[First published on www.ecobuildonline.co.za]
Architects and designers use the term “people-centred” design rather loosely. It has become a rather superficially applied term that gives the impression of a type of design that considers people first, or at least cares about their well-being. But what does it really mean and how can we apply it meaningfully in design so that it’s more than just a word, but a reality?
With the rise in an emphasis on “sustainable” architecture, there is a lot of focus on green building technologies and creating sophisticated systems that save energy and water. Green buildings create better environments for the building’s users which is a drastic shift from the modernist buildings of the 50's and 60's that were built to be functional only, and little was known about how inhabitants might be affected by lack of natural light and poor ventilation. It was about cost and financial return first and people last.
This fundamental shift has affected the way that we design the interiors of our buildings; spatially, functionally, and materially, as well as changing the way we create the envelope around the interior spaces (to incorporate more openings for natural light and ventilation for example). Green buildings are but a small part of our built environment. We have the ability to influence social connections between people by designing spaces that consider people first – to make reference to that which is outside ourselves (and outside our object building).
Andre Spies of Twothink Architecture, says that people-centred design should emphasise the “spaces in-between buildings rather than the buildings themselves”. He refers to examples of vernacular architecture where traditional mud buildings, by their physical layouts around a centralised space, created safe spaces for the community to gather and herd cattle. In Cape Town, the steps and alleyways of District Six consider how pedestrians move and pause between buildings. These spaces become connective fibres that create patterns and weave delicate connections between people and places. These are community spaces where “life” happens. Spies calls this “democratic space”, where cultural difference is respected, where equality happens, and where safety is created by a feeling of belonging.
Indian architect, Rahul Mehrotra, presented a body of his work at the Architecture ZA conference in Cape Town in 2012, and received a standing ovation from an audience that related to the need to cross the social divides in our own country. Mehrotra’s work demonstrates that there are ways of encouraging different communities to interact with each other by arranging spaces in different and unexpected ways. He calls these "collective thresholds”.
A beautiful example is a house designed for a young filmmaker which includes an outside portico that is used by the middle class inhabitants on weekends and by the locals in the village during the week as a public space. Because the locals feel that they have been recognised, there is a mutual respect between the two parities, although they are of such opposite classes.
Another example is a block of public toilets in an informal settlement which was conceptualised as a “community centre” where children can come to study at night. The caretaker has the “penthouse” on top and is able to watch over the block to make it a place of safety. Mehrotra said that architecture consists of a lot of privileged authorship and prefers an approach where the stamp of an architect is not obvious. Even his larger, more commercial buildings are more like “places” than objects – containers for people in which they can express themselves. Here, people come first.
Designer, Stephen Lamb of Touching the Earth Lightly redefines “people-centred design” as “human-hearted” design. His passion is creating design that seeks to address social issues of dignity and safety (food and shelter) first and foremost. He expresses the need for architects and designers to move away from a self-referential approach and to “listen and respond to the simple, everyday needs of people in tangible, logical, and meaningful ways”.
Lamb’s “Green Shack”, which he worked on in association with artist Andrew Lord, illustrates how simple (yet innovative) design can be used as a tool to deal with physical and social problems. Some of the main concerns it deals with are fire, flooding and food security. The green vertical veggie gardens which grow on its north and west walls are its namesake. Lamb emphasises that the Green Shack is a representation of a set of ideas that are meant to instigate a “conversation’”. Design should be an iterative process that changes to incorporate a society’s needs. He also challenges the notion of what is “beautiful”. Is it a perfect geometric form, or the latest item of fashion, or is it something that responds to people’s real needs?
For me, as an architect, “people-centred” design is about broadening our perception of what architecture actually is and what role architects should play in society. “People-centred” design is about allowing people to “own” their buildings, whether it be new community centres or their own homes. These should be places where people feel that they belong and are recognised. It’s about allowing each person to hold their own concept of “home” within themselves whatever that may be and whatever form that may take.
Design is powerful because we have the ability to create connection in tangible ways. We can affect change in the now by applying our knowledge of space. It’s not necessarily an easy task, and Spies says that “we will probably never master this slightly ‘utopian’ idea of people-centred architecture entirely”, but through an iterative process that challenges and questions conventions, we can make a start.
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My thoughts as I go about visiting interesting places, attending exhibitions and conferences, and the architectural world we live in.