THE AGA KHAN AWARD FOR ARCHITECTURE - 2001

Editor Kenneth Frampton, Thames and Hudson, 16-95

The triennial Aga Khan awards for architecture made it into Radio 4's Sunday programme, which highlighted the fact that he has taken the moral high ground, rather than the aesthetic, as deserving awards; or what we would call community architecture for social inclusion.

An example is the Barefoot Campus in India built by people without any formal training. However this community development approach is not a new departure, as shown by the book reviewed below.

 

 

THE ARCHITECTURE OF EMPOWERMENT - People, Shelter and Livable Cities

Editor Ismail Serageldin, Academy Editions 1997

 

Serageldin is an Egyptian architect/planner who works for the World Bank, and was instrumental in involving it with micro-finance for the poorest.

The architecture of empowerment is about challenging architects to do more than build for the poor... It invites them to rethink the premises of the process of design as much as the process of building. It challenges them to shed their assumed omnipotence and to become enablers for the poor.

In the wake of the second Habitat Conference, and with the urban population of the developing world set to treble in the next generation, Ismail Serageldin argues that architecture must both widen its scope and reassess its processes in order to address the needs of the poor. He emphasises that the provision of shelter and infrastructure is most effective when undertaken in close collaboration with the community - from concept design through to construction - and as part of a broader socio-economic strategy.

In the foreword M Yunus, founder and managing director of the Grameen Bank, sees Serageldin as following on from Hassan Fathy, not building for the poor but empowering them to provide for their own housing needs, with architects and other professionals acting as enablers; hence the need to rethink both the process of design and the process of building. This is not to abandon the traditional role of the architect but to add to it, to enrich it.

After Serageldin's introduction and essays by Charles Correa (previously published), Michael Cohen and Suha Ozkan, just over half the book is devoted to case studies.

A number of points in these essays are as applicable to the industrialised world as to developing countries; for example Cohen lists decaying infrastructures, urban pollution, unemployment, institutional weakness and fraying social cohesion. This last can be seen in Britain in the gap between rich and poor, growing not only in terms of income and resources, but also widening in geographical separation. Ozkan contends that the answers are not technological but social - participation and now empowerment.

The case studies were chosen to show that the architecture of empowerment has already proved to be a successful and versatile solution in three areas - revitalising historic cities, upgrading slums and creating new settlements. Many of the projects have won Aga Khan Awards and a couple received Best Practice Awards at Habitat II. Again these case studies have points to teach the industrialised world. Many still tend to think that conservation is a drain on resources better spent elsewhere, whereas properly done it leads to development in the broadest sense. While participation, if not yet empowerment, is acknowledged as helping in upgrading, where there are existing residents, its application to new developments is not often applied; and densification to accommodate the next generation is.... what?

However it is with the case studies, or rather examples, as most are not sufficiently detailed, apart from the Grameen Bank Housing Programme, to justify the term, that I have problems. First there are no references to follow up for more detailed information, except for those which have won Aga Khan awards. This book would have been better if it had followed the format of case studies in Building Communities a summary of Habitat International Coalition's project for the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless in 1987. Indeed a direct comparison of the usefulness of the case studies can be made as the Orangi Project in Karachi is described in both.

Secondly the case studies are not all appropriate in a book whose title, cover blurb (quoted above), and publisher's name show it aimed at architects - if he is to get other architects on his side Serageldin should surely not have chosen projects which did not involve architects. Fine for the converted, but the unconverted may already have been put off by the lack of colour, and the mainly small black and white photographs. Even the cover is grey.

On a positive note though, the book's Islamic bias gives a necessary corrective to the media's portrayal of Muslims being mostly Islamic Fundamentalists, in particular the study of the Aranya low cost housing in Indore.

This has been successful in engaging the residents in becoming good neighbours rather than sullen or hostile co-existing groups, as is frequently the case in other parts of India. Underlying the design is the concept of tolerance, of people learning to live by consensus, sharing values within physical, cultural and contextural parameters. Architecture has thus been able to celebrate the life of common people.

The two final case studies on urban management and micro-finance are not architectural, yet are positive additions to the book. The example of urban management in Curitiba, Brazil reminds us of the importance of waste recycling (part of Local Agenda 21 which all UK local authorities should be implementing), and of planning for public transport on a city wide basis. For example though there was public participation none of the architects' entries in the Wembley Gateway competition were workable due to the lack of a London-wide transport policy.

While architects are now showing more interest in how buildings are funded attention should be paid to micro-finance, basically lending small amounts to the poor without collateral, to enable them to improve their dwellings. This funding method is a theme throughout the case studies, which has not only proved successful in many developing countries, but has been successfully used in Chicago, and then replicated in Arkansas, Kansas and Michigan, to rehabilitate run down neighbourhoods.

Overall it is an interesting book, but will probably not appeal to the unconverted, and probably not have much that is new for the converted - not to Islam or Christianity that is, but to empowering the poor.

Leslie Barker

 

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