Listening to Somsook Boonyabancha playing as local was an inspiring experience during our first days in Bangkok. A housing programme for, from and by the poor seems to be possible not only in terms of effectively reaching the population in need but also involving and empowering them as relevant actors in their own processes of improving their quality of life. For her, the recognition and promotion of capabilities and knowledge among them are apparently enough to manage and implement the projects. The role of the government is limited to funding through subsidies and loans and the practitioners act simply as facilitators.
Design as a relevant issue in the implementation of housing projects is not an exception in this people-led discourse. Both Somsook and the representative of the community architects presented the poor as experts in design and planning that only need a professional to translate their ideas into a proper plan or map. In this context should be more accurate to call this kind of practitioners as community draftsmen or even better as community translators.
During the following days we had the opportunity to visit some of the projects that were a product of this discourse. Mostly interesting designs of dwellings were often placed roughly in poor designed neighbourhoods. The public or semi-public spaces were the leftovers of the buildings and the urban design scale was basically missing. People are experts. This is totally true. They perfectly know their needs, they know how to spend their reduced budgets, they are probably experts in their own livelihoods but nobody can ask them to be experts in everything. Actually, for most of the people the expertise is limited to individual experiences and aspects and this is the reason why the design focus in the projects are the houses and not the collective spaces and assets.
On the other hand, professionals in general (including architects) are also experts in their own fields. In the context of the Baan Mankong programme it is an irresponsibility of the so-called community architects to waste years of studies and experience just drawing plans of what people think that they want. Moreover, the self-added adjective of community to the architect profession evidences an interest to highlight a difference from the common ones. This separatist attitude only contributes to continue segregate the poor from the rest of the society. The role of every architect should not be to design what people want but something even better. They have the knowledge and this is the real challenge in terms of design.
It was a shame that the presentation of the community architect in CODI was called ‘Process and Learning from People’ explaining just one-way of the relationship. It should be a two-way learning process in which people participate in a dialogue with the community architect (intentional strikethrough) placing and prioritising their needs, understanding the constraints, designing with them and also demanding a better outcome than the one that they are expecting. Not the same. Not a translation.