Winning Ways

Winning Ways

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011

Since Architecture for Humanity first made its mark in 1999 with a competition to design transitional housing for returning refugees in Kosovo, it has used designers’ competitive streaks to its advantage. Its competitions have produced the ultimate mobile health clinic for AIDS victims in Sub-Saharan Africa, a factory to connect indigenous chocolate producers in the Ecuadorian Amazon with the global marketplace, and many more. Each competition has garnered fame and funding, showing in travelling exhibitions and drawing a range of panellists, from architect Frank Gehry to actor Cameron Diaz. The blueprints are uploaded on the Open Architecture Network (www.openarchitecturenetwork.org ) for use across the world, while the winning prototype is funded and built.

This may present an interesting challenge for the 2011 competition, which will ask architects to repurpose disused military installations for civic use. “They’re built with tax payers’ money – really well built – and just end up sitting there,” says executive director Cameron Sinclair. “These buildings can withstand natural disasters, and last a long, long time.” Finding such buildings could prove the first hurdle since, due to national security efforts, they are rarely plotted publicly; the second problem could be securing permission. Yet Sinclair and his team tend to enjoy a good challenge themselves, even the politically-flavoured ones; in Gaza, for example, where Palestinian dwellings are often demolished by Israeli forces, they once agreed to write a manual on how to rebuild one’s house, should ‘something’ happen to it. “We’re not a faith based or politically led organisation; we can work with anyone who invites us,“ says Sinclair. “We just have to keep our focus on the architecture. But I’m interested to see if anyone picks Guantanamo. The government are aware of this project, so we’ll see…”

Manor in the works

Manor in the works

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 4 March 2011

Philosopher Alain de Botton is bent on revitalising British ‘comfort’ architecture [See PDF: Alain de Botton ]

For those who live in it, and visit it, British architecture is a wellspring of nostalgia. Spare a thought for the landscape here and you will likely envisage Georgian manor houses amid rolling hills, or perhaps the sooty brick-and-mortar of Sherlock Holmes’ London. And while this has long been good news for the tourist board, for writer and popular philosopher Alain de Botton, it is an endless source of frustration.

“Liking modern architecture is a kind of sect here,” the Swiss-born de Botton complains from a cosy brickbound office in north London. “It’s like witchcraft, or something slightly unusual. Because Britain industrialised so fast there’s a tremendous desire for history. But there’s a reason things become history.”

As a writer, long based in England, de Botton has dedicated himself to reforming the public understanding of vital themes. His books have addressed love, travel and, most recently, work, and he cofounded a small “cultural apothecary” in London, The School of Life, which sells books and holds philosophy workshops and secular Sunday “sermons” on selfdevelopment.

His successful 2006 book, The Architecture of Happiness, ran in a similarly edifying vein and won him kudos from the Royal Institute of British Architects. Yet when it came to architecture, he felt compelled towards a more dynamic form of activism. The feeling grew as he explored forward-thinking home design across the world for the television series, The Perfect Home. “You find very good modernism in Asia. There are some beautiful examples of private houses, blocks of flats and civic building across China and Hong Kong; think of the Great Wall project, which has been iconic,” he says, referring to the Commune by the Great Wall project–12 strikingly modern villa projects designed by 12 Asian architects. He notes that China’s flirtation with Western historical cliché seems to be fading finally as its top earners appreciate the way that homegrown architects can mix elements of Chinese geography and geology with new international ideas.

In Japan, de Botton finds that many middle-class families are comfortable using modern architects, producing neighbourhoods that are adventurous but have a shared aesthetic. It’s a spirit that he identifies from his upbringing in Switzerland, but which he finds hard to locate among England’s suburban mock-Tudor housing estates. “The point is, when you’ve got an opportunity to build a house or stay somewhere, do you go for the ‘neowhatever’ mansion?” he asks. “Or do you accept that the architecture of our own times can have many of the qualities that people admire in buildings of old, like a sensory richness, a warmth, a connection with history, but they don’t have to be museum pieces or kitsch?”

De Botton’s brainchild, Living Architecture, is an apt response to this question. The new, not-forprofit venture will see provocative modern holiday cottages sprouting bravely among Britain’s mostly rural beauty spots. Three projects are complete and at least three more are on the way, each by a different architect, and each defined by the customary tenets of good modern architecture such as light, functionality and a strong connection with the surroundings.

The scheme is part vacation, part education, and through it de Botton hopes to ease what he sees as the public’s suspicion of modernist design, and drum up the kind of popular support enjoyed by other fields of design innovation in Britain, such as product design or fashion.

Yet this is not a project for Britons only. “It’s a national mission in the sense that the idea is to raise standards here, but we’re aware that the way to raise the standards is to bring foreign architects here, at least in part,” he says, noting that as developers in Britain court the British fondness for home-grown “comfort” architecture, they leave little room for studios with strong modernist architectural traditions, such as those in Germany, the Netherlands and further north in Europe.

De Botton also sees the cottages helping to refresh Britain’s image overseas, by letting holidaymakers immerse themselves in the countryside without necessarily taking a trip back in time or compromising on quality. “People are used to London being hip, cool and modern, but once you go outside of the M25 [London’s orbital motorway] you’re slightly in the wilderness,” he says. “We hope these houses will be clear and welcoming in a way that international audiences can appreciate.”

Yet despite these cosmopolitan sensibilities, most of the projects rework the unique architectural style of their area. The Shingle House, by Scotland’s Nord Architecture, is a stark reinvention of fishermen’s huts along the stony Kent coast, while the Dune House in Suffolk by the Norwegian Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects makes reference to local seaside buildings with a geometrical roof in tinted orange steel alloy. Projecting into the air above a Suffolk nature reserve, the Balancing Barn is a neat yet gravity-defying affair clad in reflective tiles, but features a local hammerbeam roof, and coming to Devon next year, Peter Zumthor’s Secular Retreat will attempt to use concrete and glass to spiritual effect, creating the vibe of a monastery or abbey.

But how have the British responded? Although the national media have retained their usual blend of hype and high-handed sting, local press coverage has been generally supportive. It’s a result, de Botton thinks, of striking the right balance between exciting and accessible design. “We haven’t had any fights with any locals,” he says, with a smile. “The house in Thorpeness [the Dune House] is very prominent and has really galvanised the area. People are coming forward and wanting to build their own houses. It’s become a complete talking point, which is exactly what we wanted.” It is also booked almost solid for the next six months.

Living Architecture has taken a brief hiatus from the countryside with its latest, equally radical project, though it is perhaps more publicity friendly than educational. Its Room for London will perch atop the city’s Southbank Centre for the whole of next year as part of the London 2012 Festival, which is a 12- week cultural event to celebrate the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Bookable from September for one night only per couple, the collaboration between competition winners David Kohn Architects and artist Fiona Banner will resemble a timber boat and offer sweeping views of the London landscape. And this is a view to which de Botton’s allegiance remains strong, despite his wider mission. “I think where Asia has learned the wrong lesson is not so much in architecture, but urban planning. They’re essentially working with a model about 40 years out of date,” he says. “Large arterial motorways connect districts, big shed shopping, high rises and parks all zoned separately as opposed to low rise, intermixed work and residential, which are ecological but also where people feel most comfortable.” Of course, this notion of comfort, as many will point out, is at the crux of the equation, and the heart of de Botton’s self-set challenge with Living Architecture. For many, true comfort, and thus true happiness, lies in echoes of the home they grew up in, or perhaps the house they idolised as a child, whether modernist or Gothic, airy or dim.

De Botton, who was raised in a “charming” but “brutalist” modernist block of apartments, recognises the paradox. “I think we picked a good moment. I think attitudes are changing, and will continue to change as more people have childhoods in modern houses,” he
says. “You’ve just got to get the babies in!”

BOX: How Life Inspires Architecture and Vice Versa

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton is no coffee-table tome. Compact and with its pictures in black and white, it feels as though it was meant to be read. De Botton’s sixth book is a conversational journey through humankind’s sculpting of space, from its cathedrals to its living rooms; from ancient Rome to Nazi Germany. Inspired by French writer Henri Stendhal’s declaration that “beauty is the promise of happiness”, as well as his own emotional ties to certain building types, de Botton explores the ways that life inspires architecture, and vice versa. He unfurls the meaning in symbols and silhouettes, and venerates architects for the way they harness universal themes. Yet he also humanises a few heroes with the forgotten tales of their failures, including the self-indulgent tragedy that Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye was for the family who had to live in it (the Swiss architect barely escaped a lawsuit). The book delves into the sociology of trends and the psychology of taste; why it was that 17th-century French aristocrats loved gilded ceilings, yet 21stcentury urbanites like theirs rough and unplastered. But he is also keen to convince us of architecture’s main line to the soul, to illustrate how the beauty of a building can reduce us to tears, and to explain why, if it hasn’t yet, it should do.

This exploration into architecture is no coffee-table tome. Small in size and with its pictures in black and white, one gets the sense that it was meant to be read. ** De Botton’s sixth book is a conversational journey through humankind’s sculpting of space, from its cathedrals to its living rooms; from Ancient Rome to Nazi Germany. Inspired by French writer Henri B. Stendhal’s declaration that “beauty is the promise of happiness”, as well as his own emotional ties to certain building types, de Botton explores the ways that life inspires architecture, and vice versa. He unfurls the meaning in symbols and silhouettes, and venerates architects for the way they harness universal themes. Yet he also humanises a few heroes with the forgotten tales of their failures, including the self-indulgent tragedy that Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye was for the family who had to live in it (the architect barely escaped a lawsuit). The book delves into the sociology of trends and the psychology of taste; why it was that seventeenth-century French aristocrats loved gilded ceilings, yet twenty-first century urbanites like theirs rough and unplastered. But he is also keen to convince us of architecture’s mainline to the very soul, to illustrate how the beauty of a building can reduce us to tears, and to explain why, if it hasn’t yet, it should do. His peers seem to think that he did a fair job of it. Due to the book de Botton was made an honouray fellow by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2010 for his services to the profession.

Hit the Ground Running

Hit the Ground Running

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011

A humanitarian design group is redefining crisis response across the globe, writes Jo Baker. [See PDF: AFH 2011]

Twelve years ago a designer caught in a disaster zone might have been at rather a loss at how to pitch in; but when the quakes hit Japan last month it took very little time for the architects to rally. There were readymade chapters in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto with access to a global network of nearly 5,000 volunteer design professionals, a template for crisis response, and an online bank of designs, all relevant to post-crisis reconstruction and free for the download. And joining all these dots was the only international humanitarian-oriented organization to have pioneered design as a tool to fight disaster: Architecture for Humanity (AFH). Throughout the last month AFH has been working to link the Japan Institute of Architects (JIA) and professional building associations with designers and funders across the world as they start the long rebuild of safe, sustainable housing and community structures; just as it has done before in Christchurch, and before that in northern Pakistan, in coastal Sri Lanka, in New Orleans, and numerous other trouble spots across the globe.

Yet twelve years ago AFH founder Cameron Sinclair had been one of those lost designers himself.  Disappointed by an industry awash with slick branding and star-struck developers, he wanted to explore the ‘re-humanising’ of architecture, and to try and apply good design principles to communities in the tradition of  legendary but long-gone modernists like Swiss architect, Le Corbusier. By 2005 Sinclair and his wife, journalist Kate Stohr, based in the States, had managed to convince hundreds of architects to donate designs for mobile health clinics, transitional houses, and for sports centres that doubled as HIV outreach clinics across the globe. By 2007 these were uploaded onto an online Open Architecture Network for anyone to use for non-profit work, anywhere in the world; and designers were devising schools made of bottles, homes out of straw bricks; there was even an ‘origami homeless shelter’ made out of a single sheet by architecture student Yossi Steinberger for victims of the Sichuan earthquake (as seen on You Tube). It was the materialization of Sinclair’s mission to “design without ego”, and a challenge to the idea that any prefabricated solution can be lumped upon people hit by crisis or extreme poverty. “The idea of using adaptation as opposed to repetition was a really big shift: saying, different neighbourhoods have different issues, adapt the building to that,” explains Sinclair.  “With an architect you can create something the community wants, rather than something they just get given.”

But although the AFH reach was expanding, with local chapters springing up from Detroit to Dhaka, Sinclair found that it had little control over the finished products. “We were doing everything right: the projects would be thoughtful, with integrated stakeholders, used the right materials and technologies,“ he recalls. “Then we’d hand it off and they’d just build crap.” So a few years ago AFH moved into construction management, and started to self fund. It sets up community advice centres, gives free design advice and creates programmes to boost construction standards by training local designers, masons and metalworkers. Soon, NGOs from Oxfam to Save the Children started asking to partner, as did Oprah, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Nike and The International Federation of Association Football – FIFA. In just over a decade AFH transitioned from a US$60,000 design services firm to a now, roughly US$6 million global powerhouse.

Yet in a large world with innumerable crises it is still necessary to pick and choose projects. Enter ‘urban acupuncture’: the rather slick-sounding strategy that directs the AFH focus on small-scale building projects, in a bid to knit torn communities together, and produce a ripple-effect of opportunity and change. In 2010 a London-based AFH architect, Susi Jane Platt, was shortlisted for one of the highest honours in the architectural world, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, for just such a project: a modest little village school in Sri Lanka set between a fishing village and a reservoir. Platt’s Yodakandiya Community Complex had not only moulded itself to the needs of the community around it – including built-in deterrents for rampaging elephants – but had done so via community meetings and training sessions that involved hundreds of villagers in its design and construction; Platt herself spent two years living there. This project also gave Sinclair another good reason to focus on schools: plagiarism. “The school in many instances is a 24-hour building, the heart of the community,” he says. “If we can improve design and construction quality in those schools, people will steal the best ideas locally.  It’s like open sourcing!” When designers returned to Yodakandiya after a few years they found that most of the homes around the facility had been influenced by its design, whether in the roof details, or the ventilation and rain-water catchment systems.

These projects also aim to go beyond local communities. According to Sinclair the organisation’s most dedicated core of global support is under eighteen years-old. The recent Students Rebuild: Haiti campaign rallied students and teachers around the globe in efforts to rebuild safer schools in the country. While much of the world may be looking elsewhere now, “high school kids are really the engine that is keeping us in Haiti,” he says. “We’re a fun organisation: donate 50 bucks and there’s a physical structure that you get out of it.”

Both concepts have influenced the AFH approach in Japan. While its head office has worked to raise funds for reconstruction and assessment efforts with the JIA, before starting to identify small scale building projects to work on, Students Rebuild and Do Something.org started to secure funding via the Bezos Family Foundation, which pledged $2 for every paper crane that was sent to them. A woven art installation will be created from the first 100,000 cranes, and will be sent to Japan as a symbolic gift from students across the world. Meanwhile in Christchurch AFH is doing the same: financially contributing to larger scale reconstruction while working with local chapters to find those who might have fallen through the cracks, such as indigenous community groups. It has not been as easy to secure funding for such a developed country, says Sinclair, but as he notes, “earthquakes don’t discriminate,” so neither do they.

In between the disaster calls, many AFH projects are attempting to restore dignity or cohesion to struggling communities through design. In China the Shanghai chapter is working with Compassion for Migrant Children to design educational facilities, while in the Philippines an entire school has been made out of discarded glass bottles.  Other architects are helping the social enterprise, Lulan Artisans, to create off-the-grid weaving centres in rural communities across South East Asia. Nike and FIFA recently become involved in response to AFH’s innovative ‘sports for social change’ facilities, which double as headquarters for local NGOs to tackle issues such as conflict resolution and HIV, from neighbourhoods in Afghanistan to Brazil.

For architects, the organization has been a chance to step up in a way rarely associated with the profession. In Pakistan during the floods, designers of a sluggish Karachi chapter woke up, flew into the Swat Valley and had helped clear 1,500 homes using the post-disaster recovery template, before the head office even knew about it.  Such professional interludes can be rewarding, but also importantly as Sinclair notes, humbling. “What an architect can’t do is go to a community and think they’re going to impose a solution… When you marry an international designer with a local designer – that’s when real magic happens,” he says. “You’re not only going to learn a new way of working, but learn how to work with a community who’s lost everything. That’s not something you learn at school.”

BOX: Winning Ways

Since Architecture for Humanity first made its mark in 1999 with a competition to design transitional housing for returning refugees in Kosovo, it has used designers’ competitive streaks to its advantage. Its competitions have produced the ultimate mobile health clinic for AIDS victims in Sub-Saharan Africa, a factory to connect indigenous chocolate producers in the Ecuadorian Amazon with the global marketplace, and many more. Each competition has garnered fame and funding, showing in travelling exhibitions and drawing a range of panellists, from architect Frank Gehry to actor Cameron Diaz. The blueprints are uploaded on the Open Architecture Network (www.openarchitecturenetwork.org ) for use across the world, while the winning prototype is funded and built.

This may present an interesting challenge for the 2011 competition, which will ask architects to repurpose disused military installations for civic use. “They’re built with tax payers’ money – really well built – and just end up sitting there,” says executive director Cameron Sinclair. “These buildings can withstand natural disasters, and last a long, long time.” Finding such buildings could prove the first hurdle since, due to national security efforts, they are rarely plotted publicly; the second problem could be securing permission. Yet Sinclair and his team tend to enjoy a good challenge themselves, even the politically-flavoured ones; in Gaza, for example, where Palestinian dwellings are often demolished by Israeli forces, they once agreed to write a manual on how to rebuild one’s house, should ‘something’ happen to it. “We’re not a faith based or politically led organisation; we can work with anyone who invites us,“ says Sinclair. “We just have to keep our focus on the architecture. But I’m interested to see if anyone picks Guantanamo. The government are aware of this project, so we’ll see…”

 

Publications

Publications

Human rights, law and development

Online

The Asia Sentinel, Hong Kong: www.asiasentinel.com
The Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong: www.humanrights.asia
The Historical Justice and Memory Research Network at the at The Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Australia: www.historicaljusticeandmemorynetwork.ne
DIGNITY – The Danish Institute Against Torture, Copenhagen: www.dignityinstitute.dk
Human Rights Monitor Quarterly for the International Service for Human Rights, Geneva: www.ishr.ch
Groundviews, Sri Lanka: www.groundviews.org
The Guardian, London: www.guardian.co.uk
Open Democracy, London: www.opendemocracy.net
Oxford Human Rights Hub, Oxford: ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk
Penal Reform International, London: www.penalreform.org/blog
The Social Science Research Network: www.ssrn.com
Say-NO-UNiTE (UN Portal): http://saynotoviolence.org/
University of Essex Human Rights Centre Blog, blogs.essex.ac.uk/hrc
UN Women: www.unwomen.org

Books, Journals, Reports and Newspapers

Article 2, Hong Kong
Criminal Law Reform and Transitional Justice: Human Rights Perspectives for Sudan, (as sub-editor), Ed. Lutz Oette of the Redress Trust, UK
DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, Publication Series on Torture and Organised Violence (Report), www.dignityinstitute.org
Ethics in Action, Hong Kong
The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
The International Crisis Group (Reports), Brussels
The Inter Press Service, Rome
The International Service for Human Rights (Report), Geneva
The Law and Society Trust Review (Legal study), Sri Lanka
Oxford University Press, Global Perspectives on Human Rights (2nd ed, OxHRH 2015)
The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

 

Design, culture, travel

Online

Architecture Week: www.architectureweek.com
Smart Travel Asia: www.smarttravelasia.com
Time Magazine: www.time.com

Books and Guides

Fodor’s Guide to Hong Kong 2011; Shopping chapter, USA
BC Restaurant Guide 2006 (Contributor), Hong Kong
BC Restaurant Guide 2006 (Contributor), Hong Kong
Bradmans Asia Guide; Hong Kong, 2005, UK
Oasis: Artists’ Studios in Hong Kong Vol 2 (Sub-editor), Hong Kong

Magazines and Newspapers

Abenteuer und Reisen, Germany
Discovery Magazine, Hong Kong
Finance Asia, Hong Kong
First Magazine, Hong Kong
Hospitality Design, USA
Hospitality Architecture + Design, Hong Kong/USA
Home Journal, Hong Kong
Hinge Magazine, Hong Kong
Gafencu Men, Hong Kong
Marie Claire, USA
Nirvana Magazine, USA
Perspective Magazine, Hong Kong
Prestige Magazine, Hong Kong
ProDesign, New Zealand
Sands Style, Hong Kong
Tatler Magazine, Hong Kong
Tatler Magazine, Macau
Tri-valley Magazine, USA
TIME Magazine,
South China Morning Post, Hong Kong
Silkroad Magazine, Hong Kong

 

 

 

 


Crisis by design

Crisis by design

Extended interview, March 2011

Architect, eternal optimist and founder of a now-formidable humanitarian relief organization, Cameron Sinclair chats about the transition from design to development guru, the politics of humanitarian intervention, and sending architects into many of the decade’s biggest disaster zones. [See published feature in the South China Morning Post at AFH 2011]

“The idea of designing without ego …”

When we won (the grant) from TED we were a 60, 000 dollar organisation, now we’re closer to 6 million; that’s in four or five years. It wasn’t TED that made us explode, though it really gave us awareness and projected our methodology to other people; the idea of designing without ego, sharing openly, using adaptation as opposed to repetition, which was a really big shift: saying, different neighbourhoods have different issues, adapt the building to that. The thing that really made us explode was just prior to TED, when we started responding to the tsunami. We had partners with a website called World Changing, and we said we wanted to raise 10,000 dollars. But we raised half a million. And there was something frustrating me about our business model. It had been thoughtful, had integrated stakeholders, used the right materials and technologies, and we’d hand it off and they’d just build crap… It’s like cooking a great meal for someone, and then them making toast and walking off! Everyone uses this Ghandi phrase: be the change you want to see in the world. It had been playing on my mind. We needed to go beyond design service, to design and construction management – to be the bank. The tsunami was our test case. It was phenomenally successful: 20 plus schools, 12 community centres, maybe a hundred houses with very little money.  Coupled with a series of natural disasters where we were ready and prepared, we were able to prove our model.

“It was push and pull – between us deciding to work on something and the community telling us to.”

After the TED prize we started working on Katrina, we had raised 50,000 before we’d even announced that we’d be there. So part of it was push and pull: between us deciding to work on something and the community telling us to. We learned not only do you have to manage construction and finance the process but boost on-the-ground methodology. If you scale that on the ground, the impact you have scales. We’re a one stop shop: we will give you pro bono advice, help you know how to get money, help with all the legalese, do case assessment on families. And NGOs started to come in by the dozen asking to partner. So we started to partner with everybody. We had an anonymous funder who we could only later announce was Oprah.

It led to a really diversified investment donor strategy. 60% is pro-bono, say if Oxfam or UNICEF want to finish a school, they hire us to be architects and construction managers. We only take jobs that are in humanitarian, in the non profit world, so there’s no infringing on the professional sphere, but we realised that the best non-profit is set up like a for profit. It wasn’t the sexy buildings – it was the business models and the investment. But we’re a fun organisation, you can see tangible evidence. Donate 50 bucks and there’s a physical structure that you get out of it.

“The school is a 24-hour building.”

Every two years we hold a design competition around a systemic issue. In 2009 it was to design classroom of the future, to involve kids, teachers, architect, and in that process we realised that the school, in many instances, is a 24-hour building. Where mobile health comes, communities gather, if you’re in rural areas anyway, and the school is the heart of the community. And if we can improve design and construction quality from those schools, people will steal the best ideas locally. It’s like open sourcing.

You can see what I mean with one of our designs, which this year was a finalist of the Aga Khan award. What was unique about that building is, they went back four years after, and you began to see that all the homes around the facility had copied the roof details and the rain water catchment. The urban acupuncture structures end up creating a ripple effect with the community.

Throughout Latin America, Nike and FIFA had come to us because we’d done a number of Sports for Social Change facilities, which double as headquarters for local NGOs to tackle conflict resolution or HIV. Sports is really a central gatherer of people; kids come out and parents too. We’ve completed 17 sports for Social Change facilities from Afghanistan to Brazil. I think on average to be a successful organisation we need to be doing 30 – 50 projects at any one time.

Bringing in international designers never works. They begin to overlook the cultural sustainability aspects, things that are important that you can’t see. It happens to everyone: once you get so far removed from your daily life you can become overwhelmed. In a village with high mortality, no drinking water, you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulder if you don’t design the perfect school! But you tend to get the same-old-same-old. Real magic happens when you marry an international designer with a local designer. So on every project we have a locally licensed architect or engineer.

The local chapters do pro bono, but we have a stipend for every designer in the field. It’s a ridiculously small amount: on average about 1,500 dollars plus travel and health care. We pay them to hold them legally accountable. We then pay the local architect too, and it still works out less than the big NGOs.  We have architects and engineers on the ground, and integrate sustainability throughout. Every building we design have universal access. And you’ll be shocked to find how few do in the developing world in humanitarian built buildings, even in schools, places with civil war and large amount of amputees!

“Clinton… the Lone Sheep”

We do a lot of post disaster reconstruction. Last year Haiti was everything anyone could talk about. This year at [the World Economic Forum in] Davos no one talked about it; only Clinton, the lone sheep. You know the largest amount of funding we got was from kids, high school kids, and they are really the engine that is keeping us in Haiti. Then there are corporate grants, and the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund has funded a programme to elevate construction standards. We’ve trained a few thousand Haitians so far and put a few thousand to work, but we’re hoping to have 30,000 in the construction industry, to keep the reconstruction funds in the hands of the Haitians to avoid flown in pre-fab solutions.

The thing about Haiti is, you have to raise all the money in the four first weeks that will last four years, because after that no one cares. It’s the same for Pakistan and Chile and New Zealand… we were really lucky in our Pakistan and New Zealand response, which was a direct result of our chapters. We have office in San Francisco and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Cape Town, and they focus on the headquarter projects. But we started Chapters to give pro bono design service in our local community, and there are about 6,500 architects actively working in this network in 73 cities around the world. So what happened in Pakistan is the Karachi chapter kind of woke up, stopped all their work, flew into the Swat Valley and started responding. They’d already helped clear 1,500 homes before our office new about it.

“Architecture and politics are very intertwined”

We’re professionals: everyone goes through full Building Code compliance. In Nairobi we’re working on a community facility which is the only legal building in the slum of thousands. A lot of people who do humanitarian design – they don’t do that. But part of our role is to improve standards and if we don’t adhere, why are we even there? And there is a relationship with both the legal and political structure. If you turn up and start building, and don’t keep to the political and legal process, you’re undermining the locals. This is a real worry in Haiti. If you keep skirting around the government, you’re going to weaken it.

One of the projects we’ve been looking at is building southern Sudan, as a new country. But the challenge is, how do we build the school and health care system without undermining local initiatives or the government? Architecture and politics are very intertwined so you must figure out the mechanism to either work with, or enforce. In Haiti and Kenya we’ve been pushing for stronger codes. In many cases water doesn’t kill people, buildings do.

Corruption is a tricky one. A lot of it isn’t illegal, but you’ll get a relief organisation that’s never done a particular type of work before, they’ll get a massive grant, take their 30 % and then they outsource. Then those people outsource it, so by the time it gets to the country you’re down 50% or so, which means that the quality of the procedures is much less. Yet their people are driving around in SUVs with Ray Bans on. So the local NGOs say, why not me too? For me it’s really hard to listen to certain NGO leaders sitting drinking G&Ts and talking about local corruption. Wait, you make a hundred thousand dollars a year or more. This woman will skim off the top if it puts her kids in school.  You’ve got to look at corruption holistically. Last year we did an IPAD ap which was shown in MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art, New York), visualising humanitarian work around the world…  basically you open up the globe and pull in data live. I started thinking about crowd accountability, and US aid projects. You know, put ‘em up online and require whoever’s in charge, to take a picture of the project. We’re looking at corruption within the reconstruction world. People try to compare Architecture for Humanity to Frank Gehry. But actually you should be comparing us to Haliburton, or US aid, or Oxfam, to understand where we fit in.

We never go into a country unless we’re invited. The only rule is, don’t work in places that are in the process of being destroyed. For a long time we didn’t build in Afghanistan. We just did last year. Would we build in Iraq? Probably not right now, but as things begin to settle…

“Earthquakes don’t discriminate”

We have a strong chapter in Auckland who were able to take out post disaster recovery template and adapt it to the Christchurch situation. It’s unique in the sense that you’ve got a first world country. Frankly in the US no one cares about New Zealand. I got email s from people saying this isn’t a real earthquake. People can’t get their head around it. Earthquakes don’t discriminate! You could be the richest person on the island and lose everything completely. They really need architects and engineers because one in three buildings in the CBD had to be taken down. For 10,000 homes the land itself has liquefied, to the extent something like a tenth of the residential neighbourhood have to be moved. Imagine doing that for London! Our team has been on ground carrying out building assessments to find who is falling through the cracks. We hope to do pro bono design and engineering services, and they’re trying to assess what buildings can be occupied and repaired. We’ve talked to schools, community groups, particularly indigenous community groups that may not be on the radar.

“What huge balls that guy had…”

[The World Economic Forum at Davos is] always good for me because I always misbehave. I’m part of group  of Young Global Leaders, and our original mandate was to basically cause havoc; go to panels and ask very pointed questions. I would say about 20 percent do that and the rest at Davos are doing business. So you get to have fun. And it leads to the most bizarre responses. There was a whole thing on Russia: Medvedev came out to do this whole, ‘not bowing to terrorism thing’, and there was a panel discussion on investing in Russia, with everyone falling head over heels to talk about how amazing Russia was. One guy stood up from an investment group and tells this story about how his company was stolen by the Russians and he lost 4 billion dollars, and his lawyers were murdered… The Russians were like, that was the past. What huge balls that guy had! Then they got to me, and I had a simple question – Russia has a dying population. Lots of people are leaving Russia and going to Western Europe. So I ask this question to the deputy prime minister: how is Russia supposed to grow when losing its people? He goes into bizarre ramble about the impregnation of Russian women. So if you ask pointed questions at Davos you put them in a corner, and you inevitably get something shocking.

 

English Countryside Goes Rock-'N'-Roll

English Countryside Goes Rock-

TIME Magazine, 10 Mar 2011 [click for link].

Implausible as it may seem, holiday accommodation in rural England isn’t limited to twee little cottages, somber stately homes and drafty old castles with terrible plumbing. Travelers who would rather not bed down in architectural museums can now instead stay in some living architecture — or perhaps that should be Living Architecture, the brainchild of Swiss broadcaster and writer Alain de Botton. It’s a nonprofit initiative to plant contemporary holiday chalets throughout the country, each designed by a different cutting-edge studio.

Three were completed last year. The metallic Balancing Barn levitates over a Suffolk nature reserve. The Dune House struts asymmetrically on a popular stretch of Suffolk beach. The fashionably minimalist Shingle House stands alone and austere on a windswept Kent promontory. Each chalet sleeps eight or nine people, is fitted with designer amenities — Miele appliances, REN skin-care products and Peter Reed linen — and seeks to challenge the notion that rural architecture should consist of archaic forms, traditional materials and a hefty dollop of prettiness. 

“Because Britain industrialized so fast, there’s tremendous nostalgia for history,” says de Botton. At the same time, he argues that there is no reason why the innovative approach taken in other fields of contemporary British design can’t be employed in country living. “The architecture of our own times can have many of the qualities that people admire in buildings of old, like a sensory richness, a warmth, a connection with history,” he says. “But they don’t have to be museum pieces or kitsch.”

Among projects planned for 2011 and 2012 are the Long House in Norfolk, by British modernists Michael and Patty Hopkins (who have drawn inspiration from the rugged salt-marsh landscape and the use of flint in the area’s traditional buildings), and a “secular retreat” in Devon by Pritzker Prize — winning Swiss design maestro Peter Zumthor, who seeks to recreate the poise and mass of ecclesiastical architecture through the use of open forms and eco-friendly rammed concrete. See living-architecture.co.uk for more information — and rest assured there won’t be a thatched roof, lace curtain or grandfather clock in sight.
http://www.time.com/time/travel/article/0,31542,2058124,00.html

'You have to tolerate a little bit of torture'

In part one of a two-part interview Colombo based Attorney-at-law Ranjan Mendis explains how the Sri Lankan police continue to influence the outcome of torture trials taken against them, resulting in a mere handful of convictions since the domestic anti-torture law was passed sixteen years ago.

“Torture by police is the order of the day”

“As a regular practitioner in criminal courts I know the day-to-day. We meet a large number of people belonging to various walks of life; torture by the police is the order of the day – the order of the day. I want to emphasize that. In India torture is very common by the police as well as by the army, but in Sri Lanka torture by the army and other armed forces like the navy is not really common – other than in the theatres of war.  Here the police have the monopoly.”

I must say in fairness to everybody, immediately after a law is passed the authorities or the general public do not come to terms with this law. It takes a little time. If you give them five or six years to develop awareness, realistically we could put the effect of this legislation to the last ten years.

Between ’94 and today [since the anti-torture act was enacted] although incidents of torture are rampant, the number of cases that have come to courts is woefully inadequate… there’s no central record.  I would say that of concluded cases, there may not be more than 60-75 at the most; pending cases would be about another 40 to 50. My guess is that at the most about ten cases [were successful].

“You have to tolerate a little bit of torture”
In society in general there is a large number of people who believe that the police cannot do their job properly and get information, unless the suspects are tortured. They say with a firm sense of conviction that criminals have to be tortured. They go on saying that until someone from their family is taken by the police and tortured, then they change their views. Even the so-called educated people think so. Ask a university professor; ask five! Chances are that, unless it is a professor law, he or she would say, ‘well after all police have to do their job, so you have to tolerate a little bit of torture’. And judges, being people who come from that same society, usually take that view.

There are two or three reasons why people hold this view. A major reason is… in the west torture happens occasionally, but it is not done on a regular basis; four or five chaps may be kicked by the police and it is a big issue there. But investigation methods are not very modern in Sri Lanka. You cannot compare investigations here with the systems and methods employed in a western countries.

“In the West they have cameras…
Lack of training is one of the major reasons. Another reason is that our police force is slow to employ – mainly due to lack of funds and this being a poor country – the methods used in the West. In the West they have cameras, electronics; they use various scientific methods to track down people and to corner a man and say, ‘look, you did this’. The man then generally breaks down and will come out and cooperate with the police. For the judge it’s only a matter of sentencing.  But it is not necessary in our law, in proving a case, that a person should make a confession to the police. On the contrary the Evidence Ordinance, a paramount legislation that governs the criminal proceedings, has a very special section, 25, which says: No confession made to a police officer shall be proved as against a person accused of any offense.  …They are trying to change the English law to fall in line with this. They feel that the police officers serving in England are unsafe to believe, because standards have gone down, even there… Though confessions are not admissible [in Sri Lanka], if when using a confessional statement, somefact is found, that part of the statement can be used. But I am not promoting torture!

“They cook their books”
When a man is tortured he complains. That police station will never accept the complaint. Most of the people tortured are not educated people. They don’t know what to do so they go to a politician, or a lawyer, or someone. Finally after several days he will be told that there’s a special unit at the police headquarters where you can go if your complaint has not yet been accepted, and it will be deferred to the CID. But even the CID people are also police officers. There is this feeling of brotherhood, solidarity, amongst the police, and even if you get three CID people to investigate, who are 100% impartial, the charge of torture has to be filed mostly by relying on the records of that police station. They cook their books. That is the main reason [that torture cases fail].

In the medical profession there is a feeling that criminals should be tortured and we should help the police when they get into trouble. So doctors invariably – other than those specially trained and with thinking adjusted or attuned to the responsibilities as doctors to society – try to hide or hush up.

Police also write on these Information Books maintained at the station, and when things start going wrong against them… These are huge books, but police are permitted to use a more practical crime pad in the police station, for investigation notes, which are numbered. They write all sorts of irrelevant things and then they paste them. Other notes, related to other cases, they paste in! And contradictory important things are made to disappear, contradictory statements are recorded.

I can tell you a real case, way back in 1973, about the chief medical officer in a very remote village in the southern province. Police assaulted a man and there were broken limbs. They took him to the DMO (District Medical Officer), who wrote everything honestly, and in three days time an entire police party went, called the doctor out and assaulted him mercilessly.

“The police are running the show”
May not be in Colombo, may not be Kandy or Galle, but in the villages the police are running the show. I want to reiterate that the main reason why these cases fail is that the investigation and the police suppress all the evidence, they cook their books and they also influence the doctors. I have suggested time and again at numerous human rights torture conferences that the only way out of this problem is to create a unit which is administered by professionals who are not belonging to the police force -independent professionals.

“Torture cases are doomed”
We need more high courts, more judges, but the problem is this: you can’t just get somebody and make them a high court judge! The quality of judges has already badly deteriorated. But if you find more and more like that you will get judges, high court judges, who are unfit to be even magistrates.

Torture cases are doomed to failure, true enough, but every torture victim thinks that although other cases fail, mine will succeed. But they are being threatened by police don’t forget that. Witnesses are invariably threatened too. Most witnesses are the other people who were under arrest at a police station [at the same time] and the police get at them; they threaten them. This happens in a large number of torture prosecutions and they go back on their statements. I should have mentioned that a bit earlier, but it’s a very real factor.

Between the lines

Between the lines

South China Morning Post, 1 November , 2009

Bali has become home base for the pan-Asian literati

With its old craft culture, mildly bohemian cafes and array of misty hilltop vistas, Ubud in Bali seems to have grown almost to fit its twin industries of art and tourism; travelers here have been feeling the pull of poetry, paint and drama for decades. But where this reputation had always been more of a well kept secret or a nice surprise, it is now official: bottled, capped and priced for the greater good each October, as the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Now for four days every autumn the town’s venues – its museums, restaurants, bars and yoga studios – become host to professional wordsmiths and their fans as they grapple with literary themes over thick Bali-grown coffee. Sound good? Well it is, mostly.

With its old craft culture, mildly bohemian cafes and array of misty hilltop vistas, Ubud in Bali seems to have grown to fit its twin industries of art and tourism; travelers here have been feeling the pull of poetry, paint and drama for decades. But where this reputation had always been more of a well kept secret or a nice surprise, it is now official: bottled, capped and priced for the greater good each October, as the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Now for four days every autumn the town’s venues – its museums, restaurants, bars and yoga studios – become host to professional wordsmiths and their fans as they grapple with literary themes over thick Bali-grown coffee. Sound good? Well it is, mostly.

As the brainchild of an Australian local business owner and her Indonesian husband, the festival was born to regenerate tourism after the bombings, and six years on is doing so, while becoming a who’s who of Asian (and Pacific) literati: this year saw Pakistani journalists and novelists Mohammed Hanif and Fatima Bhutto, India’s Vikas Swarup, who wrote Q&A (better known by its screen title, Slumdog Millionaire), and Singapore’s Shamini Flint, author of the irreverent Inspector Singh Investigates series, among nearly 100 other poets, journalists and literary critics from across the continent and beyond. It also bagged itself a Nobel Laureate; Nigerian novelist and playwright Wole Soyinka.

To a backdrop of free events – a couple of play readings, a poetry slam night and book launches – day pass holders were offered a tight schedule of writer’s panels, many of them lightly academic and vaguely instructional. In a seminar called ‘Make ‘em Laugh’, un-comically early on a Sunday morning, British-Kashmiri novelist Hari Kunzru [pictured below second right] observed that good humour writing follows the pace of a good joke; it’s all about a well drawn out punch line. Black Canadian writer Dany Laferriere [pictured below, far right], author of How To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired (and whose twelfth novel gave rise to the 2005 movie, Heading South), explained the pitfalls of choosing a scandalous book title: very few talk about your content. Yet he is unrepentant and his latest book will be called I am a Japanese Writer, despite the best efforts of the Japanese consulate to make him change his mind (due to concerns, he says, that he’ll obliterate real Japanese writers on Google).

With writers like Bhutto and Soyinka in town, the content was also often political. Though most of the festival-goers were from Australia the panel perspectives were gratifyingly Asian, and African. US President Barack Obama received a drubbing in a panel called Writing in the New World; Obama and Dissent, with Bhutto (niece of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto) reminding writers of their responsibility to stay critical. She was joined by Antony Loewenstein, an Australian writer whose book My Israel Question robustly tells fellows Jews that ‘it’s time to stop living like its 1948’. Loewenstein also appeared on a panel on blogging, alongside Singaporean gay activist and writer Ng Yi-Sheng (lastboy.blogspot.com) and Aceh-based writer Doel CP Allisah (doelcpallisah.blogspot.com).

Soyinka, who spent nearly two years in solitary confinement for his activism and first wrote his poems there on toilet paper, spoke at length on the concept of forgiveness. As strident and satirical as his works tend to be, he noted that writing is about understanding the choices people make to survive, and that how, although atrocities are and will always be ‘part and parcel of our very existence’, literature can play a part in reconciliation.

Many of the writers present have explored critical Asian themes in their novels; Mohammed Hanif (pictured above, third right), a BBC reporter and one-time Pakistani air force recruit, has written the mostly comic A Case of Exploding Mangos about the life and times of Zia–ul-Haq, a dictator who put Pakistan on a massive ‘Islamisation’ drive that it struggles with today. Former lawyer Shamini Flint has had her Inspector Singh investigating a case of marital injustice in Malaysia, caught between its Shariah law and the penal code, and says that Singh will next be sent to Cambodia to uncover a mystery with a Khmer Rouge undertow. Vikas Swarup, who reportedly wrote Q&A in two months while his family were away for the summer (to many a fellow panelist’s annoyance) has followed it up with murder-mystery Six Suspects, another look at Indian caste and corruption.

However possibly the greatest value held by the festival was its introduction to visiting readers of good under-exposed Indonesian writing, and its political backdrop. A number of the panels were bi-lingual and the festival organizers worked closely with Indonesian critics and journalists to join emerging local writers with old hands, like firebrand Seno Gumira Ajidarma, known for his work on East Timor, and Cok Sawitri, an outspoken lesbian poet, novelist and playwright.

Many of them lamented the reluctance of Indonesians still, to look into the brutality of General Suharto’s three-decade New Order regime, in which books were burned, activists were ‘disappeared’ and secret agents mingled in the hallways of universities. They also complained about the lack of accurate records of the time. “It makes it very hard to get the feelings and experiences of ordinary people back then” said critic Nurhady Sirimorok (below right, with Professor Melani Budianta). “We writers have to really use our imagination to tell history from the bottom up.”

Most Indonesians at the festival said that they feel a little undernourished, but free to write. But others, who still vividly recall the brutality of ’98 and before, spoke of self censorship and of covert intimidation by state agents. As one academic pointed out, Bali newspapers were full that week of the murder of local journalist A.A. Narendra Prabangsa, who was abducted and killed this year while reporting on corruption connected to a regent.

Yet the festival prompted some liberal outpourings. Well-heeled literary lunchers at the Alila Ubud saw the rousing performance in Bahasa by Cok Sawitri of her short story Womb, which is about women sterilizing themselves as an act of political protest. At another such event author Laksmi Pamuntjak read from her upcoming novel The Blue Widow, which translates characters from Hindu myth into the New Order years – her warrior becomes a dissident medical student – and puts them on Buru island, a notorious tropical gulag for political prisoners.

This gulag is where one of Indonesia’s most celebrated dissident writers, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer (who many believe was Asia’s best contender for a Nobel), wrote his epic ‘Buru quartet’ about the oppressive cocktail of Javanese feudalism, Dutch colonialism, militarism and communism that makes up Indonesia’s history. At a lunch Sirimok described the covert operation it once took just to get a ‘Pram’ novel, and of the bittersweet feeling he gets now seeing the books, on the shelves but passed over by young Indonesians who prefer modern tales of horror and romance.

As such, despite some glitches and the feeling of it having sprawled a little large for its organisers, Ubud’s lit fest injected as much vital discussion into the town as it did tourist dollars. “Indonesia is not used to a society full of critics,” Sirimok commented, “and when you don’t read critics what can you learn from? We need a culture of polyphonic voices.” This much has been ensured.