Is self-built architecture the solution? / by Jedidiah

This is a question that was posed by my tutor during a discussion we had this past week.  We were talking about the ways in which my project could improve the migrants' lives by giving them a sense of ownership and pride in the space in which they live.  Common complaints by the migrants included the absence of space that they could call their own as well as a lack of control over their situation. My tutor suggested that one possibile way to address this would be to develop a method of self-built architecture for the Centre.  The idea would be that the migrants could build their own living spaces, thereby learn new skills, gain a feeling of independence (and with that, possibly respect in the community), and attain a level of control over their lives.  He also suggested that this might lead to some sort of economy of self-built homes that the migrants could spread to the community outside of the Centre.

Examples of this type self-built of architecture can be seen in a few projects from the IAAC's 2nd Advanced Architecture Competition, Self-Fab House in which contestants were asked to develop dwellings "in which the emphasis will be on exploring people’s capacity to construct their own homes."  You can see a couple examples below.  The Swiss-born British (?) architect Walter Segal was seen as a pioneer in self-building and developed an influential system that people could use to easily build their own homes.

While the ideas behind self-built architecture are commendable - use of local materials and local knowledge, consideration of climate, and minimizing environmental impact - I am not entirely sure that it makes sense for the Marsa Open Centre.  For one thing, one of the main issues with the centre is that it is so disconnected from the community (see my abstract) and is perceived as a ghetto.  There is the possibility that if I was to suggest that the migrants have the freedom to create and build their own spaces it would lead to an informal, disorganized community that would be regarded negatively by the Maltese.  Of course, this situation might be avoided in the way the self-build system is designed and by the number of constraints I impose but I think there would always be some possibility of the whole thing turning into a even more of a "slum" situation.  Maybe this is the architect in me worried about giving more control to the "non-designers" but I am (perhaps overly) concerned with improving the Centre's image in the Maltese community.  A self-built Centre might become even more marginalized.

Of course this concern might be over-ruled by the potential for giving the migrants more control over their lives.  One would think that giving the migrants the opportunity to build their own homes would help to eliminate feelings of helplessness.   However, I suspect that this is a little patronizing and it is not the type of control they most desire.  They want the same rights as Maltese, access to good jobs and education, freedom to travel, and to bring there families with them.  Do they really care if they can build their own homes?  I think it might be more important to provide basic comforts such as personal space that can be adapted to individual needs, good toilet facilities, and plenty of common space.  This is above all things about giving the migrants the respect they deserve.  I am not sure that a migrant, fresh out of detention and struggling with a new, hostile culture, would react well to being asked to build their own home.  The skills that one might gain from building their own living space might be valuable but not of interest it all migrants.  We should not assume that they all want to work in the construction industry just because that is what many of them end up doing in Malta.  These are the jobs that are available because they do not require an extensive grasp of the language and employers are eager to exploit the migrants, paying them lower than minimum wage.  In reality, many of the residents of the MOC are doctors, lawyers, and Masters students who need other education in order to use the skills they already have.

There is also the question of whether the advantages of self-built architecture could be passed on to successive residents of the MOC once the people that built those spaces have moved on.  Would the spaces be demolished and rebuilt by the new residents?  If not, the empowerment that comes with self-build would be lost and the spaces would not be suited to the new occupants personal needs.

Still, I am not completely discounting the potential of self-build to be incorporated to some degree in my design.  It will be essential for the living spaces to be easily adaptable and having the ability to build your own space might meet this requirement.  The potential for empowerment through self-build can not be denied either but it must be used wisely in order to benefit as many people as possible across a broad spectrum of individuals all the while keeping the goal of connection to the greater community in mind..  The idea of self-built or self-help architecture might have great potential in refugee camps or informal settlements where it is already an ingrained typology - then again, it could also be seen as part of the problem with such places - but as for its value in the context of an Open Centre, I am not yet conviced.  I just do not want it to become self-build for the sake of self-build or for the sake of architects' egos.

deBox by Boehm Architecture

InflateIt by object-e architecture

More information on Self-Built architecture:

Self-Fab House in Design Observer