Numbers with New Meaning

By Mary Ann Lazarus FAIA posted 08-08-2014 09:22


Writing in from the International Union of Architects Congress in Durban, South Africa:   The first part of this week’s events is educational with keynotes, academic sessions, workshops, and lots of meet and greet with architects from around the world. It’s been a tremendous opportunity to gain a new perspective on the world and the role of the architect from the southern hemisphere – maybe it’s something about the sun rising in the east and then heading north? Very bizarre.  Anyway, we’ve been hearing a lot of numbers over the past few days, like: 

5% of buildings in the world are designed by architects, 95% are not
1.6 billion people live in slums, or “informal settlements”,  with a predicted 3 billion people in slums by 2030
80 billion square meters of new/renovated buildings by 2050  
1 toilet for every 440 people living in informal settlements in Mumbai 

I’ve heard some of these before – the toilet one is new and scary – but hearing them in this South African context they take on so much more meaning.  We’re not talking about architecture for architects, we’re not talking about starchitects, and we’re not talking about award-winning design projects. No, we’re talking about the role of architects to serve the needs of our local and combined global communities. And the most inspirational and beautiful examples in all respects are from designers who are serving that larger purpose.  These include:

Cameron Sinclair, who shared case studies of beautifully designed, totally passive buildings across the globe
Rahul Mehrotra, whose work in the Indian slums is an inspirational example of how to use design to transform local conditions with great respect.
Francis Kere, whose work in his native Burkina Faso engages an entire village in building the most beautiful structures that promotes education, income, and community. Here’s one example of many for the construction of a school library (apologies for iPhone snapshots):

 Cutting local water jugs  Finished interior (Ronchamps anyone?) 

These designs all share common traits of beauty, being completely  of place through the use of materials and labor and a commitment to serving the local communities, the 95%,  while defining a new way of living and working.  They give hope while at the same time giving a glimpse of what those numbers really mean.