Hope for the future

Tuesday 03 May 2011

Caroline Ednie looks at the work of student group Tesseract Humanitarian Architecture

A trio of remarkable architectural projects – two so far imagined, one very real – addressing some of the world’s poorest and most devastated areas has recently emerged thanks in no small part to the considerable efforts of a small but spectacularly pro-active student group in Aberdeen.

Tesseract Humanitarian Architecture, a collective that addresses the common aim of ‘using creativity for humanity’, was recently formed by a group of architecture students at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University (RGU), following a trip to India in the summer of 2010. The students had set out simply to help Anusaran, a local Delhi-based charity dedicated to educating and empowering disadvantaged women and children, with some design ideas to improve their local community. Instead, the students ended up designing a new school building, which is currently under construction.

According to architecture student David Fleck (21) from Edinburgh, one of the founders of Tesseract: “I'm excited at the prospect of being able to make a difference. It’s a scary responsibility when you think about it - the place we design in India will be a key part of life for thousands of children and women in the future.”

Motivated by the success of their Delhi project, Tesseract has embarked on a broad programme of initiatives including a lectures series, design competitions, and exhibitions. The group is also concerned with forming links with students from all over the world who are also interested in participating in global humanitarian design projects.

These efforts have been paying off, and were recently demonstrated in a one-day ‘Equisse’ which took the form of an interactive online ideas exchange in April. The aim was to address designs for a women’s community centre in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): “The DRC project began following conversations between the RGU students and one of their lecturers who has a friend working in the DRC with a vision to create a women's community centre. It’s hoped that this centre could empower the women, and begin to knit together their society,” explains David Fleck. “So we began planning a one-day Equisse. It was quite a whirlwind of organising, with just a few weeks to prepare the brief, design packs, presentations, videos etc. And things were made all the more complex (but exciting) when architecture departments in Barcelona, Milan and Reus also got involved.”

As a result, 80 students from years one to five at RGU alongside students from architecture schools in Barcelona (65 students), Reus (40 students) and Milan (50 students) participated in the one day interactive workshop. Progress throughout the day was posted via online web blogs, photographs and films.

The student teams produced proposals, via this ‘massive open collaboration’ that responded to the problem of providing for the women in the DRC, and the diverse results were shared and discussed over a video conference at the end of the day. The next stage of the project will be held in Milan later in 2011 where around 30 students (from the original 200 participants) will continue to develop ideas in greater depth with the hope that the project will continue to gain momentum and reach the stage where a group of students can visit the DRC and work with local students to share their ideas.

Tesseract have also been involved in finding design solutions to natural disasters and recently hosted an exhibition of architectural responses to Brisbane’s flood disaster. The project emerged when Queensland University of Technology (QUT) tutor, Glenda Caldwell, contacted Fleck enquiring if her students could participate in the Tesseract online competition ‘Facing the Floods’. The original brief had invited designs in response to worldwide flooding disasters however Caldwell was keen for her students to be directly involved after their recent direct experience of flooding.

Subsequently, Tesseract ran a separate competition for the QUT students with a slightly adapted brief. Caldwell takes up the story: “By participating in the ‘Facing the Floods’ competition students from QUT were able to come to terms with the flooding and engage in a much deeper discussion about what happened through design. I believe students were able to share their experiences of the flooding with each other and respond to it in a unique and extremely valuable way, through the language of architecture. The value of their work became unquantifiable when Tesseract decided to host the competition for the QUT students and share their work not only on the Tesseract website but through the ‘Facing the Floods’ exhibition (which took place in Aberdeen in March). The students were so pleased to know that the audience had grown exponentially and their experiences were now crossing unimaginable borders and reaching corners one would never have expected.”

David Fleck is hugely encouraged and energised by the various responses to Tesseract’s stand up and be counted design rally call: “This has been a great experience, which has connected people to the disaster in a positive way, and really engaged students in humanitarian design. We are now looking into how some of the proposals from this competition could possibly be taken forward and developed - and even prototyped.”

“It's great for us to think conceptually, engage and empathise, but at Tesseract we really see the need to be pragmatic and that the projects shouldn’t just be ‘all talk’,” concludes Fleck. “Some of the ideas that students around the world are coming up with could one day be implemented, and we are beginning to explore how this might all be possible.”

For further information visit www.tesseract.org.uk

Caroline Ednie

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