Monday, May 11, 2009

Brain Storm Bangladesh

Together with architecture and planning students from Brac University and BUET and geography and environment students from Jagannath University, we have done a full day workshop to explore the potentials in post-cyclone spatial redevelopment. The event took place in the conference room of IDB Bhaban (UNDP Building). In small groups, students discussed the spatial redevelopment in different time frames after the damage of a fictitious cyclone disaster. These groups then got the possibility to present their creative ideas to a number of professionals from various fields (NGOs, academics, UNOs, and architects). A discussion between the different experts and the students followed regarding their explorations. It was great to see the various fields of knowledge together in an enlightening workshop for all. Thank you!

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students receiving the brief.

students actively engaging in discussion.

critiques by external panel of academics, NGOs and architects.

the kuakata club.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

Kuakata dreaming

After spending many weeks visiting the beneficiaries of homes designed by NGOs or local carpenters, we were interested to see what kind of dreams and desires people themselves might have. On yet another day of 43 degrees Celsius shade temperature, we set out (note that the amazon pose is not as easy to accomplish on the back of a motorcycle on a dirt road as it looks) to ask people about their futures. All the leaves were green and the sky was blue, we went for a ride on a summer's day. Kuakata dreaming.

The community we visited had been provided houses on former kash (government) land. After cyclone Sidr they had been left landless living in bamboo shacks on the beach. Now they lived in tin shed housing with very sturdy timber frames and concrete foundations provided by the Red Cross, around 2,5 km inland from their former dwellings. Most of them were fishermen, now displaced from their source of income, and some had consequently turned to other livelihoods such as van (rickshaw) riding. The women were not employed, and their men claimed that they couldn't leave the house due to the muslim purdah customs. Women later told us that they couldn't visit public places like the bazar, but they regularly left their house, albeit in burqa, via the backdoors and backroads to visit their friends.

We managed to sit down with two women to ask them about their daily activities in and around the house. The first was a woman who had gotten married at the age of 12 and starting having kids by the age 15. She was now 24 and mother of five. Her husband worked everyday from 9AM to 9PM but came home for all meals. Her daily schedule caused her to wake up at 6 everyday to clean the house. Remarkably, she did not get up at 5, which is the custom for muslim morning prayer. (This is apparently quite common in rural settings; purdah is very strictly followed but other spiritual aspects of religion may not be quite as strongly observed.) By 8 in the morning she sent her children off to school where they remained until 12. Once alone in the house, she started cooking at 10 to prepare lunch, dinner, and breakfast for the next morning. After this she bathed at the tubewell and waited for her husband and children to come home for lunch by 2. In the afternoon she tended to her cow or visited her friend's house. The family had dinner at 10 and then went to sleep. As the woman's role in the rural areas is so closely tied to the household (birth takes place here, as well as prayer when it occurs), it was very interesting to see the way space is shaped and reshaped by her activities. We asked the women to draw (from left to right) their selfmade homes when they were dwelling on the beach, their homes as provided by the Red Cross after cyclone Sidr, and their dreamhouses.

It was interesting to note that this woman's self-rebuilt temporary shelter after cyclone Sidr had more windows than the Red Cross shelter (good for breeze, bad for storm). It was also remarkable that she drew the Red Cross shelter so graphically similar to her temporary shelter. Obviously the materials were very different but the core house with attached verandas and separated goat sheds were similar. She told us that her dream house would be situated linearly alongside a main road rather than in a cul-de-sac typology as privacy outweighed the pleasantries of social interaction with other families. She then explained that women used backdoor networks to visit their friends. Her dream house included lots of verandas, separate animal houses and a private kitchen and outdoor latrine as well as a tubewell. She also drew a small vegetable garden and the entire plot was lifted on a plinth surrounded by fruit trees. Her dreamhouse had electricity for a fan and many windows. When we asked her what she prayed for she told us that she prayed for shanti (peace) for her and her family in this life and in the afterlife. But as far as spatial improvement was concerned her main wishes were for a comfortable climate and an autarkic water and food system.

The next woman we interviewed was a widow who had remarkably less dreaming capacity than the first woman. She asked a younger boy to draw her houses for her, and she seemed to have little ideas about her own future. (Interestingly enough the first woman had drawn the house in cross section, whilst the boy drew in side elevation.) The widow also had a different schedule to the family woman. She also woke at 6 to clean the house. She then cooked for breakfast as well as lunch simultaneously. At 4 she cooked again for dinner which was at 9. All meals tended to consist of rice, dal (lentils), and vegetables, with either chicken, duck, fish or beef once a month. She had no income and was dependent on her son who lived with her and worked at a local NGO.

The similar spatial characteristics between the improvised shelter and the Red Cross shelter also came out in her drawings. The materials differed (tin rather than bamboo) but the floor plan with added-on verandas and separate houses was similar. It was very difficult for her to come to terms with the concept of a dream house. She did specify that her dream house would be situated along a road rather than in a cluster, and that she would use the main road to go out (as was her present situation). As most of her children had been married off, she also wanted her dream house to have many separate rooms where they could stay if they came to visit. Those were her main wishes; to have privacy and to host her faraway children. The rest of the ideas she later came up with were suspiciously similar to the ones she saw on the first woman's drawings.

At this time quite a crowd had gathered around the grass field cum drawing table. However, most women were too shy to share their dreams. One man stepped forward and in the interest of science we also asked him to draw his house. He was not from the Red Cross community but inhabited a traditional house in the nearby host community. He was a 'business man' and operated as a broker by buying fish from Kuakata fishermen and hiring trucks to transport them to Dhaka. He had an income of 9000 TK per month (3 euros per day, more than most day laborers) and for this he worked roughly eight hours per day, everyday. To start his business he had taken out a loan which had had not been able to repay as the cyclone Sidr aftermath had considerably damaged the local fishing industry. He and his family (parents, wife and two children) had survived the cyclone by fleeing to the nearest cyclone shelter. His house, a typical Barisal-region, 2-storey woodframed tinshed had also survived the storm.

His traditional house was well crafted and typically built on a mud plinth next to a pond, surrounded by plenty of fruit trees. His parents slept on the front veranda and the front part of the house was where he slept with his wife and children. The back part was for preparing food, connected with a door to the outside kitchen. In the yard he had a small vegetable garden and a cowshed. The latrine was situated a suitable distance from the main house. The house was very well manufactured with the help of a local carpenter, and later when we went to visit, we were quite impressed by the quality of the details. The owner took pride in the craftsmanship of his house and he was also not afraid of ambition and dreaming.

He told us he dream house would be situated in a cluster of houses where his relatives would live, with his own house as the center. All houses would have their own access to the main road. The floorplan would consist of four rooms on a square plan; with separate spaces for guests, dining, living and sleeping. The house would have a cross hallway path and three entry doors. In both his drawings he took great pride in what was translated as the 'design' aspects, such as curly roof ornaments in his dream house. His preferred roofing material was still tin sheeting but his main structure was pucca (concrete) with many windows and a separate kitchen for fire safety. Pucca houses are very desired in Bangladesh, however the availability of affordable concrete is very limited in the delta areas. The wide availability of rich clay soil is exploited in the dry season when ponds dry up and people dig out the clay to use as plinths for their houses to protect from flooding.

The Red Cross houses provided a very strong core for the disaster struck beneficiaries of cyclone Sidr. It was very interesting to see that almost all houses had been extended to suit the need for more breezy verandas, extra goat houses, private kitchens and washing spaces for the women. By acknowledging and incorporating the local traditions in mud plinth building in their design, the Red Cross allowed people to extend the floor space of their houses to suit these personal needs. The core shelter design uses T shaped concrete columns which provide a fair amount of stability without having to resort to concrete or brick foundations. This flexibility does not compromise the fact that the core houses would still be standing after the next cyclone. Hopefully this security will give the people more stability and faith to start dreaming up even brighter futures of houses with even curlier roof ornaments.


Friday, May 1, 2009

What's Next?

Education is the future. This mantra seems to have been adopted in this country where currently around 40% of the population is literate (50% literacy amongst men and 30% literacy amongst women). Many people bend over backwards to send their kids to school. Everyone is aware that education will determine your position in the Bangladeshi job market. During our stay in Kuakata (affected by supercyclone Sidr in 2007) we visited a small school built by the NGO Friendship. A beneficiary community of farmers had pulled together and asked Friendship to build a small school from their leftover building materials. This they gladly did and the result was a rather successful little school where we attended a morning session of class zero.

Upon entering we heard the kids chanting the days of the week in English, followed by the months, and the alphabet. Even twinkle twinkle little star was recited. The kids took pride in knowing these things by heart. Every successful recital ended with a round of applause. When we asked them to make drawings, however, they all seemed at a loss. Copying letters was something they could do. Learn to walk before you fly...

When we asked the kids to draw their dream house, a few stepped forward to the task. The class was divided into three groups of ten, which each had at least two 'very bright students' in them. The bright students were the first to take the challenge. An interesting thing we noticed, was that after these kids had made a drawing, the other students tended to follow their examples rather than go wildly creative on this open exercise. As a result, many images became copied alternatives of the previous drawing.

It made us think of all the moments where we asked people to tell us about their dreams and hopes for a better life. Many shyly answered that they had no financial capabilities to dream of beautiful futures. Others deterministically avoided the question by saying "Inshallah". It appears that dreaming or hoping for a better future in public is taboo. We're sure every child dreams, and we've had them tell us their ideal future jobs. And we're sure every adult likes to dream as well. It may, however, be possible that dreaming and hoping in such a religious and poor country, is simply bound to lead to disappointment. Or there is some other cultural reason why making these dreams public would only bring bad luck.

Could this reason have something to do with the transience of time when you cannot be sure wether the house you built yesterday will survive the storms of tomorrow? When nature's overwhelming forces have taught you just how vulnerable material property is? Will the more permanent NGO housing projects bring a change to this attitude? The main problem many of the projects we have seen faced was how to build a shelter which is wind proof for the stormy monsoon months while still providing a pleasant environment during the steamy summer months. This particular school managed to do both. However, the next day we found a school which made even more use of the local resources; a portable TV with generator on rickshaw planted under a tree. Kids came from all corners strapped in little blue UNICEF bags to watch school TV. And if a big cyclone would hit, you would just paddle that bicycle into the sunset.