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Architecture: a basic human right

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The UIA/RIAI conference dealt with the reality of impoverished people around the world and how architecture can play an integral part in improving their life. Here RIBA president Paul Hyett considers some lessons the profession can learn

Intellect, passion, humanity and humility, the essential qualities of the International Union of Architects' (UIA) president Vasillis Sgoutas, were evident in abundance during his moving address to the 'Architecture and Poverty' conference held in Dublin on 24 November.

Following the opening address by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) president Arthur Hickey, who reminded us that shelter is a common need of all people, Sgoutas moved quickly into overdrive. Pointing to Ireland's exemplary reputation for work with the world's disadvantaged (0.7 per cent of the country's GDP will be spent on this area by 2007, compared with the UK's current contribution of less than 0.3 per cent), Sgoutas reminded us that architects design less than one per cent of the world's buildings.

Talking again of the 'social segregation of space', and the barriers of language, culture, education and poverty which create the 'dispossessed', he urged appropriate forms of globalisation; that is the exchange of ideas and technology - not transfer, in sole pursuit of trade advantage. Too many cities today offer only 'undrinkable water, unbreathable air, and unmanageable waste', said Sgoutas - a challenge that construction professionals must address.

But, claimed Professor Ambrose Adebayo, we must also provide the poor with the opportunity to organise space, however basic, into meaningful social formats. This he illustrated brilliantly with slides contrasting traditional South African mud huts, arranged to produce effective social communities, with utterly monotonous modern settlements that, through their banal organisation, discourage any meaningful social integration.

There were brilliant contributions, too, from David Donahue of Ireland Aid and Justin Kilcullen of Trocaire who, on behalf of the Irish Catholic Church, work with third world communities. 'Keep it simple, ' Kilcullen urged. 'Sanitation and dignity are the overwhelming needs. Poor people don't want their communities rebuilt with all the consequential problems of debt and cultural dislocation.'

What excellent programming by conference organiser and chair Maria Kiernan, for this was, of course, the perfect introduction for community architecture guru and past RIBA/UIA president Rod Hackney. And it was vintage Hackney - cutting, thrusting and, as ever, laced with mischief and humour. So, back to 1972 and the legendary dispute with Macclesfield council over the £20 handbasin grant at Number 222, Black Road; stories about tenants, rottweilers, court appearances and, ultimately, the birth of the community architecture programme;

all wonderfully illustrated with slides of houses once condemned by the council, now listed Grade II. The delicious and unimaginable irony of it allà So, what are the lessons that came out of this session? First, as Johannesburg architect Heather Dodd, who specialises in social housing, said: 'Don't waste resources.' That office block or 1960s hotel can be reused for social housing - a message underlined by Hackney, who insisted that the currently popular demolition of '60s tower blocks in the UK is as daft and wasteful as the previous demolition of Victorian slums.

And here lies the second lesson, emphasised by speaker after speaker - it is all about management and tenure. Where people are secure, within decently maintained buildings, however simple, success will follow. It is fear and neglect that create slums and misery.

But remembering Adebayo's insistent call for an architectural ambition, however basic the work, Sgoutas urged architects to become involved. 'Poverty is worse than a crime, it's a mistake, ' he warned. 'We cannot tolerate lost generations, people without hope in a world of such abundance.' So the challenge is to find a way of helping, and here we had a brilliant conclusion from a community activist who defined poverty as 'being without choice and without the opportunity to participate'.

And there you have it - at all costs any 'intervention' must involve those who need help.Our task is to ensure that they enjoy the dignity of helping themselves, sometimes in the most unexpected ways: cement enabled women in a South American village to build concrete steps and a storm drain down their hillside. This improved their lives immeasurably during the rainy seasons when movement on the muddy slopes had previously been impossible.

And, as with all the best architecture, it offered a second benefit - community meeting places at intervals up the hill.

Sgoutas' call to arms to the 1.2 million architects in the 102 countries in the UIA's ranks was that, even at its most fundamental and utilitarian level, architecture can give so much. It must be available, even to the poorest among us, as a basic human right.

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