Building for the Future: The Benefits of Working Outside “Architecture” and America

Building for the Future: The Benefits of Working Outside “Architecture” and America

Image above, Kenya / Credit: Iwan Baan

As a designer working in the U.S., it’s easy to forget that the way we build and design here is not the way the entire world builds and designs. What opportunities for innovation might we be missing because these norms are left unchallenged? By engaging in projects benefiting communities in need in other parts of the world, designers can directly benefit from learning about different ways to build and occupy space. For me, two recent projects abroad have informed my thinking about this dialogue — a collection of flexible playground prototypes in Mexico City and a humanitarian relief station in a remote region of Kenya. Each of these projects has informed my thinking about designing adaptable workplaces for Bay Area tech companies, making this work a win-win: it’s critical research for designers and critical infrastructure for these communities.

Mexico City / Credit: Tyler Stevermer

Designers often fall into the trap of thinking about architecture in terms of a singular building. In working with underserved communities abroad, you’re forced to think about creating a model for building that can be reproduced and modified by its populace well after the architect has left. This means that communities do not become dependent upon design services they cannot always access when needing additional work—instead the architects donate a prototype that can be adopted, rejected, or modified as needed for the region’s future projects.

For instance, after the completion of the Konokono Vaccination Center in Kenya that I worked on with Unmaterial Studio and Selgascano, the commissioning organization discussed bringing our team back to create additional buildings (as our solution had proven more successful than many others provided by previous relief organizations, while requiring only a fraction of the budget). We argued that they didn’t need us — and we had designed the center as such. The building we created was a prototype for construction in this remote region. It could be easily dissected and improved upon by the Turkana tribe as they saw fit — and their engagement with designing and creating their own environment would benefit the community in a more lasting way.

Design thinking like this translates directly into the built world in the States. This modular, prototype approach offers users flexibility and ownership of their space as they adapt it to current and evolving needs — particularly in workplace design. Tech companies experiencing exponential growth have more in common with semi-nomadic tribes in Kenya than you would think.

Kenya / Credit: Iwan Baan

We used a similar thought process in developing guerrilla-style playgrounds in Mexico City with Edwina Portocarrero and the Laboratorio para la Ciudad (an experimental government agency). We were interested in how we could develop playspaces for neighborhoods that the government had failed to invest in, but in a city as large as Mexico City, using our efforts to construct one or two playgrounds wouldn’t make as much of a difference as a series of deployable systems could. In one we used a common tricycle used by thousand of streets vendors throughout the city. With a few simple hacks we showed how, even if a community hasn’t been provided with grounds for a playspace, they can assemble their own mobile one while simultaneously co-creating with communities they are typically segregated from. Simultaneously, the scaffolding project shows how inexpensive elastic cords (a common marketplace commodity) or plastic mesh typically used for grocery totes can be adapted to appropriate standard scaffolding to create temporary occupiable playstructures.

Mexico City / Credit: Edwina Portocarrero

Each of these are simple demonstrations of how materials, objects, and spaces that already exist in a community can be viewed differently. In order to create a modular framework that will actually allow the community it serves to fully adopt it, we must first learn from the users. What do they need? How can the project best serve them? What materials do they currently use to build? Rather than applying the construction/material assumptions from the work we do in the states (which a surprising amount of humanitarian work does) it’s about learning from the existing solutions of the region and building upon them for the new use you’re proposing. Further, working with materials/systems of the region is more culturally sensitive: it applauds and reinforces the existing culture of an area rather than coming in with supposedly “superior” foreign methods.

Perhaps most important, there is an extreme humility and open-mindedness necessary when working on these kinds of projects, and you take this approach home. Truly site-specific, user-driven design requires this kind of curiosity and fresh thinking to really serve the individual cultures of our own workplaces and communities.