Architect links design with human rights

Saturday, April 30th, 2005

Kim Pemberton

One may not necessarily view architecture as possessing a human rights dimension, but Vancouver architect Graeme Bristol is on a mission to show there are indeed architectural solutions to humanitarian problems.

The 55-year-old Bristol, a professor at the School of Architecture and Design in Bangkok, is speaking this weekend at the Architectural Institute of B.C.’s annual conference, entitled Architecture and Humanity.

The very fact the conference has humanity as a focus indicates a shift that is happening in the field — many of today’s architects care deeply about social responsibility and believe good design is more than just creating aesthetically pleasing buildings.

These are architects, particularly a younger breed, who are not interested in designing the next beautiful building for a wealthy client but rather having their designs make a difference in the lives of the disadvantaged.

Bristol certainly is one of a handful of architects worldwide making a name for themselves not through signature designs, but from their skills at helping others help themselves when rebuilding devastated communities.

“Design is a pretty powerful tool,” says Bristol in an interview at the AIBC offices in Vancouver.

“Most architectural schools are basically divorced from reality. They’re focussed on high design — the Frank Gehry’s and Zaha Hadids of the world. When you look at what wins architectural awards what are you seeing? Not people but pretty buildings.”

Bristol, who founded the Centre for Architecture and Human Rights last year, is trying to get the message out, particularly to young architects, that there is another way.

He believes in working in communities and letting the people who will live in the buildings guide the process instead of imposing a design that was “created in the backroom of an architect’s office.”

“People must be more in control of their environment,” he says.

“Typically, when architectural students go into slums they want to tell everyone what to do. It takes a lot to change that attitude. But what they really need is to learn how to listen.”

These days, Bristol is leading a volunteer effort to help rebuild communities in Thailand after last December’s losses from the tsunami. He returns to Thailand early next month to continue this work with student architect volunteers.

What makes Bristol‘s work stand out is his insistence that architects not go into communities in need thinking they have all the answers but rather to work with the communities to come up with solutions.

This is exactly what happened in Pom Mahakan, a community of about 300 people who city officials wanted to evict in order to turn their neighbourhood into a park. The reason for the eviction was city official’s desires to provide better views of historic sites in the area for tourists, says Bristol.

“The city was defining history a certain way, through temples and palaces and the people — who had always been there — weren’t considered part of that history.”

Bristol and a team of students from the Bangkok School of Architecture were already in Pom Mahakan at the time working on a development project.

But with the threat of eviction their design work became even more significant, proving Bristol‘s point that architecture can impact human rights.

“The people thought a park was a great idea but they didn’t want to leave,” says Bristol.

The design solution the community and student architects arrived was creating a park that allowed for housing within its borders.

Eight weeks ago, the city finally offered the residents a 30-year lease that would create a park with housing provided.

Right now Bristol and students he teaches are working on four specific projects as part of the tsunami recovery program.

One of the projects is called the Morgan Project, providing 75 houses for “sea gypsies” — people who have lived hundreds of years on the islands off Thailand.

Working so directly in the field clearly holds value for Bristol, who doesn’t hold out any promise of ever returning to Canada to work.

“I have been having a lot of fun, despite the fact you are working in slums. I’ve learned so much in the last eight years I’ve been there I don’t want to stop,” says Bristol.

And while he continues his agenda to encourage students of architecture to consider human rights in their work, he’s under no illusion that others will be quick to follow in his path.

“I know most of these students won’t get involved in a lifetime of working in the slums, but I do hope that when they are working for the developers and the developers say this land is empty they will say ‘well, no it’s not. There are people here.’ “

© The Vancouver Sun 2005


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