My architectural practice is deeply connected to my research work—I write on the basis of lessons learned from what I encounter as a practitioner. Both are in turn deeply connected to my teaching in the loop described above. The question of the role of learning is the common thread that unites the three. I am deeply invested in challenging a key assumption regarding the issue of learning in professional architectural practice. In architecture school we are taught that architects must educate their clients in what is more convenient for the latter—that architects know better is almost a mantra in architectural practice. In response to this architect-as-educator dictum I ask instead, how about the architect as a learner?
Although my main clients are organizations that provide funding for very low-income people to have access to housing (especially indigenous rural villagers from Latin American and Caribbean countries), ultimately however the clients are the villagers themselves. In my view, and this is what I convey to the founding clients, villagers should be the ultimate agents with respect to deciding how they want their housing to be.
Thus, I pursue the goal of removing myself from a position of educating the other, which is a position of power, and instead aim to learn from and with others, in a general spirit of education as a shared experience and a conversation of equals—education as the ultimate act of democracy. This poses a personal challenge because it means doing away with deeply ingrained notions about the role of the architect.
The results, however, are quite fascinating. One example is the Guyana Hinterland Housing project. This project started in 2009 as a housing project catering to over two hundred indigenous Guyanese families mostly from the Arawak and Macushi ethnicities. Later on, the project was expanded to also families from the Wapishana and other ethnicities. Historically speaking, these indigenous groups constitute the poorest in the country overall. From the beginning I proposed that this project be carried out as much as possible by villagers themselves, limiting my involvement as the project’s designer to being a facilitator and an advocate of locally driven processes by which people would start to reclaim their autonomy over their living conditions. This was a conscious statement in response to popular architect-centered and ego-bound approaches to working with underprivileged communities.
The main premise of this project was to carry out an architectural intervention that placed the highest value on human agency. That is, an architectural intervention that would be dictated by the villagers’ own terms, even in instances in which their terms did not agree with architectural design wisdom. For example, at some point in the community design process I believed certain design decisions that villagers were making might not work from a climate comfort perspective. These were for instance decisions regarding the height and roof pitch of their houses. We were expected to build with tin roofing because of affordability issues, but also, and more importantly, because the villagers did prefer this material over their traditional materials. However, the immediate concern in architectural terms when using metal roofing in the tropics is that this material increases the temperature inside the house.
Considering that, I mentioned passive design solutions such as raising the roof by building taller walls and also increasing the roof pitch. Yet, villagers found that proposal a bit too excessivefor their personal taste; they did want a conventional house form—not too architectural so to speak, not too highly designed. In their search for conventionalism, they seemingly downplayed my concerns about the temperature inside the house.
Motivated by respecting their decisions but also with great interest in learning, I supported their decision regarding the walls and roof. Very surprisingly, temperature-wise the prototype house turned out to be quite comfortable. As villagers kept those conventional features, they were also careful to orient the house towards the predominant breeze, and had located enough doors and windows for the structure to actually attract a fresh breeze that would ensure that the house would be still comfortable inside. This challenged professional wisdom about climate conditioning vis-à-vis materials and dimensions, and made me realize how in architectural practice we canfall into thinkingin terms of the parts (height or pitch in this case), while missing the whole, or how these parts come together and interact. Our thinking as designers is that each separate part must work perfectly, but this could be an over-expectation in some cases. The whole might work efficiently, even when isolated parts might not work.
This is an example of the lessons that I learn from an architectural practice that is based on learning from others more than engaging on the grand project of educating them. Ultimately, the beauty I look for in architecture is the beauty of mutual learning. With that, it is the beauty of mutual understanding.