The Louna Architects’ Bookshop by the Scarcity and Creativity Studio in China
Courtesy SCS The Louna Architects’ Bookshop by the Scarcity and Creativity Studio in China

It is the small projects that give me hope. Around the world, architects and activists are working with communities to develop structures that house people in not just decent, but beautiful ways; they are building, often with their own hands, centers for learning and healing. They are experimenting with materials that are local, recycled, or easily reusable. They are offering alternative careers for nascent architects.

I was reminded of the breadth of these projects last month at the World Architecture Festival in Amsterdam, where one of them, the Gaobu Bookhouse, almost won the grand prize as the best building. Like almost all the designs of this sort, it is simple, although in this case grander in its appearance than most. Towering over a small village in Hunan Province, and constructed by local craftspeople working with students from Christian University Hong Kong (CUHK) and Guangzhou University using material they found in the neighboring forests, it is an open web made of wood that serves as learning center as well as a lending library. Its open and covered porch has become a gathering spot, and its scale makes it a central monument in the village.

The Gaobu Bookhouse

In Guizhou province, students from China and the University of Oslo have been working for several years to design and build small structures for Louna Valley, a breathtakingly beautiful area of scenic beauty. A tea pavilion, a visitor center, and a guest house all show different approaches to building technology and material uses, while at the same time enclosing markers and gathering points the organizers hope will help attract more visitors to this remote and poor location.

Such projects seem to be especially prevalent in China, where they are joined by larger-scale infrastructure efforts to reclaim rivers and wetlands, not only for more effective flood control and pollution remediation, but also as public spaces and even productive agricultural land in urban areas. One of those projects, a demonstration section for the reclamation of the Yangpu River in Shanghai, won the prize for best landscape design at the World Architecture Festival.

Louna Architects' Bookshop
Courtesy SCS Louna Architects' Bookshop

Other examples are popping up in Vietnam, Thailand, India, Brazil, and several countries in Africa. They range from agricultural and community centers to clinics, with the latter being especially prevalent in Africa. I have noted several of them in the past, but their growing numbers makes me realize that there is a more general movement here. What they all share is a focus on architecture that is constructed in collaboration with users or inhabitants, has a local focus, and seeks to improve the community in which it rises. In the case of the infrastructure projects, they disappear into the ground. These are not designs intended to maximize profit or the egos of the designers.

The roots of such activities lie in the “tactical urbanism” developed by firms such as Urban Think Tank in the last two decades, as well as in rural projects that architects have been carrying out for decades: in this country, Rural Studio’s efforts in Hale County, Ala., are especially remarkable. What more recent examples have added is, on the one hand, an emphasis on the integration of technology, whether in 3D printing material or engaging in research and, on the other hand, the increased integration of such efforts in school curricula.

A house built as part of Auburn's Rural Studio design/build program.
Photo by Timothy Hursley, courtesy Auburn University A house built as part of Auburn's Rural Studio design/build program.

That latter point is of particular importance because it offers an alternative path for education that I believe education organizations in the U.S., such as NCARB, NAAB, and ACSA, should focus on and encourage. Not only is this community work important in and of itself but, given the ever-increasing automation of design tasks, I would think it would behoove educators to think about what other skills they can train their charges to master. Our current obsession with preparing students for the traditional career path of becoming a drafter, detailer, and organizer, then getting licensed and becoming a full-fledged practitioner, might need adjustment. The low end of that path is already largely automated out of existence, and there is less and less call for the kind of stand-alone, high-design buildings that usually beckon at the end of such a career path.

Teaching our students to work in and with communities, to experiment with materials and construction methods that rely on local knowledge and materials, and to offer the kind of critical perspective that only architects can provide, wherever it might be useful, might be one answer to this situation. It might also help the discipline develop alternatives to either the production of ever more buildings that use up scarce natural resources while reinforcing social and economic segregation, or research and development paths that are solely focused on technological perfection.

Finally, the fact that so much of this work is taking place in villages, rural areas, and countries where architecture can make a substantial difference could also make us think that the discipline could have a new focus: not the building of the new, the big, and the urban, but the making of the small and the focused—the architecture that responds to the evolving reality of rural and ex-urban areas.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.