by Meghna MehtaApr 27, 2020
In September 1986, a highly controversial public building opened its doors in central Amsterdam. The city’s long awaited Stopera - a portmanteau of city hall (Dutch; stadhuis) and opera house - brought along painful questions about the architect’s competence. Apart from the appalling acoustics of the opera hall, there was a larger problem in the Dutch public opinion; the 52 per cent cost increase in the Stopera’s building budget*.
While the media jumped on these issues, I listened to the architectural arguments of my professors and senior students as my architecture education in Delft had just started that month. Although I was not able to fully understand the complexity, one thing was crystal clear, something had gone horribly wrong in Amsterdam. And with it, the ability of professional architects in the Netherlands was being questioned in public.
Twenty-five years later I took part in a design dialogue about TRUST at the Salone in Milan. The curators of the 50th Salone Internazionale del Mobile in 2011 decided the crisis of trust**, caused by the irresponsible financial behaviour of bankers, could not be ignored by designers. The financial and economic crises had made people unsure of who they could trust including governments, as recovery packages had been handed out to the banks.
Although an abstract and complex issue, trust is arguably the foundation of the functioning of our daily lives. In Milan, Scott Burnham*** defined trust as the reliance we have on ourselves in relation to our surroundings, both material and immaterial. Professional designers, including architects, should start to think about how the crisis of trust would affect them. Themes like environmentalism, or ethics ask for a re-examination of what TRUST means, can you trust design, can you design trust?
When it was my turn to speak, I shared my experience of teaching and practicing in Afghanistan. Here, both the reality and perception of trust are completely different than in the highly-developed world. Sitting on a carpet, sipping green tea in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2004, I started to erode some of the lessons learned during my own professional working decade in the European continent and London.
De-learning perhaps happened to me by default, as I stepped into an utterly different social-cultural context. It made me reflect on a world that is becoming very impatient and very ego-centric, where the sole aim seems to be - to be faster for the sake of being faster. It made me question how we can truly create better. Can we create, based on lasting long and aging well? And why would we be in a hurry, if we want to be part of creating a long-lasting civilisation?
I found myself asking these questions again after the two devastating earthquakes of 2015 hit Nepal. The two-classroom Shree Janasewa primary school, nestled in the lower Himalayas of southern Nepal, had collapsed beyond repair. Two NGOs, who had been working on health and education for Chepang people in Makwanpur district, approached me, as the founder of the Kathmandu based non-profit Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA). They requested us to conceptualise and design a new four-room Janasewa school on the tiny piece of land. With the SMA team, we first studied the geo-cultural uniqueness of the area, which is reflected in the tangible and intangible social-cultural heritage of the Chepangs. For us, it was crucial to have field observations with ecology expert Khadga Bahadur Katuwal**** and ample conversations with local children and parents. Their stories, observations and cultural expressions became an inspiration for the architectural micro narratives our design team would try to build for their new school.
Children spend years in school at a critical learning age. We wanted to create a built environment where play is an integral part of learning and growing up. We tried to listen to the Chepang people, listen to the site, listen to the existing local material, while creating an intervention in the fragile mountainous environment. We came up with playing steps, protective courtyard and a purposeful roof-scape. The trapezium-shaped classrooms are asymmetric in plan with curved corners in locally hammer dressed river stone to dampen sound reverberation.
Is the school we designed, a wasted long-term effort already, as recently on-line teaching has received such a momentous impulse, it is something which needs to be seen, but clearly there are mixed opinions. The Joint Forum for Movement on Education (JFME) in India articulated clearly their position towards systematic on-line teaching***** on Friday May 8, 2020; "education is about continuous human interaction and critical engagement through dialogue and questioning for which the formal classroom space is essential''.
Are we perhaps today in another global crisis of trust? History tells us most governments and international bodies, in response to SARS, swine flu, Ebola, MERS etc. turn to technology for a quick solution. Perhaps this time, because of the exposures of massive unemployment and blatant inequality, something will change. Possible future measures to protect national building material markets and/or dramatically increased long-distance transportation costs, would have had little influence on the school in Nepal as almost everything is local.
Will there be a shift in the design practice towards local produce, local material, local knowledge and local skills, including crafts? If this can be combined with innovative ideas, that might work. Earlier this year, SMA team members visited the open school. The kids were having a ball and outside class hours even children from outside the school came here to play and chat. The playful roof circuit is used by the children every day. What we also know is that we stayed within budget and that the classrooms have terrific acoustics.
*the initial building budget of 230 M. had increased to 350 M. by the time the building was completed Trouw newspaper, by Henny de Lange, 24 September 2011
**former PM UK Gordon Brown, in a GPS interview stated: this is a crisis not just of credit, it's a crisis of trust in our financial institutions, W.E.F. Davos, 1 February 2009
***Scott Burnham is an American design strategist, design educationalist and author of several design books; https://scottburnham.com
****Khadga Bahadur Katuwal was senior advisor on agriculture and ecology for the NGO Lischa Himalayan e.V., he passed away in May 2020.
****In a tiny newspaper column it was reported that the JFME had written to the HRD Minister asking him to rethink the government’s decision to promote on-line teaching, assessment and examination as a systematic alternative to formal education. The Hindu newspaper, staff reporter, 8 May 2020