Rem Koolhaas had a great graph during the recent economic crash where he showed how creativity in architects increased in inverse proportion to the decline of the building industry. His argument is that architects are continually generating ideas regardless of whether or not they can make them, which in turn gives us a surplus of thought that could generate a future full in ingenuity. And the guy talking on stage here is right. Architecture isn't about building, it is about a way a thinking. A friend of mine abides by that rule. I have a different thought about what architecture is and all I can come up with is that it has to do with the practice of connecting something to something else. Preston Scott Cohen says that "architecture is a coincidence". Chew on that.
Typical North American building code has in place a division B part 9, designed specifically for small buildings. Small schools, churches, even tiny hotels, and homes are subject under this category. The idea behind this is that there are, and should be, a different set of standards to build these small typologies of necessity. The most paramount being that one does not need to be an architect to get a permit to build them. In some places still, one can go in with a series of hand drawn plans and be able to build. All that would be required is that you've demonstrated a proficient understanding of best building practices within that particular region - information that can easily be gleaned from a few google searches, a bit of reading, and an appreciation to detail. To zoom out for a second, I've always really liked the idea of this because it reminds me of a right to pursue happiness of sorts. The idea that any one can get a bit of land and build a life - literally - without needing specialization is a great thought. Building your own home is something you will always be able to do. Architecture is already democratized.
80% of the buildings around the world are still made from loam. Earth being the most readily available material, and quite literally the byproduct of excavation, it's quite easy to come by, let alone free. Add a bit of fire (free again) and bam - brick. With that in mind, building with plywood and a computer seems a bit of a non starter to me for most places. Plywood can only get wet 7 or 8 times before it's no good, so like he says, just add windows and some cladding. And metal flashing, and building paper, and footings, and hinged doors and and and. Try adding cladding with a mallet made of plywood. What he is essentially proposing here is something akin to a poorly considered first year design project. It isn't nearly as affective as this concrete tent. Waterproof, fireproof, and durable as all get out. Concrete as a matter of fact works pretty well in poor countries with little resource. Those favella towers? Concrete bones with a bit of re-bar, clay infill and a corrugated metal roof. No fifty year warranty needed. Oh, you didn't finish building before the rainy season? No problem. Concrete hardens underwater. Come back next summer and keep going.
Above all of this though, is how troubling I find it when a person says that they're giving design to the people and leaving it up to them even though what they've presented is an already intentioned and considered object. The fact that this thing has a gable roof is problematic as it is essentially a symbol of western colonization. There are examples of this all over the world. One that comes to mind is the First Nations people in western Canada. Forced to live in Queen Anne style homes designed by the British, their way of life was completely upended and thus began a string of social woes within the family and community fabric - all bubbling out of the spaces that defined them. Turns out, our buildings rely on us living in them a certain way. And really, just imagine seeing one of these sitting on an almost impossible to develop slope in Rio nestled between two 6 story masonry structures. Does that feel right to anybody? Exporting such a singular icon is not democratization, but homogenization that disregards cultural identity and creeps slow death. Architecture is most alive where regional materials and local social practices are represented in real space and created solely by the people who use them - not flat-packed in plywood and stored on a microchip.