Public Interest Design

Think equality

The face of equality takes many forms... political equality, equality of opportunity, treatment, membership and perhaps more controversially equality of outcome. If this state of being equal is a core value in the democratic tradition, does it follow that the responsibility to achieve it lies in a collective determination?

How then can the architectural process contribute, indeed should it seek to?

(Photo: J. Ashbridge)

(Photo: J. Ashbridge)

Once hailed as a master craftsman, an age of humility is dawning. The role of the architect continues to evolve and a growing underbelly is challenging all we hold to be true. Has the profession focused on providing design services for the top percentile for too long? Can the sector reclaim a sense of social responsibility and if so what methodologies should be celebrated?

Architecture, good architecture, is not about the end product. It is not about a series of components eloquently assembled. It is the life that pervades around it and the sense of community created in and through the design thinking, which brings the object to life.

A shift in process is required. The power of architecture can be realised if citizens take ownership – the architect as the facilitator; the client as the agent of change.

The architectural process begins well before pencil meets paper. Engagement with the end user is essential to understanding real needs. In Mumbai for example, non-governmental organisation SPARC seeks to mobilise pavement and slum dwellers, equipping groups with the tools they need to articulate their concerns and create collective solutions. The once invisible urban poor are supported in direct negotiations with the government, cementing their right to the city.

Early design development is all too often resigned to brief discussions and back of house iterations. A human-centred design approach incorporates a myriad of tools, which bring architecture back to the public domain and in doing so support capacity building. For example, community workshops running in parallel to the design journey are a key aspect of SAFE’s work. This small Bangladeshi organisation strives for replication of improved construction techniques in an area on the frontline of climate change. With limited funding, their projects will only be successful if information is disseminated widely, if ideas are presented in a culturally sensitive manner and if the local population chooses to engage. It is not enough to provide a handful of families’ access to adequate shelter. The vision must empower the wider community.

Similarly, the construction phase itself provides an opportunity to leverage the local economy and offer a level playing field irrespective of ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality or disability. How can we fail to be inspired by the achievements of MASS Design Group’s master mason Anne Marie Nyiranshimiyimana in Rwanda or Orkidstudio’s construction worker Hellen Nyambura Kamau in Kenya? These women fly in the face of disparity.

The potential of architecture is not limited to traditions taught in school. Those who think outside the framework see a new way. True collaboration will allow us to break through the walls and expand the definition.

Think beyond the building. Think equality.


Author: J. Ashbridge

Hi street

Define High Street.

If you had to select one image that would represent your local High Street, what would you choose?

Visit any virtual library and two themes begin to emerge: lack of identity and surprise if the recurrence of 'Fried Chicken' and 'Costa‐bucks' don’t feature.

There has been a shift in recent years with many proclaiming the end of the High Street, driven in part by digital disruption. The British government has commissioned and observed reviews on the issue. Mary Portas and Bill Grimsey who are amongst the analysts, have set out their recommendations of how to fix the problem. Both exhaust negative terminology and as ever, people who only see problems tend to be part of the problem.

High Street is the most commonly used street name in the UK, which according to a 2009 statistical survey has 5,410 in total.

In reality, the institution of the High Street is mid evolution, which presents what I call, opportunity. It is now fast becoming more than a task oriented destination, changing to a destination of experience and social interaction. It offers experiences which are rarely afforded elsewhere and the demand for the 'Costa‐bucks' culture is simple enough proof.

So what to do in the midst of evolution?

Embrace it. It’s time to be experimental and open up a dialogue with… local people! Discuss things. Try things. Make mistakes. Move on. Repeat until successful.

As an architect, my default setting is probably supposed to be; add shiny new signage, re‐render the elevation and replace 4no. windows. Wrong answer, try again. I fundamentally believe a better solution is to put people at the heart of place making.

In the spirit of Louis Khan asking a brick what IT wanted to be, I’m asking local communities to stand up and engage in similar conversation... to say

Hi street, what do you want to be?


Author: J. Brown

A statistical nightmare

Some days statistics weigh heavy on my heart. The scale and complexity of such concrete data leaves me feeling dizzy. It’s difficult to know which avenue to pursue or where our research efforts should lie. Take a breath.

One statistic in particular has driven many of our discussions:

The world urban population is expected to increase by 84% by 2050, from 3.4 billion in 2009 to 6.3 billion in 2050.
— UN / Dept of Economic and Social Affairs

It is a nod to all those other facts and figures with which we are bombarded. For the first time in history we live in a world where the number of those living in urban areas surpasses the rural. The urban growth is concentrated in less developed regions... the number of slum dwellers continues to increase.

This combination of natural population growth and urbanisation poses huge challenges. Is it something to fear? Should urbanisation be discouraged or is it a key building block of sustainable development? What are the implications for our cities and our citizens?

AzuKo operates within the realm of international development, holding strong the belief that there is a real need for architectural analysis. A humane critique.

In the face of adversity we see ingenuity.

So, over the next year we will be examining environments under enormous pressure - urban, high-density, low-income areas. We will focus on what it means to achieve a sense of place in settings on the frontline. How do individuals, families, units and communities cope under such strain and how do they come together to create genius loci, that distinctive atmosphere which elevates a simple street?

We have much to learn. Our first stop... Mumbai.


Author: J. Ashbridge