Community Architecture: A Late Twentieth Century Powerful Force in the Creation of Human Settlement
The 1970s witnessed a host of architectural movements and tendencies whose ideologies conformed to the thinking and ideas of a large number of architects. In the early 1980s, community architecture movement and public participation has emerged and became one of the most significant trends which played a key role in contemporary architectural debate. In fact, Community architecture has emerged as a powerful force for change in the creation and management of human settlement as well as involving the active participation of people in the development of their own environment.
In their Community Architecture, Nick Wates and Charles Knevitt argued that community architecture is an approach which brings architects, craftsmen and the community together in the creation of shelter for the poor. They argued that the environment works better if people contribute positively in the creation of places where they live, work and play, and are not treated as passive consumers. They also believed that the only possibility to escape this disaster is to build housing that people want to live in; to give people a sense of pride and reinforce their identity with their local community; to build social facilities that are needed and properly looked after; to develop neighbourhoods and cities in ways that enrich people’s lives by being genuinely responsive to their needs and aspirations.
The basic condition in the co-operative system is the voluntary donation of time and labour and the desire to receive similar help, then this system could be adapted by non-traditional societies as well as expanded and applied to a mass housing program. This approach involves social, economic, and cultural questions which are more substantial than the purely technical aspects that concern the architect. This attitude of creating better environments for community projects can be found in the work of prominent architects including,Hassan Fathy (1900-1989), Ralph Erskine (1914-1998), and Walter Segal (1907-1985).
These architects shared the same belief that the standard of living and culture of the poor in the world could be developed by applying a new approach of mass co-operative housing. They also believed that advanced modern technology has provided new materials and building methods as well as necessitated the imposition of the professional architect, who exploited technology in producing millions of identical houses. However, community architecture approach regarded that the expert professional architect has taken all the pleasure of building these houses away from the people, who are unable to say a word about the design of their houses.
Fathy believed that “a village built by its own inhabitants will be a living organism, capable of growth and of continuing life, whereas a village built by hired professionals will be a dead thing that starts to fall to pieces the day after the builders leave”. He also argued that “A man is an active creature, a source of action and initiative… Give him half a chance and a man will solve his part of the housing problem”. Fathy argued that the future inhabitants of a settlement should be trained in building construction by working on their project as helpers; usually called in-service training. He employed this system in New Gourna village (1945-1948), which is regarded as a role model for housing the third of the world’s population in the poor countries.
Image credit New Gourna village (1945-1948), by Hassan Fathy
Similar to Fathy’s approach in the New Gourna, Erskine developed a social and cultural dialogue with the residents in his Byker Wall housing project (1969-1980) in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Erskine was concerned about rehousing the inhabitants of the Byker Wall “without breaking family ties and other valued associations or pattern of life”.
Image credit Byker Wall housing project (1969-1980), by Ralph Erskine
The Walter’s Way project (1976) is another example of self-build housing projects. This project was designed by the British architect, Walter Segal (1907-1985) who, like Fathy and Erskine, was concerned about cost control and methods of construction as well as achieving social needs. Segal also applied the self-build method using timber frame construction, but unlike New Gourna, each family in the Walter’s Way project was responsible for building their own house according to their own needs as well as at their own pace. The Walter’s Way project won a Times / RIBA Award in 1987.
Image credit Walter’s Way project (1976), by Walter Segal
Indeed, it is time to look objectively at the work of architects such as Fathy, Erskin and Segal, who had an individual approach to community architecture as well as experiences that were sufficiently broad to deal with the difficulties involved. Their visions and ideas towards a humanisation of architecture have become an important factor in the twentieth century architectural debate. The Prince of Wales, an influential advocate of the community architecture movement, argues that the important issue nowadays is “how to give people more pride in their environment, involvement in their housing and more control over their lives… To restore hope we must have a vision and a source of inspiration”.
1. Charles, Prince of Wales, A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture. London, 1989.
2. Hassan Fathy, Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt. Chicago, 1973.
3. Maureen Read, Community Architecture. Architectural Design, v. 59, no. 5/6, 1989, p. 45.
4. Mats Egelius, Ralph Erskine, Architect. Stockholm, 1990, p. 151.
5. Nick Waites, and Charles Knevitt, Community Architecture: How People are Creating Their Own Environment. London, 1987.