Accessible materials

Sep 06, 2015
Banksy, again

Banksy, again

These notes stem from the idea/opportunity for a workshop aimed at investigating the contribution of alternative building techniques as enhancement of potential for re-construction in depleted Gaza.
The workshop is addressed to architecture and engineering students.
The whole as part of a more comprehensive strategy focused in accessibility as social enabler.

The initiative puts together two different issues: accessibility and building industry.

The discussion about accessibility in a situation like Gaza might appear a paradox.
In a place that is not difficult to describe as the largest prison of the world, with evident signs of the last and current military activities, what do we mean by ‘accessibility’?
Clearly, in similar situations, accessibility has not [only] to do with the slope of a ramp or the turning circle of a wheelchair: accessibility refers to practical usability; it is not limited to disabled people, and is regarded as the first condition for social inclusion.
On the other hand, accessibility is not exactly coincident with usability because of its intrinsic symbolic content: cultural accessibility is as relevant as the physical one but much more difficult to describe, and ruled. Accessibility is a feature that the market [of design and of buildings] is not so ready [able] to recognize and evaluate.
Under this point of view, the experience of enhancing the accessibility of public spaces/buildings in Gaza is a specific challenge where technical knowledge must combine with social sensitivity.
The application of protocols and standards is important at least as their re-definition [or adaptation]. To be accessible in Gaza means to extend the strict constraints imposed by the logic of emergency.

In this light, accessibility reveals its importance, and its position among the priorities of responsible design. This assumption is not for grant: despite the exposure to [sometimes rhetoric] invitation/obligation to be accessible, the practice is not so diligent, and too often accessibility is confused with the measures to comply with regulations [often perceived as an expensive extra to add to conventional design].
As a result the reality is not as accessible as it should, and not only in Gaza.
It is important to stress that in Gaza as in many other parts of the world, the attitude toward disability is peculiar, and definitely different from what experienced in Western culture.

Given the relevance of the issue, it is not surprising that some of those involved with international cooperation deals with accessibility. In which way? Different strategies and actions can take place, absorbing investments and efforts with different degrees of effectiveness.

As an over-simplification, these actions range between two extremes.
The first is a restricted, punctual interpretation of accessibility, the one that deals with slope of ramps, wheelchair movement and the like. It applies to interventions on the refurbishment of specific buildings, the adoption of measures to facilitate access.
It is admirable but limited in terms of impact, with a specific risk: the rigid approach of ‘accessibility fundamentalists’, those who require a 5% slope to be respected in a refugee camp [direct witness].

The second is directly related to the first one but has a different potential: it is the relevance of increasing [generating] awareness of accessibility as a right, in both users and those involved with production of infrastructures. Literature on the matter is huge, and available: it has ‘only’ to be diffused and applied. A task that must be carried on as information, sensitization, education and that should finally be incorporated in codes and practices.
Public buildings, schools, hospitals are the places where the theory, and the application, of such a knowledge must be pursued primarily. In school, specifically, also as part of educational training of future professionals.

Let’s go back to the theme of discussion, the contribution of alternative building techniques to enhance reconstruction and therefore accessibility.

It will not be surprising to realize that accessibility has nothing to do with materials or technologies.
Accessibility is a parameter that is part of the design agenda, and has physical implications, but is related to typological organization more than anything else, whereas typological organization is intended as the set of principles that inspire the arrangement [distribution/hierarchy] of the functions [practical and symbolic] in a specific situation/condition.

Nevertheless, why alternative building techniques are needed?
Simply because building industry in Gaza is highly conditioned by the restrictions applied to dual-use materials, those materials that can have a military purpose.
If concrete, cement, aggregates, steel etc are restricted by Israel, why do not go for something else?
Or even for something that minimize the use of these materials?

This is a commendable initiative, particularly since it forces students to face the unavoidable relationship between design and building industry, a relationship that will never be over-emphasized, particularly on these days of vacuity: however, the reflection has to take into account some considerations and to skip some not-so-conceptual traps.

One. The building industry in Gaza is defined, as everywhere, by economic interests: the nearly ubiquitous cement [with its unavoidable consequence, concrete] is the product that dominates built environment.
Once it becomes ‘the’ prevailing building material, it tends to push out all alternatives.
It does that with the force of its industrial weight, and the persuasiveness of its ideological apparatus [it is safe, stable, and modern]. This sort of mono-culture is characteristics of many poor economies, quite a bizarre paradox.
Under this point of view the first question to ask is why we depend so much from cement [and concrete].
It is essential to keep in mind that if such a point is not properly discussed, the search of alternative technologies to counteract the shortage of [affordable] building materials will never affect the real [substantial] identity of building industry of a specific economic environment.

Two. At the same time, the current fascination for unconventional materials is a dangerous temptation.
No matter how brilliant, sandbag masonry, exhausted tires, recycled plastic bottles and the like do not substitute a missing [or adverse] industry. Bricolage is nice but, by definition, complementary to main production. This is particularly true for architects: the myth of the designer as problem solver [the alternative to revolution, someone said nearly one hundred years ago] is hard to defeat, and very functional to the narcissism of the architect as species. Problem solving is sterile, to say the least, without problem raising.

Third. As a consequence, the issue is, in literal and metaphorical terms, to go for ‘structural’ solutions that re-orient the conception and production. This can include ‘alternative’, even bizarre, options, but cannot coincide with them. The alternative to the alternative is to be defined still, but possibly must be searched for in a different arrangement of existing resources, unconventional combination of what available, therefore a forced integration of technological and typological innovation.

A final consideration, specifically referred to international cooperation and its intrinsic ambiguity. Realpolitik imposes an apparently ‘technical’ approach [to find ‘alternative’ ways of doing [producing] things, in order to save economical resources, to be more sustainable or, as in the case of Gaza, replace a missing material]. This is done, usually, with the best intent.
Unfortunately, often ideal assumptions turn into ideological facts, therefore not as neutral as presented.

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