded history, a killer that took the lives of 300,000 persons in the Indian Ocean region. 17 In Sri Lanka, an island-nation of 19,000,000 people, nearly 30,000 deaths were recorded, over 80,000 houses were destroyed, and 800,000 persons were displaced.18 When the Indian Ocean tsunami hit south and southeast Asia, Nihal Perera (CapAsia director) and I decided to take the CapAsia IV group to the small Sri Lankan village of Kalametiya where all thirty houses had been destroyed and nine lives lost. The Sri Lankan architect Madhura Prematilleke -who facilitated the Moratuwa pavilions project and visited Ball State University in 2002 -- knew the Kalametiya villagers pre-tsunami and arranged for our participation in building their new houses. We saw our role in Kalametiya as “catalysts” working, for ten days, within the processes of a small group of people who had lost everything. Our first day was spent alongside hundreds of locals, cleaning debris from the nearby lagoon. Then the students worked with the mothers and children to build a safe play area. The next step was to set up a net and use the game of volleyball to rebuild a sense of community. The alliances established through these three activities, which at first glance one might think have little to do with planning or architecture, caused a great sense of camaraderie to emerge. We also took time to sit in their temporary houses. These were miserable dwellings, with no windows, built very near the equator. In addition, the fishing village was moved, by government decree, four kilometers inland. The families, who had lost their boats and nets, were living on a barren piece of land, far from the ocean. As one villager said: “Now we are the dried fish.” Several days later, the CapAsians, alongside local villagers, helped “catalyze” the new permanent village. We did simple jobs: trenching foundations (using mamotties and picks in the hot sun), 16

See “Pallet Workshop,” GLUE, vol. 6 (Muncie, IN: Ball State University, 2005), 5-14; Architecture for Humanity (Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr), eds., Design Like You Give a Damn (New York: Metropolis Books, 2006), 114; and I-Beam Design website: The village was profiled in the January 2005 Wall Street Journal Online article: “Home, for Now: Relief Shelter for Today and Tomorrow” which presented several alternative ideas for post-tsunami housing in south Asia. Also see “Timber Pallet Workshop w/ I-Beam Design” at


Thorne Lay et al., “The Great Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake of 26 December 2004,” Science 308, no. 5725 (2005): 1127-33.


“Emergency Info,” Disaster Management Unit of the Honorable Prime Minister (of Sri Lanka) (accessed August 10, 2006).

Wes Janz

mixing concrete by hand, passing granite rocks and small boulders along lines of students and locals, setting up tents, and participating in their construction rituals. We deferred, always, to their knowledge regarding building, organizing the job site, staking out the houses, even when to take breaks. The experience of putting the hosts at the center of the experience changed the lives not only of the villagers, but of the student participants as well. They became more aware of their responsibilities to others, first as human beings, than as designers.

4 Constructing Knowledge So . . . what sorts of knowledge can be constructed together? To be blunt, such a questions challenges almost every knowledge paradigm offered in our schools, the profession, and society. As such, the five insights listed below are just a beginning and represent the author’s effort to think fundamentally differently about his work and responsibilities as a global citizen and architect. Leftover people build continuously, constantly imagining improvements and additions to whatever structure they create initially. They have a passion for building that should inspire architects--they need to build. Small, “sustainable” structures can be built using recycled building materials gathered within walking distance and assembled without power tools. It can be argued that squatters are some of the world’s leading practitioners of “green” design. As best they can, self-builders implement responses to the Sun and prevailing winds. They have no choice, as sweating or leaving are their options. Leftover people know how to choose the best material for their needs and they not only build with it but they also find the appropriate method to use and build with that material. Settlements are often planned and built that maintain close social relationships among the residents often without invading the privacy of others. The planning and architectures are also flexible; all can be, and in fact, will be changed with time and need.

5 Co-Creators Architects exist in a rarified social and cultural space. With this position comes some responsibility for creating the most complicated and expensive buildings that our societies can create. Still there is much we don’t know and many people that we don’t reach or even have interest in. This is a tragedy. Not only is there great need among the less fortunate, there is knowledge of and energy for the built environment. This is an opportunity that only leftover people can provide. To say that we are interested in co-creating is one thing. To believe it, another. To practice it, yet another. A good first step along this new path, one upon which you and I are sure to stumble and fall and (most importantly) get up, is to ask a squatter, a slum dweller, or a displaced person: “What can you teach me about architecture?” To assume this responsibility may be the most important work each of us can do in our lives as architects. Enjoy the journey.

Consuming Knowledge / Constructing Knowledge  

Wes Janz. Architects, designers, and planners tend to see informal settlers as consumers of our knowledge: we design for them, we teach to t...

Consuming Knowledge / Constructing Knowledge  

Wes Janz. Architects, designers, and planners tend to see informal settlers as consumers of our knowledge: we design for them, we teach to t...