Posted by Mike McCaffrey on Dec 31, 2009
The work of Architecture for Humanity design fellow, Susi Platt was recently featured in Four Seasons Magazine:
It is not every day that architects consider elephant migration patterns when they begin work on a new design. But it was a detail London-based architect Susi Jane Platt considered when she led the charge to develop energy efficient outdoor lighting for a remote Sri Lankan village ravaged by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. How else could the village escape the inevitable, namely, that elephants unable to distinguish mudroofed homes from trees would choose them as the perfect place to scratch their colossal bodies, the sheer force of which could raze home after home in a series of resonant thuds?
Not just undiscriminating elephants, but lack of electricity and potable water, limited budgets, and site-specific cultural values and environmental issues are among the challenges confronting designers in the service of Architecture for Humanity.
Accordingly, when Architecture for Humanity fellow Susi Platt arrived in Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka, in late 2005, she wasn’t carrying blueprints or preconceived notions about what sort of community complex she thought would be best. On the contrary, along with AFH design partner UN Habitat, the first order of business was to involve as many villagers as possible - hundreds of whom were displaced after the 2004 tsunami - in design development and, later on, the construction process.
It all began with meetings that, Platt recalls, drew hundreds of villagers and generated highly spirited exchanges: "We asked everyone to put their heads together and decide what they needed most. The Sri Lankans are a very spirited people so there was lots of laughter and lots of debate about how best to allocate our very limited budget." In the end, the villagers agreed on a complex that would include a preschool, a community centre, a library and a medical centre. Then, by democratic vote, they elected a Community Development Council that took on the responsibility of writing the design brief and making ongoing decisions and setting priorities.
Indeed, the word "empowerment" falls short of conveying Architecture for Humanitys' methods, which don’t so much give or enable power as demand that villagers take control of their future. For those whose homes and livelihoods had been literally washed away, being asked to take part in a process that began with informal colloquy and moved through initial drawings, groundbreaking ceremonies and eventually construction helped transform their residual fears into fire-in-the belly excitement.
"It was very important to us that the villagers take part in the construction process," says Platt, who is now an architect with Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners in London. "Happily, that is just what ended up happening." Among the community were many skilled carpenters, masons and metalworkers, and AFH and UN Habitat organised workshops to train even more. Involving the community in the actual construction gave rise to serendipitous design details such as welded window grills in the shape of local wild animals and the carving of the Sri Lankan symbol for prosperity into a restraining wall. Everyone was paid for his or her work and even took turns volunteering services to ensure that the community complex would be completed. No wonder, then, that the opening celebration, which included singing, dancing, hundreds of speeches and a play, began at dawn and went on through the wee hours of the night: The finished Yodakandiya Community Complex is not a cookie-cutter structure delivered by outsiders; it is a symbol that a bespoke sustainable project could be achieved.
Read more about Architecture for Humanity in the full article.
To see more information about Susi's work, check out our list of completed projects.