While in Niger this summer, we learned many lessons about working remotely and practicing in a developing country. Our local team member (who is from Niger) showed many people the housing proposal we’ve been working on over the past few months. The overall response was positive and enthusiastic, although many commented on our use of compressed earth blocks and felt that this material would make these homes only suitable for a lower socioeconomic class (more on this in a future post). The design was also presented to a prospective construction company in order for them to submit a bid for the project. Their reaction was lukewarm, and they questioned the intent of the project, particularly the use of compressed earth blocks for a 2 story building. They strongly recommend that we use concrete instead, as that would make more “sense” and would (supposedly) be safer. The conversation took a sharp turn however, after they learned more about our firm and soon discovered that an American and a German were part of the the team! Almost immediately the project seemed reasonable and “good” and they even mentioned that using earth would give an even larger number of local masons jobs. They promised to put together a quote even though it was apparent they had never worked with earth blocks before.
When we reflect on this conversation, we understand as soon as it became apparent that a “foreign” hand was somehow involved in the project, important issues ceased to be “unreasonable” for that reason alone. If this is indeed the case, it’s alarming to consider! What if this were a non-sensical or irresponsible design proposal? Would it have gotten thumbs up, with people jumping through hoops to help it become a reality? Could it be that foreigners, particularly Westerners, are listened to more when they work in some developing countries? Maybe they have a certain “caché” that automatically puts them in a position of being looked up to? These are critical questions in an age when many western, particularly European, architects are developing an increasing number of projects in the Middle-East, and on the Asian or African continents. Clients there might actually be more responsive to outsiders rather than to their own local architects!
We have heard many anecdotes of local architects introducing new concepts (or revisiting older ones) not founded on Western ideals/standards in terms of building practice, design, sustainability, etc., only to be promptly labelled as “dreamers”, “impractical”, “elitist”, “disconnected from local realities”, which is of course profoundly ironic. When foreign architects introduce the same ideas in these contexts, they often find a much more receptive audience. People are more likely to feel grateful, enlightened, and show a stronger eagerness to try them out. And so it appears that Western architects might encounter very little, if any, resistance in their design process and project proposals, even when they might be quite bad.
There are many reasons why this may be true, ranging from a cultural dominance of Western ideals and esthetics that makes many in non-western countries aspire to having the same, to a subconscious feeling that the West holds the monopoly on knowledge and know-how. But we won’t pretend to know all the workings behind the what/how/who of this issue. Rather, this is a cautionary tale to Western architects working in a developing region. A project might appear to have wide-ranging support and community buy-in, but in reality, be impractical and culturally disconnected. It might be hard to gage reactions properly. This can easily result in projects being built and remaining un-used or abandoned by its intended beneficiaries. The incident our team member experienced, however, puts in sharp focus the importance of having a very diverse group of people involved in projects outside one’s “turf”. At united➃design, we are very fortunate to have members from 4 continents with the same values, each bringing different skills and points of view to the table, and each is willing to hear all sides. It not only allows us to be aware of such pitfalls from the start, but to also question our individual design instincts and raise flags when needed. In the end, it quite possibly allows us to transcend such issues of the “westerner vs. locals.”