Friday, March 5, 2010

smallBIG: self-builder tools

As part of the small architecture BIG LANDSCAPES show at the Swope Art Musuem, self-builders around the world were asked about their lives, work, settings, and tools. Included were profiles from Nepal (Gaurab Kc), Canada (Lancelot Coar), Turkey (Ozgur Guz), Panama (Gabriela Valencia), Thailand (Chamnarn Tirapas), Honduras (Katrina Mitchell), and India (Nishit Somaiya). Photographs from the Swope Show Tool Room and from the field researchers, along with edited narratives from the field, are organized below. An introductory panel written for the show offered the following:

Tools make buildings.

Yes, workers and materials are essential. But to a great extent, the built environment is shaped by what we carry in our toolboxes.

To explore this point within the context of the small architecture BIG LANDSCAPES show, architects, architecture professors, and graduate students in cities around the world talked with local self-builders about: their work, the buildings that they had under construction, and their tools. Many similarities exist among the tools that were connected and are on display. Hammers, saws, strings, and plumb bobs are recognizable; it seems everyone pounds, cuts, and aligns. There also are differences caused by local economics, available building materials, and long held construction practices. Note the "stone chiseler" from Nepal, the nail puller from Canada, and the wooden trowels from Panama. That said, unique qualities do exist for the same type of implement. See the distinctiveness of the Thai hammer, the pipe-handle-welded-to-hammerhead from Honduras, and the "adze" hammer from Turkey.

After seeing these tools, one can better understand: they are found in the toolboxes of some of the most determined, prolific, and talented builders in the world.

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Samagaon, Nepal (Gaurab Kc)


Gaurab is an architect working on a school hostel and support building near the rural village of Samagaon, Nepal. The project's base camp is located on Mount Manaslu, a town inhabited by people of Tibetan origin, located in the Budhi Gandaki valley of the Nepal Himalayas. Manaslu, also known as Kutang, is the eighth highest mountain in the world. The buildings' design is influenced by local architectural styles and construction techniques, along with both a monastery style and a contemporary style found in educational facilities. Locally sourced stone and wood are featured, with corrugated sheets brought in by helicopter. Note that the construction workers build temporary shelters for themselves on-site from the the materials that will be used to construct the permanent buildings.

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Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada (Lancelot Coar)


Despite their hardened faces, worn and battered edges, and their embossed character, these tools--forged from steel and wood--have left a sensitive, yet indelible mark on a community of seventy people in rural Canada. For the past two years, students in the School of Architecture at the University of Manitoba collaborated with the town of Clearwater to deconstruct abandoned structures, left in the wake of industrial agricultural practices, into new stockpiles of century-old virgin lumber ready for reuse. The students worked with this community in order to develop unique architectural responses to the town and surrounding landscape. In addition, the students used the reclaimed wood to build their own designs. These tools, like those that handled them, have been transformed by their experience as instruments of teaching as much as they've been instruments of un/re-building.

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Izmit, Turkey (Ozgur Guz)


Huseyin Koseoglu, 63, is a self-builder in Cedit, one of the oldest informal settlements in Izmit, Turkey. Before retirement, he labored as a construction worker in the formal economy. These days, he is finishing the ground floor of his family's house, a project started fifteen years ago. Koseoglu employes hand tools purchased at a local hardware store. An adze, the most common tool of self-builders, is used in all stages of construction. A trowel, shovel, and sand sifter prepare mortar. Plumbs, rulers, and strings establish guidelines. Building materials also are found locally. Reclaimed doors and windows initially are installed; later they are replaced with new ones. According to Kodeoglu, after a destructive earthquake in 1999 killed tens of thousands, self-builders are more aware of construction codes and the proper use of structural reinforcement, and the municipality requires the use of ready-mixed concrete and is more active in controlling construction.

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Panama City, Panama (Gabriela Valencia)


In 1980, at age fifteen, Samorano Diaz moved from his rural home to Panama City in search of work. He started as a "peon," the lowest constructor position. Today, Diaz has two jobs: as a "capataz" (the highest builder role) he constructs for the elite during the day; on weekends and evenings he builds for neighbors in Valle de Urraca, a planned settlement for some of Panama City's poorest residents. Because Valle de Urraca residents cannot afford to build a house all at once, Diaz begins and then comes back to finish once the owner has acquired the necessary material and funds. His formal job pays $800 per month; he earns an extra $500 a month by building for neighbors. Diaz also built many of the temporary "lunching" structures shown in the photographs.

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Phrae, Thailand (Chamnarn Tirapas)

In the north of Thailand, the Pra Non Community in Phrae resides in the old city wall. There, illegal houses are built using scavenged materials. Corrugated sheets are everywhere: as formwork for concrete columns, and as walls and roofs. As stated by Chamnarn, "the result is both a beautiful texture and a prime example of the technique of applying a building material as a tool." Another illegal community in Phrae is behind the bus terminal. Many of its residents work as garbage collectors and servants in the city; there are few skilled laborers among them. This settlement is supported by the Community Organization Development Institute; together, the residents and institute fight for the people's right to own land. Each household, after applying to CODI, will receive a $600 loan to fix or rebuild their house.

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El Ocotillo, Honduras (Katrina Mitchell)


"We talked to a crew building a concrete house. They had on site 2 short levels, a hammer, a 16' tape measure, a plumb, several spades, a tool for digging holes (not a post hole digger, but a flat piece of metal, slightly flared at the bottom, about 6 inches at the widest part, attached to a wood handle), a rusty hand saw, sting, wood for stakes, a couple of triangle trowels and buckets for mortar, and a screen for sifting the sand (home made). They 'cut' the block by smashing it with a hammer. This makes a very uneven end. A power saw to cut the wood is too expensive. No brick saw or even brick chisels. They do have access to power, but no power tools. They told me that they just buy their stuff in town at the hardware store."

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Dharavi, Mumbai, India (Nishit Somaiya)


Dharavi is one of Asia's largest slums--more than a million people call it home. Because of Mumbai's booming real estate industry, construction workers are readily available. Low skill workers are paid $3-$4 per day; high skill workers, who possess basic power tools (drills, saws, and grinders) earn $5-$7 per day. The house shown is a two-storey brick structure, about 4' x 7' in plan. It is one of the area's better houses. Isaac Kumar, a driver who earns $160/m0nth, bought the hutment in 1998 for $400. Today it is valued at $5000 (and rising!). Kumar occupies the second floor and rents out the lower floor for $25/month. In this section of Dharavi, each hutment has its own water line and the neighborhood residents share a toilet provided by the municipality. [The NIRMAN non-governmental organization assisted Nishit in gathering this information.]

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