Mind shifts: Limited means can yield greater beauty

Termitary House, Da Nang, Vietnam by Tropical Space Co. (cost $27,000) - Image via Domus.it
Termitary House, Da Nang, Vietnam by Tropical Space Co. (cost $27,000) - Image via Domus.it

As architects, we have been  learning to do more with less since the last economic downturn. This proves very difficult as through the years, creativity in architecture has too often been synonymous with the technically heroic, the strange, or the purely sculptural... and too often, the expensive. These projects push the technological envelop, and can be quite astonishing and awe-inspiring, which is great. But surely, architecture is first and foremost about making space, right? Why is it that, unless great monetary means are put to use, we believe that only the basic, the bland, the boring can result? Does easy access to fancy tools and materials often compromise the ability to create?

The economic hard times that hit America and Europe, are a basic fact of life in most African countries. So as African architects, if we want to create architecture that responds to our realities, we have to become really good at making spaces that use available materials in creative ways to fulfill the needs of the people that will be inhabiting them (functionality, ventilation, thermal comfort, solar control, etc). But this is also a really exciting premise for making architecture. Our limited access to certain technologically advanced materials (which are really only necessary if we are trying to re-create a foreign way of building,) is actually a marvelous opportunity. It allows us to focus on space, its quality, its light, its shadows, its tactility, its proportions, its uses, its poetry. Working on a project in a developing country actually can free architects from distracting technology and allows them to focus on what actually matters: the creation of beautiful spaces, not the production of a sculptural object.

 

In many developing countries, beauty is in the everyday, in the utilitarian. Light is filtered and ventilation is achieved through a beautiful brick or carved screen, roof parapets are full of symbolism, building facades are expressive, everyday clay water containers are worthy of an art exhibit, mere entryways are exquisitely carved. In these places, beauty is everywhere but it is often missed as poverty is the only thing that catches materialistic eyes. But really, as we develop our Afritecture, we can inspire ourselves from the creativity that surrounds us everywhere, made with limited means, injecting beauty into everyday life. We can find endless variations and adaptations to the limited array of tools and materials we have at our easy disposal to create stunning work. Our own brand of modernity can be born of such an approach, rather than equating it to a bad and expensive copy of what modernity looks like elsewhere.

Termitary House, Da Nang, Vietnam by Tropical Space Co. (cost $27,000) - Image via Domus.it
Termitary House, Da Nang, Vietnam by Tropical Space Co. (cost $27,000) - Image via Domus.it
Utilitarian water pots and grain containers in Niamey, Niger. Image via http://afrikades.over-blog.com/
Utilitarian water pots and grain containers in Niamey, Niger. Image via http://afrikades.over-blog.com/