Reflecting on the Bangkok experience; so what next?

The last few months have been a rollercoaster of intensity. It began with a slowly-slowly build-up approach that progressed rapidly into continuous cycles of head-banging discussions and muted scream-out-loud periods of frustrations sandwiched between calm-down phases of the Bangkok journey.

In the statement of entry into programme I wrote that “I wanted to help…people affected by atrocities… [using] architecture as the medium and not just a glorified vocation.” I also stated that my aim was to “qualify as an architect and use my skills and knowledge to help rebuild the lives of people requiring assistance however small a step it may be.” Slightly idealistic one may say but this is something I still hold to albeit a little less naïve.

Through the analysis of the two cases of Mumbai’s Dharavi and Bangkok’s Klong Toey, I have come to realise that there is a gap within the development sector for architectural professionals to share their knowledge and expertise. The role of the architect has been highly contested in heated discussions during the course of the year. Many members of the group who are not architects felt that the course alienated them. I disagree to an extent as there were many social, economic and political issues raised from the word-go that an architect alone cannot contend with. Regardless of hailing from an architectural background, I felt intimidated by the intensity of such issues as contending with socio-economic and political problems per se does not come naturally to me as a person. I have always shied away from such topics.

The roles of the architect or the development practitioner once again arose during the field trip and the analysis of the Baan Mankong Programme. Community participation in the upgrading, relocation, reconstruction and re-blocking projects is without doubt vitally important. However in order to reach city scale and beyond the importance of the architect’s role cannot be denied (Somsook Boonyabancha, 2011). The architect’s experience within the urban field draws upon critical expertise that planners and development workers may not necessarily have. Planning alone cannot make the programme a success, practitioners who can implement and bring a human element to the planning process are vital. I observed how the housing schemes where the architect was involved tended to have better quality constructed finishes and detailing than those without. For me the architect’s role is not merely to draw plans and disappear, the entire process from start to finish needs an architect’s involvement albeit taking on roles as an advisor, enabler, facilitator etc. at various stages. This level of engagement can build trust between the various actors involved.

Having said that it is not only an architect, the involvement of the engineer (structural, mechanical and services), the planner, builder and others within the design and construction industry are just as important. As is the engagement of the state and institutions who can shed new light and perspectives to cross-cutting issues such as land, housing and construction, community mobilisation, partnerships and finance. A multidisciplinary team is more likely to be successful than a ‘one-man-band’; a more holistic overview of the scheme can be achieved.Then again it needs to be said that the process of involving the community in the development is fundamentally important to allow them to mobilise becoming more educated in voicing their concerns and asserting their rights as urban citizens. It was apparent after talking to people that, although many communities may not have perfect living conditions and the process of entering and participating in the programme may be long and drawn out, the most important thing to remember was the fact that it is the communities who are initiating and driving their developments, albeit stemming from the common threat of eviction or calamity. As Somsook says, “people are the scale”.

Walking through the various Klong Toey communities I noticed how they were much cleaner they were than the informal settlements I had visited in Delhi and what the desk research had revealed of Mumbai’s Dharavi. I couldn’t help but compare the cases. The uses of communal spaces were at once very different. For instance the inhabitants of the Delhi settlement used communal spaces in front of their houses for human excretion as well as washing, cooking and socialising.  This was not so in Klong Toey. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that many of the Klong Toey communities incorporated toilet and washing facilities within individual dwellings, whereas this was not possible with the dense settlements in Delhi. It could be a case of cultural differences, yet I felt there was more to it than this. I didn’t feel the density of the Klong Toey communities we visited so much as I did walking down the streets of the Delhi settlement. Perhaps it was the fact that the Delhi community was located directly on an open drain whereas this was not the case with many of the Klong Toey communities despite their proximity to the canals. The problems felt by the communities in Klong Toey were not merely a case of infrastructural services but the issue of over complicated land contestations which are imminent. This led me to conclude that each region has different levels of complexity in the treatment and perception of the urban poor. The strength of the state government makes a huge contribution to safeguarding policies for its people.

If anything the one thing I cannot forget (and I know many of my colleagues would concur) is how much we as a group have learnt to work in a team of diverse people, each with his/her own set of ideologies. The challenge in this case was not so much finding a way to amalgamate all the different thoughts into one coherent group movement. It was more one of listening, acknowledging and appreciating other people’s thoughts thus allowing for a sense of ownership to discussions. I suppose it’s natural for the most outspoken members to direct brainstorming sessions according to their ideas. However I’m not too sure how much I agree with this notion as to me it seems rather unjust as those with quieter voices when they are able to contribute bring daylight into a discussion that often looks as though it’s heading towards a very dark and narrow tunnel. In this sense I will always be a supporter of raising the voices of people who remain quiet for the sake of keeping a discussion moving forward as opposed to challenging and asking questions for a more holistic view.

Many people may think that this is a very banal issue but it is very important that one learns how to listen to and acquire the best out of people within a group. “It is the province of knowledge to speak. And it is the privilege of wisdom to listen” (Oliver Wendell Holmes). Everyone has something to contribute whether their preference is to be out on the main stage or backstage behind the scenes; each is as important as the other. Therefore in my opinion it is crucial that an architect or development practitioner acquires the ability to listen to others otherwise undertaking developmental projects will become very difficult. I guess it’s still something I am struggling with as I do admit that once I become passionate about a topic I really go for it losing track of other perspectives. This I didn’t realise until a workshop session in our BU2 class early on in the academic year when Alex Frediani noted how the two opposing sides were airing their views without actually realising what the other was saying. This just goes to show that people’s “inability to communicate is a result of [their] failure to listen effectively” (adapted from Carl Rogers).

Chawanad Luansang’s seminar about the role of the ‘community architect’ in the Baan Mankong Programme was perhaps the most interesting ones for me. The perspective of the architect for me personally was crucial in providing me with an entry point into the development field. One of the most crucial points conveyed was that need to have an understanding of the people for whom they are working and the inclusion of people from the start. Looking at some of my notes from the seminar, I noted that the community participation is an opportunity for the architect, development practitioner, and the community to develop mutual understanding of each other’s roles, needs and perspectives. For the architect or development practitioner, it will enable them to find out who the poorest members of the community are. In doing so it will become apparent what the community like, see the problems and opportunities from their point of view, how they live, and what is important to them. It is crucial in the design process to have a clear understanding of the people for whom the outcome or process is targeted. Therefore it is important to allow them to initiate discussions so that in the future they can continue and adapt the process and are involved in activities within their communities.

The experience in Bangkok was eye-opening for me to question my personal role within the field. I will obtain my architectural accreditation within the next couple of years but how to enter the development field? What are the gaps and what is the reality of an architectural contribution? How can I as an architect use the skills obtained from the many years of study to practice them in the development field? The questions aside, the one thing that I will remember is that the art of listening can work wonders at finding information that is not always apparently visible.

Thanks for reading my blogs!

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One Response to Reflecting on the Bangkok experience; so what next?

  1. Jo says:

    As always your growth is always appreciated. The questions you pose are valid and is often the stumbling block when answers or attempts are made to improve our current conditions.
    The gaps are there yes but you will most likely reach the point where you will just have to do something with a conceptual outline study the results and amend as you go along. If not you risk stepping further and further back to access the problem while never coming to a solution.

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