Materiality

Human-centred design in China

Reflections from China by architect, Philippa Battye

When AzuKo invited me to join their team in China to research community-led projects and present findings in a public showcase - I didn't think twice. I had a romantic vision of the rural and remote.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

But the nerves soon set in. It wasn't the prospect of China itself, it was the task at hand - I would need to talk to people, lots of people and likely many who speak little English. I don't speak Mandarin. I would need to question, dig, unearth and investigate.

Now, three weeks in, I have returned to Shenzhen my base camp and relative home. I have spent this time pursuing architects who adopt a community centred approach to their work, with a particular focus on villages (rural and urban). I have spoken with designers in Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Beijing, of Chinese, Taiwanese, English, Irish and French origin. The task I was most apprehensive about - talking to people - has been the most rewarding. Each conversation has given me a greater understanding of what it's like to work in China, and what community-led means in this context.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

My interviewees are hugely passionate about what they do, often subverting the normal routes to building in favour of less economically focused and more human-centred approaches to design. I have learnt how projects are initiated and conceived, where funding is sourced, how communities are engaged and at what stages. I have listened to their motivations, ambitions, and what matters to them as architects operating in this country. Nearly all had a story of frustration to tell.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

I have discussed bathhouses, schools, community kitchens, museums, activity centres, housing and libraries. With each project the context, design intent and process is unique.

What they all share is an ambition to improve the lives of the beneficiaries they serve. A desire to help create and maintain socially and economically sustainable communities.

After connecting with these design leaders, I began a journey into the relative unknown, visiting projects in far flung places. Never before have I had to plan such complicated logistics under such time constraints, or frustratingly been so at the mercy of others.

I leave my hostel in Beijing at 5am and it is bitterly cold. Five hours on the bullet train and I arrive in the city of Xinyang, Henan province. I am greeted by the only two people at the station, brandishing a sign with 'Philippa Battye' - a first for me although I think I would be hard to miss! With my translator Ms LuLu and local governor Mr Zhang we drive two hours to Xihe village, an old cereals and oil trading centre and granary in the 50's. The road reduces from vast empty motorways to single lanes weaving through smaller settlements until we hit an unmarked road leading to the village. Three years ago no roads reached Xihe, it was only in and out on foot.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

The young, who as part of the poverty alleviation scheme set up by Xi Jinping China's President, have returned to Xihe for the promise of a better life. Most now run profitable tourism based businesses back in their birthplace. They have returned to their rural heritage, with a positive outlook.

My next stop - Angdong village...

China feels like a country on the move, with purpose and in constant evolution. The view from my train carriage is always a marvel. Imposing infrastructure such as giant concrete columns march through the landscape waiting to be decked out with new high speed rails, and clusters of 60+ storey towers loom over the farmers below. This infrastructure will contribute to an already mind boggling rail network, which is run with unbelievable efficiency - in my 42 hours spent on trains and 11 hours of bus travel so far, not one has been a minute late.

It is in the parks or around lakes where the pace slows down, and people seem most content. Every morning the older generation practice thai chi; the parks are full of people walking, jogging and stretching together. In Beijing locals break the icy lakes to take a dip and people cluster to play 'keep me ups' with what looks little a giant shuttlecock. In the evenings music blares as large groups of women exercise with square (plaza) dancing.

(Photo: P Battye)

(Photo: P Battye)

There is a real sense of community within the city, and an everyday enviable sense of togetherness played out in public space.

It's the home straight... once reunited with my comrade Jo we will attempt to turn this investigative work into something publicly engaging. The types of projects we are examining, while often small in scale, can have a profound and significant impact on the lives of communities.

We believe these empathic approaches to design should be shared and celebrated.

Read about the learnings and showcase in Shenzhen >>

 

Author: P. Battye

The art of building with natural materials

This week Yasmeen Lari was in town. Yasmeen is Pakistan's first female architect with a body of work to behold. Alongside her passion for heritage buildings, she focuses on disaster resilience - everything from redesigning improved 'chula' (cookstoves), which offer healthy and dignified alternatives to traditional cooking methods to constructing zero carbon housing for flood victims.

Yasmeen increasingly works with women, believing they hold the key to economic regeneration within disadvantaged communities. She is training an 'army' of female barefoot architects, who will in turn pass on the baton.

(Photo: Al Jazeera)

(Photo: Al Jazeera)

Needless to say, when the RIBA invited us to support Yasmeen's making workshop, to share our knowledge of natural sustainable materials with students from the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and The CASS, we jumped to attention.

Our work in Bangladesh features a variety of locally sourced natural materials including bamboo, jute, palm leaf and earth. Natural is the operative word. There are no straight lines in nature.

When working with bamboo for example you need to deal with tapering culms, curvatures and uneven distances between diaphragms - this all adds a high level of complexity to jointing. It is never as easy as replicating the digital model in real life.

(Photo: J. Ashbridge)

(Photo: J. Ashbridge)

Similarly, working with earth requires craftsmanship and respect for this most basic of materials. It needs to breathe. Achieving the right composition, using additives for strength and water resilience is just as much an art as a science. It also requires a great understanding of the local context. Cactus juice might be appropriate in Texas, US but it's not readily available in Dinajpur Bangladesh. You will need to look to the environment and to the community for answers.

In fact, this is exactly how we stumbled upon mulch from the Bijla tree which performed well against synthetic additives in our earthen plaster field tests. It was a local rice farmer from Sundarban village who suggested we investigate this natural 'glue', once used to bind kites.

(Photo: P. Battye)

(Photo: P. Battye)

We champion these materials for a number of reasons. They're low cost, environmentally friendly and beautiful.

Earth is not a ‘poor man’s’ material, in fact we believe there’s nothing richer than a hand-finished plaster.

For these reasons, we were excited to join Yasmeen in introducing their power and potential to the next generation of architects. A group of students from as young as 14, eager to learn more.

The 4-hour workshop was a journey through a series of building techniques, utilising three core elements: bamboo, earth and willow. Split into small groups the students were asked to build models, which explored a range of design principles and allowed for experimentation.

(Photo: J. Ashbridge)

Focusing on one section, a particular node or using a combination of elements, the teams were then asked to create a 1:2 scale prototype. The majority began with bamboo, many testing out variations on fish mouth joints. The students quickly understood the level of skill required to connect culms, which is often a complex meeting of shapes. Others attempted throwing brick 'slugs' experimenting with straw as an additive, or weaving willow panels to act as a base for a wattle and daub construction.

(Photo: J. Ashbridge)

(Photo: J. Ashbridge)

(Photo: J. Ashbridge)

(Photo: J. Ashbridge)

The session concluded with a mini critique to discuss the finished structures and best practice.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the day were the one to one conversations about the wider context... cost considerations when working with low-income populations... how climate change and mass migration are affecting communities and adding additional pressures on the built environment... achieving a balance between the tangible and intangible...

Architecture does not stand in isolation. Every decision, every move has an impact. It was refreshing to hear students debate the wider implications of their discipline.
(Photo: RIBA)

(Photo: RIBA)

Hats off to everyone involved in the day's activities. Let's hope we see more schools of architecture take up the mantle.

Find out about our work with natural materials:

 

Author: J. Ashbridge

A Bangladesh case study

This evening Jo Ashbridge presented her research, 'Earthen Architecture in Resource Limited Settings', as part of the RIBA series, Perspectives on Architecture.

(Slide: J. Ashbridge)

(Slide: J. Ashbridge)

The series provides a platform for the fascinating range of architectural research undertaken in collaboration with the RIBA. Jo's work over the past 13 months into the role and relevance of earthen architecture across Bangladesh received support from the RIBA Boyd Auger scholarship alongside generous donations and personal sponsorship.

To read a full transcript of the talk, accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation and closing video, visit the RIBA blog >>

 

Author: J. Brown