A Global Report
issue 202 - December 1989
The shape of change
A GLOBAL REPORT
Mud, glorious mud
Maalam is a skilled craftsperson, one of the best village builders in the Chikal district of Southern Niger. His sinewy fingers can identify the strongest wood and can easily find flaws in the smooth surface of hand-rubbed mud walls.
He has been building houses, good strong houses, for more than 40 years. So long that he needs no plans to build a 'shigefa' - a traditional rectangular, two-roomed house with a flat timber roof. And the beehive-shaped 'kudandan' with its dome-shaped thatch roof and circular mud walls is almost second nature.
Yet now he was leaning back, listening respectfully to a stranger telling him about his craft. The visitor's hands were pink and delicate. The young foreigner was talking about a new way of constructing domed buildings without wooden supports.
Maalam could barely contain himself. Only when the aid worker finished did the old builder stroke his thin moustache and say: 'This seems to me impossible'.
Today, nearly ten years later, Malaam is no longer a sceptic. He has become an outspoken advocate of the new mud-brick, vault-and-dome construction. 'At first we didn't believe the buildings would last,' he says. 'Now we see with our own eyes that the technique works.'
In fact the technique has worked for centuries: vilIage builders in Egypt and Iran have been constructing mud-brick domed buildings without wooden supports for at least a thousand years.
The method is simple and cheap - mud, water and some simple equipment are all that are needed. And in Third World countries where trees are a disappearing commodity that's an important plus. In Niger for example, only 12 per cent of the land is fertile.The rest belongs to the expanding desert of the Sahel. Any effort to save precious timber is crucial.
This unique south-to-south technology transfer was conceived by two Canadian agencies: Development Workshop (a decentralized group of planners and architects keenly interested in Third World housing problems and ISAID (Institute for the Study and Application of Integrated Development). But the real inspiration was Hassan Fathy, an Egyptian architect who championed Nubian vault-and-dome technology in the 1940s as an indigenous solution for housing Egypt's poor.
Despite the project's obvious potential the North African building techniques were slow to take off. The main culprit was old-fashioned economics. Only ten builders in total had been trained so labour costs remained high. It was still cheaper to build traditional structures using expensive local timber. Even so, by 1986 15 woodless, mud-brick buildings had been erected - and several of the newly trained masons, including Maalam, had also built homes in their own villages.
Then an unexpected chance to prove the dome technology arose in northern Niger. Intrigued by the environmental benefits of the woodless buildings, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund requested ISAID's help in constructing their project headquarters in Iferouane - in the desert-like Air mountains several hundred miles north of Chikai. An eight-room office complex, storehouses and outbuildings were built. Dozens of local masons were trained during construction. The building stood as a double symbol. It not only protected scarce tree-cover but also, according to the World Wildlife Fund's Niger representative, 'put development in the hands of the people'.
Central to the success of the Iferouane project was Peter Tunley, a blond Englishman wrinkled by years in the African sun,. who has a passionate belief in appropriate building methods. He is fluent in the local Hausa and lives in Iferouane. This makes him uniquely placed to listen to local preferences about the shape of doors and windows or to worries about how mud brick will stand up to torrential rain.
Now demand for information about the new building method is spiralling. The hope is that the lessons learned can be creatively applied in Mali and Chad and that the adobe alternative will eventually fill the gap left by disappearing natural resources. Only time - and many similar efforts - will tell.
São Paulo, South America's largest city, is also one of the fastest growing in the world. Like Mexico City and Tokyo, the only two cities on earth that are bigger, it is on a scale which is truly staggering for those of us from 'normal' cities. São Paulo is driven ever outward and upwards by the engine of economic growth that throbs at its centre.
The badges of the mega-city are everywhere. The air is saturated with ethanol gasoline pollution. The main streets are clogged with a perpetual traffic jam. High-rise buildings shoot upwards like the mercury in a thermometer on a hot Brazilian summer afternoon.. But it's the scale of it all that overwhelms. In São Paulo there is not one high-rise area but several, punctuated every so often by plush low-density areas like Jardim where the mansions of the wealthy' crouch behind the thick masonry of security walls.
Paulista, the city's principal financial avenue, is a canyon through which a stream of near-stagnant traffic inches its way between precipitous walls of 30 storey Brazilian banks. Here you find the motor and the contradictions of the world's eighth-largest economy. The modernity of the financial centre is dramatically set off against some of the worst slums on the continent - home to more than 10 per cent of São Paulo's people.
Over 50 per cent of the city's 12.5 million people have migrated from the impoverished north-east of Brazil. It's an old story: poor people either squeezed out by the expansion of large-scale agriculture or fleeing poverty and starvation. They squeezed their way into the cracks of the city through settling in the backyards of family members already there, illegally subdividing already minute plots or simply invading land and squatting there.
Not surprisingly these poor areas or favelas have been largely ignored by all levels of government. During the long night of military dictatorship that stretched from the 1960s to the 1980s any protest by favela residents was met by police batons and the arrest of 'subversives'. As a result one of the world's wealthiest cities provides services for the poor that barely enable them to survive.
But there is a chink of light. These marginalized people have campaigned for a better and fairer design to their city through a political party, the Partido do Trabalhadores (PT). And to the surprise of many, perhaps even the party itself, the PT swept to victory in the municipal elections of November 1988. The new Mayor, Luiza Erundina de Souza, is an immigrant from the North-East. She is also a militant with strong links with the social movements of the favelas.
The PT views urban design as a battle over the allocation of resources. On one side are the residents of the fave/as, organized into over 1000 base groups. On the other side is the old guard of real-estate developers and transportation monopolies whose interests have always shaped the physical fabric of São Paulo.
The key to addressing the inequalities built into the design of São Paulo is the decentralization of power, the PT believes.They are breaking the city down into 20 regions and are proposing that these should be further subdivided into neighbourhoods. Local public assemblies could soon be making decisions about parks and recreation centres.
If the PT is successful this could be a major breakthrough for locally controlled community development in Latin America. Other elements of the PT program are no less ambitious - a 'war' on land speculation, more money for poor areas. and support for self-help housing. The stakes are high: the redesign of one of the biggest cities in the world.
A classical renaissance is underway in Bangkok. Ionic columns majestically frame the entrances to shopping centres. Roman cornices top the roofs of humble shops. And Florentine cherubs cavort in apartment lobbies.
This harkening back to an idealized and alien past is primarily an outlet for the frustrated ostentation of a new and rapidly growing social class - the nouveaux riches spawned by Thailand's economic boom. The Western style is often inspired by education or by trips abroad. Thai consumers are warming to what is locally known as 'post-modern European' architecture much as they have to imported European cars and premium whisky.
'They have learned how to spend money', says Mati Tungpanich. president of the Association of Siamese Architects. 'They want instant Paris, Rome or London. They want something beautiful even though it doesn't accommodate their lifestyle.'
Traditional Thai architecture is celebrated for just how well it accommodates the living environment. In the traditional wooden Thai house, the first floor is raised off the ground to prevent flooding. The space underneath, known as the 'tai thoom', was used for livestock. Raising the house also makes for good ventilation. The sharp slope of the roof allows quick run-off of heavy monsoon rains and a broad overhang protects inhabitants from the fiery summer sun.
Deforestation in Thailand is so bad that the government last year declared a ban on all logging. Wood is now hardly ever used at all as a building material any more. But decorative housing styles which went out of fashion in Europe several centuries ago seem an incongruous replacement. To be sure, the labour costs which contributed to the decline of such styles in Europe are not yet a factor in Thailand.
But the interiors of these houses are poorly ventilated and must be air-conditioned. The white finish may reflect the heat, but it is quick to get dirty and flake in the hot, polluted Bangkok air. The ornamental scrollwork also attracts dirt and begins to decay because of mold that grows easily in a humid climate.
Bangkok architect Pichai Vasnasong derisively calls Thai post-modernism 'cocktail architecture'. But frilly, ultra-feminine cocktail dresses are very much in fashion with young socialites here so many rich and influential Thais might not take that as an indictment.
One reason for the baroque boom is that the architecture profession is still too young to have developed a mature modern Thai style. Many Thai artisans, be they in jewellery or fashion design, have cut their teeth by imitating popular Western designs. Architecture is no different.
'Everyone is trying to create modern Thai architecture.' says Mati. 'It's something you cannot do instantly. Traditional Thai temples and houses took years to develop and achieve their strong character.'
Some of the most arresting architecture on the Bangkok skyline mutates the postmodernism now popular in the West. Bangkok's premier temple of consumerism, the Amarin Plaza, sports a Parthenon-like entrance and an ultramodern. multi-storey, mirrored-glass office tower.
Some local architects see in post-modernism an opportunity to incorporate traditional Thai style into modern, functional architecture. An international hotel now under construction in Bangkok is incorporating Thai arches and other traditional elements.
Even unabashedly ultra-modern buildings have their traditional touches. In many, the ground floor is still a 'tai thoom', used nowadays not for livestock, but for a parking lot. And it is rare to find a building lot that doesn't have its animist spirit house or garland-bedecked shrine.
Building use has become too sophisticated and the construction industry too international for there ever again to be a pure Thai architectural style. But both Mati and Pichai feel that the fetish for florid lines will disappear as Thais develop more sophisticated ideas about how to make their living space suit a modern lifestyle. Pichai sees it as his profession's responsibility to encourage that trend.
'Architects should design according to the kind of life, not the kind of like. Clients can like something silly, but we have to argue with them: "It's for your life, not your like."'
This article is from
the December 1989 issue
of New Internationalist.
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