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Community Architecture in the Global North and South

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 2423 words Published: 26th Jul 2021

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Community architecture is based around the idea of ‘self-build’. There are various definitions by a number of key figures linked with the movement but the essence is the importance of user involvement in the design, construction, and management of a project. It claims that participation is a better process than anticipation with regard to the users and their environmental needs (Mongold, N.J, 1980). In the past, many unsuccessful projects have been largely down to the fact that the actual residents/clients using the final output haven’t been properly consulted or involved in the design and construction. Richard Hatch claims that as people poured into cities during the nineteenth century homes were built for (not with) people (Hatch, R, 1984). Community architecture aims to solve this problem by incorporating the client with a strong interaction regarding the product’s design. There are however distinct differences in work done on a global scale. Overall, the global south has more simple designs for housing. As John Turner has said, the house here is generally used purely as a dormitory, a shelter for sleeping, whereas the house has various functions such as washing, working, and cooking, in more developed countries, predominantly north of the equator (Turner, J, 1963). Therefore some would say community architecture is more common in the south as there are less regulations and designs can be much simpler, whereas in MEDCs there are often laws and regulations that ensure the design must meet certain standards, making it harder for everyday citizens to build their own homes.

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Patrick Geddes was a pioneer in town planning who pushed for humanitarian participation, raising awareness of the fundamental interconnection of nature and culture, based around the idea of ‘civics’ (Wahl, D.C 2017). Geddes integrated ecological, social and economic considerations, based on his biological understanding of how organisms both adapt to, and adapt, their natural environment. He famously pronounced that ‘it takes a whole region to make a city’ (Wahl, D.C 2017). Geddes’s studies show how we need both specialized knowledge and an understanding of how the various disciplines relate (Geddes, P, 1905). He created ‘civic exhibitions’ in areas such as Crosby Hall, Chelsea, and Edinburgh, giving people ‘representational democracy’, by providing extensive detail about the area they live in in order to foster civic participation. The content for the Exhibition would be compiled by a comprehensive Civic Survey and was a keystone in Geddes’ activism (University of Dundee, 2015). Geddes theory shows how citizens can come together to have an input on designs and developments in their areas, which relates to community architecture all over the world.

Colin Ward argued in favour of ‘dweller or citizen control’, and the right for people to construct their own houses, with cooperative self-help strategies, in the form of squatting, tenant cooperatives and self-build projects (Ward, C, 1996). He suggested that only a self-built environment would allow people to live in peaceful co-existence with the land and one another. Walter Segel was an architect with similar ideas who developed a system of self- build housing. In 1962, while rebuilding his own house in Highgate, London, he created a temporary wooden home for his family in the garden, costing £800. It took two weeks to build but lasted over 50 years. Colleagues and clients were intrigued by this quick and economical way of building and the design was the prototype for what became known as the Segal self-build method (Graham, A, 2015). Walter Segel understood the importance of user participation, as he said in 1982: “Architects are utterly unequipped to help people who want to build with their own hands. Architects will have to be trained to be enablers. A reasonably trained person can assist a layman builder who has only a very rudimentary idea of space. It is a skill that can be taught” (McKean, J 1987). Therefore we can see how important it is to him that people learn the basic principles of building so that they can be part of the design and construction of their own projects. Segal advocated using everyday materials, such as timber which can be bought locally to minimise cutting. This has enabled people to update or improve their house to their own lifestyles. The houses of Segel Close, London, a group of 13 timber houses inspired by his designs, are bolted rather than cemented, so panels can be opened up and space adapted by the residents (Brooks, M, 2018). Overall, Segal shows how community architecture can work just as well in the global north as in the global south – there are often more resources and money to create designs that can suite people’s lives and they can be made at an extremely low cost. There are similar ideas with WikiHouse, the Y-Cube, and PLACE:Ladywell, but these are all mostly seen as ’emergency housing’, something that you do while waiting for proper housing to be built. Therefore it hasn’t been as successful as many residents of Segal Close think he would have liked, but maybe with more funding and involvement from organisations, the movement could spread more on a national scale (Brooks, M, 2018).

The global south has seen many community architecture projects, many built because of the lack of government investment and little choice with local communities but to work together and come up with self-build projects. In 1956 John Turner and Patrick Crooke, two self-help architects looking at urban development and irregular settlement processes in the developing world, were invited to Lima, Peru to work on low-income housing problems. The efficiency of user involvement and efforts of squatters in the area impressed them and they saw the potential of this in terms of productivity and economy. Turner studied projects that were chosen ‘not to show what architects and planners are doing in South America (and in most other parts of the world) but what they should be doing’ (Turner, J, 1963). Turner gives clear evidence of the power of these self-build projects; for example, Pampa de Comas barriada, Lima, is an area that ‘surpasses, in built-up area and population, the second city of Peru’. Not one house is more than 15 years old. Most workers are ordinary working-class families with extremely low incomes, yet they have produced a planned neighbourhood on a city scale, none of which has been provided by the state or commercial enterprise (Turner, J, 1963). He points out the distinct difference with many parts of the global south, is that in LEDC’s the houses/shelters don’t need to be as advanced as most day to day activities take place outside, it is ‘little more than a dormitory’. He found that the projects across Peru have so far proven to be extremely slow and administratively costly, but ultimately come down to the agencies leading the projects, which determine whether they are a success or not. In 1966 Turner presented a paper at the UN on ‘Uncontrolled Urban settlements’. The paper argued that no government ‘however wealthy… can possibly finance more than a small proportion of the total demand for housing’ (Turner, J, 1963). This paper persuaded governments to move forward with the idea of sites and services projects, where people would be taught more about the idea of community architecture and how they can help produce their own houses. In the developing world, these ideas have affected a large number of policies and projects. 

The global south has seen vast amounts of community architecture projects, often as a reaction to colonialism and often leading to nativist and/or community architecture with nationalist overtones in the colonised countries. This was also the case in order to give people hope, and ideas around the notion of a national self-reliant spirit, with communities collectively coming together to build new housing. Hassan Fathy was an Egyptian architect who assigned an essential role to tradition and hence to the re-establishment of national cultural pride. Fathy is also renowned for having revived the traditional Nubian vault, and for trying to restore traditional, ancient and local techniques. Fathy led the ‘New Gourna’ project commissioned by the Egyptian Government – a planned village to house villagers displaced from the Antiquities zone near Luxor (Fathy, H, 2000). Fathy incorporated dense brick walls and traditional courtyard forms to provide passive cooling, so no air conditioning was needed. The technology is advocated by environmentalists as environmentally friendly and sustainable since it makes use of pure earth without the need of timber. However, the experiment failed because the villagers did not want to move away from the only livelihood they knew – which was stealing and selling antiquities, and they did not want to move to houses with domed roofs because of their association with tombs (Nandy, A, 2015). But the use of local materials and construction methods, as well as the desire to create an architecture that is socially and economically suited to its context makes his work especially relevant today. Fathy said, ‘A village society takes long to measure and needs more subtle instruments than a tape measure. Each family must be designed for separately. So at the very least, we should have to consult every family in Gourna’ (Fathy, H, 2000). He therefore recognised the advantages of consulting and including the local people of Gourna to get the best possible outcome that would suit its residents.

Nader Khalili was an Iranian-American architect who created the Geltaftan Earth-and-Fire system known as Ceramic Houses, and of the Superadobe construction system. He states the importance of people being able to build their own shelter saying, ‘a family should be able to learn the techniques, move to a piece of land … with water and simple tools, and build themselves a house’ (Khalili, N, 1990). Khalili’s book about ceramic houses explains his knowledge of earth and fire to produce simple housing which anyone can produce. The first part discusses the use of the earth for building – earth and fire, natural resources, and then talks about design possibilities and technical aspects. He points out that every village has a potter and ceramist and these are the main tools, and with these natural resources housing can be made (Khalili, N, 1990).

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Diébédo Francis Kéré was a West African architect. He received a scholarship for further education as supervisor in the context of development aid in Germany. His first building, the Primary school in Gando was finished in 2001 and received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The design for the school evolved from a lengthy list of parameters including cost, climate, resource availability, and construction feasibility (Arch Daily, 2016). A clay/mud hybrid construction was primarily used, a traditional material abundant in the area and the success of the project can be attributed to the close involvement of the local villagers. He mentions the important of the community when he says, ‘In my culture, everyone has to put his path to push the community forward, so I started to build a school’ (Block, A, 2017). He says, “In the village, no one could build. What I had to do was train the people to be part of the building process… Building with the labour of the community, I could do something big with less financial means, which is important for a project such as this” (Arch Daily, 2016). In 2017, 16 years after building the first school, Kéré had a team of 200 to 300 builders, welders, carpenters, bricklayers, and a lot of people working on different sites in Burkina Faso (Block, A, 2017).

In conclusion, it is clear that community architecture has many advantages, but in various parts of the world it relies heavily on government funding to guide projects. It has been proved just how important it is to consult the client heavily whilst designing houses/buildings, and successful community architecture projects such as Segel Close and Khalili’s ceramic houses show the potential of self-build projects and simplicity within designs that could solve the global housing problems. There is a difference in the types of community architecture in the global south and north which I believe is predominately due to economic and social factors, regarding the uses of housing and the funding/ materials available and general levels of skill of the residents who help to build the housing. However, community architecture projects around the world have shown the potential for alternative buildings to fit a variety of needs and provide for a sustainable future.


  • Mongold, N.J (1980), “Community Architecture : Myth and Reality”, Bachelor of ArchitectureUniversity of Notre DameNotre Dame, Indiana
  • Hatch, R (1984), “The Scope of Social Architecture”, Van Nostrand Reinhold International
  • Wahl, D.C (2017), “Design and Planning for People in Place: Sir Patrick Geddes (1854–1932) and the Emergence of Ecological Planning, Ecological Design, and Bioregionalism”, Medium
  • Geddes, P (1905), ‘Civics: As Concrete and Applied Sociology. Part I’, in Sociological Papers, Macmillan, p. 106.
  • Turner, J (1963), “Dwelling Resources in South America”, Architectural Design
  • Fathy, H (2000), Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt, University of Chicago Press
  • Nandy, A (2015), “Hassan Fathy’s Design Efforts for New Gourna”, ResearchGate
  • University of Dundee (2015), “The City is a Thinking Machine”, Civic Exhibition
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  • McKean, J (1987), “A Discourse on Method: The Segal System”, Published as ‘Einfaches Bauen, Commissioned by Anthony Tischhauser
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  • Khalili, N (1990), “Ceramic Houses and Earth Architecture: How to Build Your Own”, Cal-Earth Press
  • Arch Daily (2016), Primary School in Gando / Kéré Architecture
  • Block, A (2017), “Diébédo Francis Kéré school that launched his career”, Dezeen


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