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Courses that changed my life: Architecture & Civil Engineering

CHANGING LIVES: Article 25 office

ARTICLE 25 (A25) is the leading architectural voluntary charity in the UK. The bulk of their work is in Africa, Pakistan and now Haiti. A25 takes it’s ‘rights based’ name from article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which defines the right to housing and the social security that buildings bring as an essential right of every human being.

The organization was set up six years ago after Maxwell Hutchinson, one of a number of ex-presidents of the RIBA on the board of trustees, was caught up in the Sri Lankan tsunami and observed the need for technical skills in post disaster development situations.

I am sitting with Robin Cross, the Director of Article 25, inside the London based operations office that houses the facilities for the core technical skills team and the thirty volunteer staff that support them.

The dedication of his team is palpable and during the course of our conversation Robin repeatedly makes the point: "It is the volunteer teams and collaborators of architects, engineers and quantity surveyors in the main that provide the skills and resource that enable A25 to deliver projects in communities that otherwise would not be able to have access to those skills and resources despite their needs."

When asked whether they are in the business of putting themselves out of business by creating communities which are better able to fend for themselves, Robin Cross says: ‘A25’s ultimate goal is to build the capacity of communities to reconstruct for themselves, creating sustainable communities that are both empowered and essentially better able to build for themselves." Pausing, Robin adds: "Unfortunately there is no sign of that happening any time soon. Certainly, there are more projects that we would like to do than what we have the resources for.’

This would suggest the significant challenges faced for the foreseeable future in a number of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) environments around the world. A25 is as defined by the projects that they choose not to be involved in, usually for ethical or sustainable reasons, as by the projects they deliver.

"Sometimes what is most appropriate is not an Architect’s plans, but a Carpenter with his bag of tools that can train the local community"

A25’s strategy is to partner with community groups or local Non Government Organisations (NGOs) and through this engagement create a critical process of forming briefs and construction methodologies that define the architecture that is produced. In this way the projects become rooted in the community and the community’s needs. Sometimes this process shows that the ‘evident’ need that initiated the project is not the root cause of the communal need. Robin Cross explains: "A25 is there to help that community achieve its objectives and not to parachute in “solutions”. What is left behind at the end of a project is a key issue for A25. Sometimes what is most appropriate is not an Architect’s plans, but a Carpenter with a bag of tools to train the local community to convert its house building skills into school building skills.”

Pakistan, a region so regularly hit by earthquakes that it is not a question of if but when the next earthquake is coming, led to A25 being asked to develop a design for earthquake resistant low cost homes. These homes were targeted at the poorest members of the community who would not normally have access to the life saving technical skills. Robin: "Each site became a training programme for the local people, so that people who don’t have skills acquire them by working on the site. At the end of the project they should be able to build their own homes or set up a business building homes. It is through this process that the community becomes empowered and skilled up."

“Completing a Vocational Training Centre for former Child Soldiers in northern Uganda, Patongo has to be on the shortlist” (pull quote)

“The project most close to defining where A25 are now, is the Vocational Training Centre for former child soldiers in northern Uganda, Patongo.”

The title of this project alone suggests a brief and programme that to my mind would be a massive challenge for any architectural practice anywhere. Abducted from their families, these children who fought in the war now face peacetime with no life skills or education to fall back on. These displaced children who often cannot return home, will be educated in this new facility where they will gain the vocational and life skills to enable them to lead productive lives in a peaceful Uganda.

The site in Patongo is a former refugee camp and the project will leave behind a collection of educational buildings focused around a central communal space. As we talk about this Robin remembers a young woman, Grace, whose commitment to the project made a strong impression on him, he says:

“Grace is an 18 year old woman volunteer and is the only woman on the construction site. She works with the men -putting up with all the wolf-whistles and catcalls- and in her breaks attends to her infant child in the shadow of a tree. Then she comes back to work.’”

As he speaks his admiration for Grace is obvious. ‘She was abducted into the rebel army. She wants to help create the training centre, which will provide her with the skills to open her own business. The project has become a vehicle to help her turn her life around and this is the most impressive thing, the human impact is more impressive than a collection of good buildings.’ This way of thinking about architecture suggests a completely new definition of sustainability and regeneration.