|The Nineth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2007|
Collective Deliberation: Rethinking the Role of the Architect
Marginalized communities in developing countries are confronted with the harsh global reality of socio-economic, political and technological imbalances. My exposure to such problems in my native Sudan was instrumental in shaping my academic interests and pursuits. It has allowed me to consciously pose the often asked, but seldom answered question: "What should the role of the Architect be in addressing the needs of the marginalized?”
While the impacts of rapid global upheaval on the marginalized are many and varied, forced migration is a major problem that continues to affect the lives of many in Sudan. Large parts of the country simultaneously expel and attract communities, thus witnessing phenomenal population flux. Hence, all efforts for development supported by Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), focus on marginalized areas, specifically those affected by war. In response, my aim is to initiate enquiry into ways in which architectural practices can contribute to the building of sustainable, self-sufficient communities.
Sudan largely depends on the rich natural resource base it is endowed with. Nevertheless, development-induced displacement is strongly tied to poor resource management, which has in turn led to exacerbated local conflict and perpetuated poverty. This is characteristic of the setting of the chosen target population: the growing village communities living in and around the Dinder National Park in South-Eastern Sudan.
Established in 1935, the Dinder National Park is one of two designated Biosphere Reserves in Sudan. Covering an area of approximately 650,000 hectares, the Park is shared by three States: Sennar, the Blue Nile, and Gedaref. Representing the tropical savanna and grassland ecosystems, it is a complex of 40 wetlands formed from the seasonal Rahad and Dinder Rivers. The local population is diverse and constitutes settled and nomadic tribes that practice agriculture and pastoralism respectively.
Given the immense strain on diminishing resources, the continued establishment of settlements is cited among the chief threats to the site. There is great potential for conflict between the impoverished pastoralists and farmers, as well as between them and the Wildlife Administration. Therefore, current projects set up by NGOs aim to preserve bio-diversity while empowering the communities living in, and around, the park and enabling them to adopt alternative livelihoods. This is through integrating them and encouraging sustainable utilization and management of the Park’s natural resources.
The population suffers underdevelopment, lacking access to safe drinking water, health and educational facilities: problems I experienced during a comprehensive visit to the area in mid-January 2007. NGOs active there are working with communities to provide development grants for a variety of projects. The funds focus on the alleviation of poverty and illiteracy, provision of basic services, and the empowerment of women. However, one of the major problems is the lack of access to environmentally sustainable energy resources and building materials, which threatens conservation efforts. Thus, one of the core projects funded by Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) - the NGO I accompanied in my visit- is the provision of butane gas cylinders. Several village communities expressed the efficiency of the alternative and how it has reduced their dependence on illegal logging. However, considering its abundance, the use of wood in building construction, and as fuel for brick-burning, will continue unless economically viable, environmentally-friendly alternatives are introduced.
At every village I visited in January, members of the Village Development Committees (VDCs) gathered to discuss the projects underway in their villages. Through my encounters, I steered discussions to the problem of building materials. Ahmed Magzoub, a VDC member, asked me a core question that was the gist of my enquiries: “I’m just a layman and of what I know, architecture is all about permanent grand buildings and high-rises clad with glass. You said you have come to study the buildings here. As you can see, they are very simple, impermanent and constructed of local materials. My question to you is, can our buildings be referred to as architecture?” He and other members of the VDCs stressed the fact that their tradition of building is grounded in the use of locally abundant wood and explicitly stated the need for alternative, low-technology materials and methods that can alleviate the destructive dependence on the park’s natural resources. Yet, while the need has been established, when we speak of enabling people to take up alternatives that still need to be investigated, within what context can the necessary exploration take place?
The communities are currently grappling with their basic needs and working towards fulfilling them through support from NGOs. One could, in response, propose a school, a health clinic or a women’s development center, all projects that are gradually underway. However, the establishment of those projects is currently focusing on setting up the actual institutions, leaving it to the communities to create their setting with readily available technologies. Yet, the Park represents the communities’ shared concerns, which has disturbed their traditional social structures and will bring them together in facing the growing challenge of future tourism development. Given this inevitable confrontation, what kind of intervention needs to be advocated?
Despite its potentially negative impacts, I believe ecotourism can provide the much-needed base for economic and environmental revitalization. Due to current lack of amenities, there have been no incentives for tourist-related development. In an attempt to solve the problem, a few units for tourists were constructed that explored materials such as stabilized earth blocks and ferro-cement. However, post-occupancy studies proved they were not very successful. But as the currently nonexistent infrastructure is gradually introduced, we will be dealing with an area of unavoidable interaction between the ecotourist and the villager attempting to secure basic sustenance. How can we creatively facilitate a successful integration of those two traditionally opposing notions to mitigate the potential negative consequences? This poses a design challenge in a context characterized by paramount cultural and environmental sensitivity, necessitating the consideration of local values and practices. In response, my proposed contribution is an investigative design/build project for the construction of a number of self-sufficient tourist lodging units, to be built and run by the village communities.
Through the investigation and utilization of appropriate construction materials and methods, newly constructed units can serve as prototypes for future development. The current lodgings are located at Galagu Camp, which lies at the heart of the Park. Their relocation closer to the communities at the Park’s entrances from each of the three states will help reduce the ecologically destructive footprint of tourists, and can lead to rethinking ecotourism as a potential tool for change.
Ecotourism development, similar to biodiversity conservation, can only be beneficial to the local communities if it is based on self-realization. The new setting can promote an awareness of the severe problems of the marginalized and bring tourists on equal footing with them. It can foster an appreciation of human cultural diversity, and hopefully encourage tourists to become active contributors to their hosts. Three, small-scale, locally owned and operated tourist camps can be set up on appropriate sites at the Park’s entrances: Al Suneit for Sennar, Umm Al-Kheir for Gedaref, and Roseiris for the Blue Nile State. VDC members can be brought together to discuss this challenge and participate in developing their own models of tourist development. Contrary to the destructiveness characterizing existing forms, this will facilitate the creation of local alternatives that can avoid the potential hegemony of wealthy businessmen and the consequent relegation of the locals to the fringes. Ultimately, this project can promote the improvement of public, educational and health services, which when creatively coupled with current conservation efforts, can contribute to building a sustainable community that depends on renewable energy and discourages consumption and pollution.
What kind of architecture will it be?
Huts are the traditional forms prevalent throughout the area. They are characterized by variety, as seen in the different combinations of naturally available unprocessed wood, thatch and mud. While the culture is grounded in its building tradition, it also demonstrates an ability to adapt to renewed needs. This aspect can be touched upon in innovative techniques such as the use of flattened metal barrels as cladding over wood-framed units, and stripped lengths of car tires as jointing material.
However, the architecture, just like the materials it is made from, is ephemeral. This can be attributed to the natural cycle of transience characterizing the Dinder area, represented in seasonal transformations in the ecological setting across the dry and wet seasons. In a process that is harmonious with the area’s order of nature, the buildings of the village communities are repetitively replaced at changing intervals, owing to seasonal floods between May and November as well as attack by termites. Although the communities have managed to come up with solutions such as the weaving of thatch into mats to undermine attack by termites, the quality of temporality effectively complements their need to occasionally shift the setting of their homes, and sometimes villages, to adapt to changes in the environment, as well as the larger socio-economic forces behind migration. All attempts to set up buildings using permanent components, such as bricks, are extremely expensive ventures that have mainly proved unsuccessful due to heavy rain, the lack of efficient transportation routes, and the prevalence of black cotton soil in the Dinder area. Failure to consider the nature of the area and the focus on permanence has prohibited the development of contemporary architectural responses based on cyclical transformations.
The aim of the proposed project is to establish an architecture that is an expression of community. To do so, the design activity needs to take into consideration the mechanisms that characterize everyday life. The nature of this architecture is presently anonymous, but to be intelligent, perhaps it needs to be ephemeral. Such architecture can provide a means of habitation in a given time and place, but is also capable of being transformed, adapted and recreated as it interacts with ongoing socio-cultural changes amidst shifting settings. Such form, while pragmatic, can inspire us to reflect upon the natural and forced migration of communities and the dynamics of population flux.
A consideration of alternative materials and methods can be informed by the complex relationships between form, structure and climate. The technologies should be low-tech for the local population to easily adopt. Given the current difficulty of accessing the area, the materials should be independent of external resources in addition to being resistant to termites. Although transient, the quality of the architecture need not be poor. A potential solution could be to consider buildings made of materials that last as long as the components of permanent structures. So, while the function of the buildings is seasonally interrupted, they continue in place, becoming temporarily affiliated to another pattern of use. Alternatively, the buildings may be dedicated to use on several locations. If such architecture can be developed, it can effectively serve as prototype for use by the village communities.
Many materials can be investigated as alternatives. The project proposal referred to bamboo, which, owing to its many inherent qualities, is finding renewed interest worldwide. It is an important non-timber forest product that can be easily cultivated and grows rapidly. In Sudan there are two types of indigenous bamboo, one of which is Oxytenanthera Abyssinicia, found in the Ingassana area of the Blue Nile State just south of the Park. This species of bamboo is mainly used as a secondary framing element along with wood, thatch and occassionally mud. Its use can be explored beyond current rudimentary applications. Nevertheless, my recent visit to the site, and an in-depth study of present forms, has radically altered my perceptions and revealed the limitations in confining investigation to bamboo. Although the full range of materials and technologies have not yet been determined, I have refined the significant questions and would like to further develop them with BaSiC Initiative, my chosen partner.
Upon researching the teams, I had narrowed my options down to two: INBAR and BaSiC Initiative. I initially chose INBAR with the hope that Sudan would become the 14th African member country to benefit from partnership in the development of the bamboo-housing sector. However, after visiting the area and exploring materials and availability, I believe the involvement of BaSiC Initiative would be more responsive to the needs of the communities.
Through the Global Communities program, BaSiC Initiative addresses the challenges and urgent physical needs of marginalized communities. In concordance with my proposed project, their program seeks to spur self-initiated development. By drawing upon the relationship of communities to their environment, they find solutions that embrace appropriate technologies while reinforcing local values. Acknowledging the importance of multidisciplinary input in the advocacy of socially significant architecture, their sought solutions are long-term and move beyond the propositions of individual disciplines. They assist communities at mobilizing indigenous resources to develop sustainable practices that provide new possibilities of living ecologically. Their design solutions tend to be holistic, addressing energy, water and waste concerns. Establishing an alliance between the Village Communities and the BaSiC Initiative will enable them to benefit from the untapped potential of such global collaboration.
By partnering with BaSiC Initiative, a Global Studio can be organized in the Dinder Area. Being an unfamiliar destination, it will pose an immense challenge for participating students. Yet, their remarkable ability to handle this challenge as evidenced in projects such as the U.S. Pavilion in Auroville, India, and the Urban Agricultural Center in Havanna, Cuba, makes me confident that they can help. My knowledge of the area, connection to individuals affiliated with it and fluency in the local language will hopefully facilitate a fruitful understanding of the context by team members. Through negotiation with the VDCs, we can attempt to collectively come to terms with the communities’ concerns and the range of resources available to us at the onset of the design/build process. Such collaboration will present the first attempt to test the success of the project by bringing together people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. The prevailing sense of alienation that was instigated amongst the locals with the designation of the Park can be transformed into an attempt to make the Park their valued possession. The experience and capacity that can be gained through the design/build process can harness a mutual appreciation of the ecosystem amongst all parties involved and promote a shared understanding of environmentally sustainable forms of behavior.
Global Studio broadens the traditional models of architectural education by embracing fieldwork. Sudan has a lot to learn from such model. Tackling hypothetical design problems within the confines of the design studio can be exchanged for the encouragement of advocacy, engagement, partnership and deliberation in the realm of real world. In an act to initiate necessary change, students from Schools of Architecture in Sudan can work hand in hand with the team members of Global Studio. Indeed, this is not only an attempt to rethink – in order to reinvent – the role of ecotourism for marginalized communities, but also the role of the Architect in promoting sustainable development in Sudan.
Palleroni, S. (2004). Studio At Large: Architecture in Service of Global Communities. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
McLaren, D. (2003). Rethinking Tourism & Ecotravel. Connecticut: Kumarian Press.
Kronenburg, R. (1998). Ephemeral Architecture. Architectural Design, 68 (135), 7-9
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