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When Architects Become Activists

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Berlin-based architecture firm GRAFT designed a solar-powered kiosk now in use across six African countries. Source: Simon Mulumba / Cmoncy Images

After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, the devastated city found an unlikely champion in Hollywood actor Brad Pitt. He stepped in to help rebuild the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward, a district that was already a byword for despair and official neglect, even before it disappeared under three meters of water. Thanks to Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, more than 100 new homes have been rebuilt, with many more in the planning.

That may not sound like much, but these 100 homes will have an impact far beyond the banks of the Mississippi. That’s because Pitt‘s project is an example of “architecture activism” – the idea of using architecture as a force for social and ecological change. To this end, Pitt assembled a roster of 21 international architects to develop prototypes of affordable green homes for New Orleans, using ideas that can be replicated around the world.

 

“Good design is not a first world privilege.”

GRAFT

Pitt’s architecture activists include big names like Frank Gehry. But other, lesser known firms also share the project’s idealistic zeal. Leading the group is GRAFT, a Berlin-based firm that has made sustainable design its calling card. Its goal is to create 21st century urban architecture that’s ecologically sustainable, cheap to build and maintain, and better adapted to residents’ needs.

No project better demonstrates this philosophy than the Lower Ninth. The homes designed by GRAFT are heated and cooled with geothermal pumps. Solar panels generate electricity. If a typical utility bill once ran to $300 a month, a family now pays $25. All homes are made from recyclable materials and raised several feet above ground, keeping residents and their possessions safe from flooding. When a tropical storm hits New Orleans today, barely a sound makes it past the buildings’ sturdy walls.

The new homes are affordable too, with costs capped at $150,000. But low cost doesn’t mean bland uniformity. A variety of designs pay respect to local styles. One common feature is a deep front porch, typical of the American South, for outdoor socializing sheltered from sun and rain.

 

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Source: Simon Mulumba / Cmoncy Images

For the three German architects behind GRAFT, their endeavors go far beyond the commercial projects that pay the bills. Instead, they hope to provide practical answers to contemporary problems — from climate change to mass migration — by addressing all aspects of design and construction. “We’re curious and we try to be courageous,” says co-founder Lars Krückeberg. “Architecture is a profession that actually allows you to make lives better.” So far, their idealism has proved no obstacle to success. Krückeberg and his two partners employ 100 architects, artists and technical staff in Berlin, Beijing and Los Angeles, their buildings adorning skylines from Seoul to Las Vegas. They also designed Pitt’s residence near Los Angeles.

GRAFT’s activism often translates into engagement for the developing world. Working with Germany’s KfW development bank, Krückeberg’s team has designed affordable homes to meet a desperate need for cheap housing in Namibia, where rapid urbanization has left some 500,000 people living in squalid shanty towns. That’s not just a humanitarian and environmental issue, but an economic one, too, as the lack of proper homes holds back development. “To join in society, the first thing you need is a house,” says Krückeberg. Owning a modest home, says Krückeberg, will make poor Namibians “bankable” – allowing them to take out a small loan to start a business, for example.

 

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Source: GRAFT

But GRAFT’s ambitions don’t stop at housing. It’s also out to address one of the key problems in developing countries: how to provide low-cost power to the 1.5 billion people still living without regular access to electricity. Now scattered across six African countries are more than 200 solar-powered kiosks designed by GRAFT. No bigger than a small trailer, the streamlined, chic kiosks feature batteries that store energy collected by solar panels on the roof. Assembled from simple kits, the kiosks can be constructed almost entirely from wood, bamboo or other local materials. Only the core electrical components need to be supplied.

For remote rural villages, the kiosks are a godsend. They’re places to buy chilled drinks, to recharge mobile phones and to socialize. For the first time, these villages have round-the-clock electric lighting – even if only at the kiosk – which means social and economic life no longer ends at sundown. What’s more, the kiosks replace kerosene lamps and diesel generators, both of which are more expensive, as well as health hazards. “The kiosk is architecture, a product and a piece of infrastructure that could help billions of people,” says Krückeberg. He hopes the idea will catch on and be a force for change. “This is what architecture should do,” he says. The GRAFT ideal embodied in a kit.

William Underhill is a senior writer for Handelsblatt Global Magazine.

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