Thoughts on architecture as change catalyst
Last week we discovered that The Architectural Review had picked us in their ”30 under 30” selection of interesting young architects worldwide. This was largely due to our first built project, Sra Pou vocational school, started in Cambodia in 2010.
The Sra Pou project has had an immense impact on our following work and attitude towards architecture. We were thrown into the process of building a vocational school by a university course that we took in Cambodia in early 2010. The aim of the course, organised by Aalto University, Department of Architecture, was to practice working with humanitarian organizations and creating design solutions with very scarce resources. We had to remind our local collaborator NGO several times that our work was purely academic and that we cannot promise anything towards realizing the designs.
During the design process, we inevitably had to think about the steps towards realization to make our design feasible: where and on whose land to place the school in the community, where to acquire the materials and skills for building, how to fund them with the tiny budget of the NGO, whom to ask for help in the process. The first design served as a catalyst: when seeing the drawings, the community started looking for a good site for the building. The site was quickly found and donated by a local landowner exclusively for the school project. A few days after that, we learned from the community head that the community had acquired a building permission for that site. We were amazed by all this: the meant-to-be academic project suddenly had a building permission!
After that moment of amazement, it took two years to design, build, observe and fix the vocational school building in Sra Pou with the local NGO and community. The process has been exciting: we learned and struggled a lot with building details, commitment of professional builders and participation of end users. The process of change at the school is ongoing as the NGO is now struggling with continuing the vocational training activities. We do not know, what activity the school will serve or how it will look next year, but we hope that it will continue inspiring grassroots initiatives the community.
The main learning of this process was that architecture can serve as a catalyst for something new. We encouraged the community to think about the school, and they then encouraged us to build it with them. Before the design, neither one had believed the whole project to be possible. Afterwards, we have felt that the purpose of our work as architects is to catalyse the future. Every time we create a new design, it starts living its own life and provoking reactions in people who receive it. If the design is good and if it creates strong enough reactions in many enough people, chances are that it gets realized in one form or another. It has been important for us to notice that design can be used as a tool for communicating new initiatives and testing them. Even the architect can sometimes start a movement.
Today, we are using this learning in our work. In our small company, Architects R+K (www.rudanko-kankkunen.com), we want to focus on designing new public spaces indoors and outdoors, especially for learning and meeting. We want to get people to think in space and start new movements through design. Our favourite projects at the moment are designing imaginative kindergarten spaces in China and participatory design of public space in Finnish cities as a part of Uusi Kaupunki Collective (www.uusi-kaupunki.fi). In these projects, there is demand for change catalyst architecture.
Text by architect Hilla Rudanko / Architects Rudanko + Kankkunen.