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Resilience and Reality: A conversation About Development in Emerging Economies

In December 2012 a group of architects, practicing mostly in developing countries, sat down to have a frank discussion about the changing meaning of architecture and the role of architects in an economy that requires innovation simply to keep up with the status quo. Taking real steps forward takes serious effort that can only be achieved by combining goals and crossing disciplines. The participants included Andrew Brose (mass design group), Tsukasa Ishizawa (Takenaka Corporation), Hiroto Kobayashi, Hironori Matsubara (TMA), and Vo Trong Nghia (Vo Trong Nghia Architects). The discussion was moderated by Will Galloway and Yasushi Ikeda.

The following is an edited transcript of the meeting. The text has been modified for clarity in parts by the editors.

Galloway: How hard is it to get your social and cultural ambitions implemented? Are there any gaps that you need to fill?

Tsukasa Ishizawa: First of all, as you know, in Singapore almost all of the development is backed by the authority of the government, and most of the land is owned by the country itself, so it’s not so difficult to decide something and push it forward. But I feel another gap exists between decision-making and the actual fabrication and construction. We have large construction crews on our sites, and they come from Bangladesh or India or other nearby countries, and communicating with them, never mind teaching them, about how to build what we are aiming for is an issue. For example, a new worker comes to the site, but until yesterday he was in a Chinese restaurant boiling noodles or something like that, so to tell them what he needs to do is a challenge - how to tell them properly what he needs to do, and by when. From my point of view BIM is quite useful to illustrate what they need to do in this case. We can show them that today the site will be like this; and tomorrow we need to work up to this landscape element, so what you need to do is like this. It helps to use BIM to illustrate the work when language is not going to be enough. What I’m also doing with BIM technology is keying in the timeline information and estimating how many workers are necessary to finish up the work, and if there is a delay, what countermeasures need to be taken. Do we need to do a 24 hour shift or do we need to increase the number of labourers, and so forth. Management is the key for a project. So this is quite a different point of view from the other countries we are talking about today, but for me this is my point of view on filling the gap.

Andrew Brose: I think overall we’re all trying to achieve the same thing. Of course there’s a difference in how we do it, for instance in Singapore maybe you’re achieving it based on a certification.
We’re obviously restricted by materials and skills and labour, but we’re still trying to get the proper ventilation used by materials and train within each project. Something we often deal with in Rwanda is contractors will tell you that a project will take half the time it really will, because they want to get the project, and something that BIM allows us to do - and we don’t use it nearly to the extent that you may be using it in Singapore - but when we go to site and we find that another contractor has done something completely different than what we’ve asked of them, it allows us as designers to kind of come up with a strategy how to continue working with that. And we’ve done projects using BIM where it’s very easy to modify things quickly, and while it’s kind of the opposite end of where BIM allows you to think about everything ahead of time, it also allows you to make changes very quickly, which is unfortunate, but working in a developing context or resource-limited settings we’ve learned how to be adaptable.

And I think, again we’re all, as architects we’re social scientists and we’re learning how to work with an end-user to provide them what they need, whether it’s a healthy environment or it’s a LEED-certified or, sorry, CASBEE certification. We’re all still trying to get to a similar goal. But it takes, of course there’s a difference in scale to each of these.

Vo Trong Nghia: I went back to Vietnam in 2006, six years ago, and then of course at the beginning no construction company wanted to build our designs. Of course this was the case with the bamboo work, and the school and the house. Everything really. So that’s why when I started with the wNw Café I had to train the staff, train the workers, and then I found I had a construction company.

Yesterday we talked with Kajima Corporation (a large construction company in Japan) about setting up a large construction company in Vietnam, because right now I start all of my designs with the limits of my own construction company, which is problematic. Some simulations or structural calculations, we cannot do them in Vietnam, so I asked Mr. Araya in Waseda to help me and some people at the University of Tokyo as well because we have a lot of projects going on at the same time. From the beginning that’s why I had to establish my design company along with a construction team, and now all the schools, the houses, and even the project in Mexico, or in Shanghai we do the work by ourselves. This is really hard to manage on my own, so we have a lot of Japanese staff and European staff, yes, yes, to manage our projects. And now we have the new office in Nihonbashi (an area in central Tokyo), because we are starting many projects in Japan, yes.

Hiroto Kobayashi: So you are sending your staff to the building sites? Outside of Vietnam? And then you supervise the work yourself?

Nghia: Yes. Yes, ten people are enough because, in the case of the house for example, we design one but we copy it many times, so we send just a few staff to the area and then we educate the local people, yes.

Yasushi Ikeda: What was the reaction from the local community after you finished a project? I mean, after you taught some people about the use of the technology, how to build something with bamboo, for example? I imagine it was a very good experience for them too.

Nghia: Yes, it’s very good. They can make their houses from bamboo because they have a lot of bamboo around them, so for example all of the people from my village helped me to make the bamboo projects, and now in my village they make houses from bamboo by themselves and they can save a lot of money. Of course we can expand with a lot of projects, not only the bamboo ones...but also stone. The builders challenge themselves, and that’s why we can expand very quickly.

Matsubara: I am also facing the gap problem in our Congo project. For me, my most important problem is how to keep the quality of the construction, because I know Japanese architecture and I have some experience, but I ask myself why I must make such a, how do you say, why I should do such unsophisticated details in the Congo? But at the same time, I have learned to think differently. I have come to realize that I’m fighting with the market economy. What I mean is I should create something, a new thing, but it’s unsophisticated, and that’s okay. With the Congo project we do not have riches of money and the construction materials are limited, but we can control time. For example, we don’t have to finish everything in one year. In one year we make just one building, but we will have six classrooms in the whole school so it means it will take six years,and that’s okay. This year we don’t have enough money in the budget so we only made the school gate. We didn’t make the classroom at all. We understand that in the near future we can make a good school but it is not finished, and this is the way we fight the money economy and solve the gap problem. This is my understanding. Time is really important for such a project I think, so if time passes, many people are coming and are involved a lot and sometimes it’s more useful and worthwhile to the local community.

Ikeda: It’s very interesting. You are all saying very similar things about the difference between importing technology from here to there, or trying to organize local communities around certain technologies you are bringing. So what is the basic difference? Nghia-san, I want to ask again too. What do you think? I mean, I think everybody tries to bring technology into other countries, but it’s different from just transplanting. In the previous session, Daniel showed us that physical devices are weaker than the human capital, but after I heard your presentations I started to feel that maybe building something is also a very effective way to grow the community as well.

Kobayashi: I don’t know if technology is the right word or not. With a lot of ideas, you try to introduce things to solve a problem, even in an unsophisticated way. That is the most important attitude toward the problem in many cases. At the same time, in the case of the larger scale, like the city planning scale, are primitive ideas workable or not?

Nghia: You mean about the big scale? Yes, we are thinking about that because in Ho Chi Minh City we want to make the green roof or the roofing because of overheating, so that’s why we started with the tube house, because if we copied it in the city where it is visible, people can see that, and the Vietnamese people, they are smart and will copy it. So it’s a very good influence on the city, at the city scale. Of course to change the policy of the government is really difficult but we can act with small things, and have a big influence on society. It’s like the IPhone. One design but sold to the world - Just like that we can design one house and sell it to all over the city.

Galloway: Let’s go from there. How do you increase your impact and how do you have a larger effect?

Andrew Brose: I’m kind of tying into the last question a little bit too, but at the opening of the hospital, the ministry of health came and told us, we want to copy and paste Butaro everywhere over Rwanda. We thought that’s great, but let’s not do that because it’s not going to work, because it’s very site-specific. We designed it for a context. So now we’re in discussions with the ministry of health on developing a set of standards and guidelines for all health facilities in Rwanda, and it did take a grassroots project, it took something very small, it took thousands of donated hours on our part, in order to be recognized or noticed. And I’m sure with all of us it takes doing a prototype or a model before you can prove that the system or a technology or a method works. And that’s kind of how we’re moving forward.

We can’t always be doing grassroots projects. We also have to be working at the government level in order to effect a widespread change. And we see that there’s an issue with construction technologies and methods right now in East Africa, and so we’re working now with RHA, the ministry of infrastructure and all these other organizations within Rwanda, as well as continuing projects with small local organizations. Of course, like I said, we’re a not-for-profit organization. We work on a kind of sliding fee and a donation scale and we’re all donating a lot of our time and working for very decreased pay to do this because we enjoy the work and we think it’s very valuable work. I think for the future we see hopefully more projects are fee-based and that allows us to do us more pro bono work or not-for-profit work, but we’ll continue working with very decreased salaries because we really enjoy it, like I said, we enjoy this work.

I think the future for us really is how we can continue these very small projects while receiving the funding we need, and also continue these conversations with USAID, with ministries. We even recently won a tender for a project in Liberia. And so we’re slowly growing and expanding within Uganda and Liberia, and a little in Osutu, and people are recognizing this work and recognizing the success of this. I think this goes back to a question you asked earlier about quality. A lot of times we’re going for that great shot to publish, but clients love that too, and especially when you’re dealing with a client who has very limited funding, and when they’re seeking more funding, if they present a project which is successful not only because it looks good but because the numbers back it up, then there’s going to be plenty of people who are supporting them and the work they’re doing. And so our core mission is amplifying the mission of our partners, what do they need to be more successful as an organization, and it’s not always a facility, but we’ll do our best to help them however we can.

Ishizawa: In Singapore, to create a green building does not mean contributing to the original tropical nature itself. The aim is to create an attractive city in order to get more investment in the city, because Singapore’s viewpoint is always based on the financial or economic background. Their prosperity is based on gathering talented people from all over the world and associate the city with that. There are some general contractors there, but mostly they bring general contractors from other countries. It’s always like this. So they always are finding some good way to do something, but rather than learning the technology or fabrication method, they source that kind of thing to other countries and they gather the outcome and coordinate or accommodate the output to create a better city. That’s the basic concept of Singapore. It’s quite different from Japan and other countries. Not every country or city can do this. It’s a quite limited model to create the city.

Matsubara: When we started the Congo project I thought to myself that we would do very special, very unusual things, using the Japanese students to carry out the work. Now I don’t have that idea anymore. In 2008 when we started I emphasized our uniqueness, especially the geographical location and the project background. That is gone now. One reason is that when I visited the ministry of construction in the Congo, I learned that there is no ministry of construction; they only have the ministry of reconstruction. They suffered from a serious civil war and they need to rebuild now, not just build. Actually, up until 1960 they had very rich landscape and cities, and Congo was a kind of dreamland for European people for summer vacations, for Belgians especially. But after the 1960’s a dictatorship took over and the city was in the end mostly destroyed. And now they need to rebuild. This situation is not so different from… I’m sorry, but it’s totally equal to the Tohoku situation I think. After my experience there I felt our project is not so special because it’s about rebuilding. I am doing a very ordinary thing in Congo, in Africa. This is my frank impression now.

And I think, for example just as Kobayashi-sensei just said, at the start of the project the Congo people were very kind and very open and laughing, smiling with us. But once we knew them better and worked together with them, they slowly started to talk about what kinds of problems they have and what they really need. They are really proud people and don’t ask for anything, but once we became friends they expressed their ideas. Now, I don’t think I’m a foreign architect in the Congo. I am just an architect who is working in the Congo.

Nghia: I am doing my school for money. There is a volunteer component too, but because I have a factory I just make some concrete with some control of the quality of units, and the people can take the parts and assemble things like a table. The most important thing is we can do that at very low cost because we prefabricate the parts and it goes together bolt by bolt and it’s easy to make a school or a house.

Galloway: So you’re building an industry by yourself.

Nghia: Yes, because I think we have to.

Galloway: So we can ask the same question then: where do you go from here? What’s next?

Nghia: Like I said earlier, we want to add trees to the buildings, in the city houses, so we are trying to make a lot like that. Not only that, we manufacture a lot of green buildings, green houses. In Vietnam we have many places that are very poor like in Congo, so we do the same thing but we manufacture the parts because we calculated it is cheaper to assemble pieces and let people build on their own rather than have me go there.

Galloway: Is that possible in Africa?

Nghia: Of course. Of course, of course. We can do that.

Matsubara: We must find something different instead of bamboo I think.

Nghia: Yes, of course. I’m not talking about bamboo, but instead you can make concrete bricks, right?

Brose: Something we struggle with in Rwanda is tolerances. I’m sure you see this in Congo too. I mean, guys don’t have tape measures.

Ishizawa: In Singapore the definition of resiliency will be quite different from Japan because in Singapore there are no earthquakes, there are no typhoons... and no strong winds. So the risk of disaster is small compared to other countries. Resiliency, or some may say sustainability, is all about how to keep the environment independent, I mean as a country, because the land is so limited and they need to supply water or electricity, and the entire infrastructure by themselves. One of the major concerns is water, which comes from Malaysia. Because these days the relationship between Malaysia and Singapore is not so good, and that’s why Malaysia is increasing the water price, almost 100 times compared to ten years ago. Singapore is struggling to source the water themselves. It forms a very strong background to government policy - they are trying to increase the water area and to find new water sources.

Ikeda: Countries have different risks. The same thing is happening in our country. Here we have this food security issue, and energy security issue is now particularly strong.

Galloway: Self-sufficiency is an important aspect of resiliency. How about you, Andrew? You’ve been… I can see you thinking but you’re not speaking so much yet. I’m curious what you will add to this.

Brose: In terms of reconstruction, Rwanda lost a lot of craftsmen in the ‘94 genocide, and the development that’s happened since then has been very quick, and a lot of Asian contractors have come in to design and construct these buildings quickly and there hasn’t been any training or skills transfer. There was a time where you had masons and carpenters and welders who were skilled, but we lost a lot of those craftsmen and we’re now dealing with a very young set of workers. And so something we’re trying very hard to do is retain the guys that we train on site. It is hard to do because it’s not typical - like when you hire a contractor and he comes with his crew. Generally we hire people on a daily basis. For example in Butaro, we would hire laborers who don’t have any particular set of skills, they come to the gate in the morning and they get hired for carrying water or transporting dirt - labor is cheap and it’s the one thing that is readily available, as opposed to materials or tools.

So the primary way we’re trying to build resiliency, through every project, is by keeping people we’ve trained and people who’ve become our more skilled masons [we want to] keep them on to other projects and have them train the next guys. It generally tends to be about who we can develop and who we can continue to use as skilled labourers and less about the technologies and less about the materials, which we’re still trying to introduce. There’s more of it in Uganda and some parts of Kenya, but Rwanda is so land-locked and expensive to bring anything in that labor is kind of the one asset we have.

Ikeda: It’s a very good point. Maintaining the skills that reside in the people themselves is important to create resiliency.

Brose: Something that’s hard is, in Rwanda, if you have a job it’s good for however long you have it and you’ll move to the next job, whatever the job is, and so not a lot of the people have pride in their work, whether they’re a mason or a carpenter, what have you. It’s hard to find people who really are dedicated to that work and who, they could be a taxi driver or they could be selling mandazis on the side of the street. People are so focused on making what they need to survive on a day-to-day basis and that pride in their work is something that is coming back, but it’s hard to find right now.

Galloway: It sounds like the infrastructure that architects usually rely on doesn’t exist for most of you in your work. If I can find something to connect all of you in your diversity, it is this sort of non-standard practice. Maybe that’s a new normal, everyone has to innovate just to do normal things, but no two efforts are the same. You have to make your own factory or you have to make new software or you have to train people to stay for more than one day or you have to make your own bricks or come up with a new structural system. Is it possible to comment on this kind of thing in the context of reconstruction or practice...

Kobayashi: Last year I started to have doubts about standards. Everything was broken, and the standard didn’t work. Even though we thought Japanese technology, our science and everything was so perfect, all at once it was broken and we began to rebuild from scratch. So I think maybe it’s a good change for us to think about a new standard, or a personal approach to the problems we face. Of course we need some standards to make things work easier and faster, but at the same time it’s a good chance to create a new standard. That’s what I’m feeling since last year.

Ishizawa: I have an impression regarding this topic of resiliency. Since March 11 last year, and this is true also in Singapore, sometimes there is doubt about the conventional systems, the established way of building, and sometimes we are asked, is this building really safe? To answer we need to make a simulation or analysis. It used to be that simulations were to prove that a design is effective or better than another option, but now we use simulations to prove safety. For example this building we are doing now has a kind of flower at its top, but it is unique. There is nothing to compare it to in the world, so we need to prove that the funnel shape is safe from a structural view. If we think about it, maybe the funnel will vibrate or make a sound, nobody knows. We need to make simulations to measure the effect. It is not only about design. This is quite a new point of view for me.

Nghia: When I went back to Vietnam, from the architectural and construction standard in comparison to Japan, well after ten years in Japan I felt that we didn’t have ANY architects in Vietnam. They just made buildings, or they just made houses, but not architecture. So we have to educate the people, even the workers.

Galloway: Can I maybe just switch completely to the question from the audience, about inspiration now. What made you think about being an architect? It is the kind of question that is easy to be flippant about but I am curious, in the context of resiliency building and with emerging markets, where the process is so malleable, what are you thinking about for the future and what is it that is driving you now?

Matsubara: Can I answer a different question? I think the important role of an architect is not only to create the forms and to design something but also to find the frontiers; not only geometrically, but also something like a new way to survive. For example, I said before I’m fighting with the market economy, but actually I want to find a way to make a connection between this kind of voluntary work and the market economy. For example, the government of Japan pays lots of money to NGOs or NPOs who are making schools in developing countries but we didn’t take any of those funds. Instead I want to extend our activity, to involve more power or capital and to extend our activities. In this post post-modern society, the role of architects is not only to design buildings but also to try to find new frontiers. I think is very important.

Nghia: I myself am very simple. I was born in a small village. There was a war with America and the Vietnamese, but that is a separate issue. In my house we didn’t have electricity. We didn’t have newspapers. No TV, no radio. We went to school, but it was in such poor condition we almost never actually went, because we didn’t have a usable classroom. At that time, some people came to my village, and they were architects. One architect, he looked, oh, he looked like he had a lot of money, like he was very rich. So that’s why I wanted to be an architect. [laughter]. Then, when I studied architecture in Japan I realized, oh, no, architects are poor [laughter] very poor, and so at that time I tried to understand how Tadao Ando and others did it, because they are not poor. They are not poor. I worked for Sejima’s office and they expect us to work for like 15 hours a day without pay. Just making models, and I felt this is not a human life. [laughter] Yes, I felt that. So that’s why I am trying to manufacture architectural parts, so we can earn a lot of money, and we even can give them away to build schools and houses, but I don’t want to say that architects are poor. Because my dream began with that village architect, and I grew up in a world without information, not even knowing about Christmas, like in North Korea today perhaps, I just didn’t know that architects are actually poor. That’s why we are trying to make the architecture office the way we are. Some magazine ask me if I was influenced by Tadao Ando and I say yes, but not as an architect, mostly the way he deals with PR. [laughter]

Galloway: The important point perhaps is that you are working on building your city in a new way at the same time, so it’s not like it’s entirely about being rich.

Nghia: No. it isn’t. And I don’t want my staff to work through the night pulling all-nighters. At my office late is 10:00. I don’t want anyone to work later than that.

Galloway: Andrew, what do you think?

Brose: [My inspiration for practice begins with] a little bit different twist. I was originally planning to study international development, and I was doing an internship in southern Burundi and we were working with refugees who were returning from Tanzania to put them into homes. There were 500 refugees coming back into the country. And as an NGO we were purely donating materials for the project. So it was mud brick and timber frame and corrugate, zinc-coated corrugate sheeting, and a wood door and a wood burglar bar window, and everybody was grateful for the materials but they kept complaining about how hot the houses were and how stuffy they were inside and how it was great to be getting these houses but they weren’t working that well, and they kept pointing to the fired brick houses up on the hill or in the capital and saying we want something like that. And I was asking myself, why do they want that? Why can’t we give them the same price for materials that just work better? I started asking myself a lot of these questions and I decided to study architecture to see if I could figure that out.

I actually didn’t intend to necessarily end up back in Rwanda or back in that part of the world, but I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some great people who are doing some enjoyable work. A number of my colleagues in Rwanda have taught me a lot, especially some of the guys from Shanghai. Studying architecture kind of solved some of these inherent problems I was seeing, and actually just encouraged me to continue even more and more. I’m pretty young still and I have a lot to learn, so I’m excited about the opportunities to learn from my colleagues and continue studying in the next years.

Ishizawa: Originally, what I wanted to do was explore the architectural world in a different way. Since I’m an alumni of Keio University I thought I had some advantage in terms of skills related to IT information technology. When I had an interview at Takenaka was asked why I was experimenting with IT and architecture and I answered that it was to find a better way to design so that we could call it a day at 5:00 [laughter], but what I actually think is that when we adopt new technology maybe something useful can be changed. I cannot say it will be an improvement but it’s worth trying. Now I am a BIM manager and exploring the topic from a designer’s viewpoint, but at the same time maybe I can play some role in the construction phase or some of the facility management phase. I am still searching for a way to explore architectural design from an outsider’s viewpoint.

Kobayashi: Last year I was shocked by the disaster and tried to rethink the architect’s role. I was asked in a symposium about this and Fumihiko Maki was there, and he tried to answer but couldn’t, and I was the same. I am still thinking what can I do for people or for communities, and it has been a chance to rethink my life as an architect. I am sort of starting from scratch now. I am of course still doing projects in China and Japan and try to find work. At the same time, I try to spend as much time I can to come up with new ideas for architecture. So this is my second life as an architect.

Galloway: A good way to end things I think.