by Architecture in Development (visit profile page), 12 January 2021
Why the new Do-It-Together architecture has radical potential
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Around the world, a new generation of architects are challenging “business-as-usual” and bringing change to populations who had formerly no access to their professional services. This article is the first in a series to introduce this new practice that brings transactional client relations into more profound, trust-based collaborations. We call it Do-It-Together architecture.



Vernacular architecture: traditional dwellings in China. Image by martin ruthai
from Pixabay

For centuries, dwellings and gathering spaces were mostly built by inhabitants without the involvement of architects or building professionals. These building activities, often referred to as vernacular architecture [1], rely on locally available capacities and affordable resources. Under these constraints, self builders often had to mobilise personal networks, apply local materials and building techniques and most importantly, engage family and neighbours building together. Today these Do-It-Together practices still continue all over the world, bringing people and communities closer together and connecting them to a shared heritage and place. 

 


Vernacular architecture, self-built dwellings in Mumbai, India ©Prathamesh Jagdish Naik

In the last century, modern building knowledge, techniques and mass-produced industrial materials have dominated the production of space. In the meantime, an increasing number of people have received standard training, qualified and have been welcomed to the world of professionals. Just as any modern society of efficiency, the world of professional architecture is organised by clear roles and responsibilities - clients, designers, advisors, managers, and contractors who collaborate according to contracts and financial means.

Today, professional and vernacular architecture seem like two arrows moving away in opposite directions. Professional architecture develops into different specialisations, as they become more and more specific, they move further away from the ordinary needs of people. As Paul Polak once stated, 90% of the world’s designers spent all of their time addressing the needs of the richest 10% of the world’s customers. Even though the global poverty rate has since dropped, that ratio hasn’t changed much. The majority of trained professional architects continue to serve mainly the privileged few.


La Potocine, Bolívar, Bogotá, Colombia. Arquitectura Expandida + Ojo al Sancocho who invite communities to self-build around neglected space ©arquitectura expandida

 

There have been quite a few architects and professionals who endeavored to make changes happen. In recent decades, Architecture for Humanity and Design With The Other 90% Network have certainly paved the way for humanitarian architecture; the Curry Stone Foundation and the Aga Khan foundation’s award and advocacy have continued to bring new social practices to public attention. Architecture in Development, our own platform, has further spread the knowledge of these social practices and nurtured a global network of professionals looking for collaboration opportunities.

Today more students, graduates and practitioners are inclined to roll up their sleeves and participate in local communities’ building practices. For the past ten years, we’ve seen a new Do-It-Together (DIT) architecture emerging from Ecuador to the UK, from the Netherlands to India, and in many other corners of the world. Led by uncompromised architects, often multidisciplinary collectives, DIT architecture keeps growing its network of like-minded architects. So what’s behind the shift?

For a decade, social, crowdsourcing, funding and collaboration platforms have flourished in the field of architecture, enabling more user-generated content and increasing user participation. Digital technology not only provides new, online infrastructures but also inspires new ways of learning, collaboration and organisation [1]. The new Do-It-Together architecture unlocks expertise and resources that were inaccessible in the case of centuries old vernacular practices. Besides its fluid social networks, DIT architecture challenges the existing system and creates new conditions for collaborations, conditions that:

  • Break open the classical designer-client relation: rather than acting within the boundaries of the current business model, why not participate in communities’ building efforts and discover new ways of adding value?
  • Subvert the producer-consumer hierarchy: if communities can not afford the market price, why not shift our resources and responsibilities? Replace contractors with community builders (and join the construction ourselves!!), replace industrial with locally sourced materials and replace consultants with partners aligned with our cause?
  • Shift from global to local, from big to small: rather than traveling to remote villages, why not also learn about the legacy and challenges of your local communities? Why not contribute to feasible and tangible projects around the corner than the abstract, mega projects on the other side of the world?

 


Al Borde's working etho is to participate in the ongoing building efforts of local communities. Image shows the local community and architects in an workshop of Esperanza School, Ecuador ©Al Borde


DIT architecture provides a testing ground where modern meets grassroots, formal meets vernacular, professionals meet self-builders. People bring different skill sets, sociocultural backgrounds, and life experiences together on a physical site. Confronted with major social, humanitarian and ecological challenges in a rapidly globalizing world, Do-It-Together might be a reason and answer for those searching for new meanings and values of togetherness and a sense of place.


Partners pays-Dogon has built more than 20 schools in the Region of Mopti an the Dogon, fostering the development of local leadership and resilience. Image shows the building process of Primary School Tanouan Ibi, Mopti, Mali ©Partners pays-Dogon


But can DIT architecture be scaled up to influence not only rural but also urban communities? Can scalable DIT architecture tackle the pressing social and ecological challenges of our time?

One possible answer would be to adopt a systemic approach to pull together larger numbers of diversified talents, skills and resources in one place. This is why we are taking Architecture in Development to the next level, establishing the digital infrastructure to facilitate collaboration between self-builders, professionals, NGOs, companies and local governments. Actors that would otherwise be invisible to each other and have no access to each other’s knowledge and resources.

In the next article, we’ll explore the characteristics that define DIT architecture through real examples, that have brought radical change to populations who had formally no access to professional services.

 

Footnote:

[1] vernacular architecture is a loaded term and in the architectural discourses where the main concern is often about how and what, but hardly about why. Here we want to put more emphasis on the intention and process of vernacular architecture instead of only about its aesthetics.

[2] 'open source architecture' 'wikiHouse'  'crowdsourcing architecture' are examples demonstrating new operational models inspired by digital technology; a rise of new 'participatory design' 'community design' have possibly been triggered by the digitalised co-creation process.