Architecture With a Human Touch

The modest joy of structures that draw strength from their surroundings

`DADDY, come and see what I've made.'' It was my daughter in the doorway, a late afternoon California sun blazing behind her, a touch of delight in her brown eyes telling me as clearly as words, ``You really will like what I have made. Get up, Daddy. Come with me right now.''

I followed her, out the door into summer heat, through a gate, through the back of a wooden carport and into a wide, yellow field where long, dried grasses from a four-day-old mowing were spilled in layers of flaxen puffs.

There, in a grassy covered mound about four-and-a-half feet high and wide was the validation of the child as architect, the child as creator of original shelter built to be a home. ``Daddy, look,'' she said. ``Look.''

She had taken a large pile of old redwood boards - each one about a half-inch in thickness, five inches wide and four feet long - and built an extraordinary structure of five linked sides with a cardboard door. She had stacked and angled the boards horizontally, overlapped the ends, positioned some bricks between the boards, and layer by layer the structure defined itself as it went up. A piece of plywood had been added as a roof; then she buried the whole thing under a wonderful salad of crackling grasses so that it was not only sturdy, but boldly indigenous and cool as a cucumber inside. Not a single nail was used.

It had that look of a primitive but absolutely appropriate shelter built on an African plain. Or it was a simple, necessary hut put together on the banks of a slow, brown river somewhere in the interior of Brazil.

I think now of my daughter's hand-and-heart-built shelter because in mid-October this year the Aga Khan Award for Architecture was given to 11 structures around the world, mostly in Islamic countries. The Aga Khan is the son of the infamous former Aga Khan whose corpulent presence and immense wealth was regarded with bemusement in the Western press for years.

But this Aga Khan has a different mission, and that is to identify and reward various forms of old and new urban and rural architecture, particularly those which ``utilize available resources and initiatives appropriately ... meeting both the functional and cultural needs of their users.''

In short, since 1980 he has encouraged not just concepts of shelter, but specific structures which are built and used because they rise out of two elements: local materials and true need. Here are two elements not usually found in urban architecture in the United States. Popular concepts of unrelenting massivity bury them. Huge buildings in Western civilization today are built and occupied like terrain in war, to establish power, and in many cases to overpower. They are not used the way one uses a home or a library.

But my daughter used her structure. With room for two kids, or three in a pinch, her shelter was a place for daytime play, lunch with friends and cats, reading, tapes to hear, overnight giggling and sleeping, and to be alone. It stood for two years until a torrential winter rain encouraged a bumper crop of mildew inside. The local sanitation inspector (me) decreed it uninhabitable.

I think the Aga Khan would have liked my daughter's structure. He favors projects which unmistakably and skillfully address human needs. For instance, this year his selection committee - among the 11 projects chosen - cited a housing concept in Bangladesh, the Grameen Bank Housing Programme. It provides simple rectangular homes of bamboo, corrugated iron roofs and siding, a prefabricated sanitary slab, and reinforced concrete posts. Over a five-year period 44,500 such homes have been constructed by and for inhabitants with modest loans from the bank.

Although the culture surrounding my daughter is primarily one in which basic needs are comfortably met, the desire to design and make her own ``home'' is, I think, universal. It is as strong and clear as the desire to be at peace.

``Home'' is as serious a desire in Bangladesh as it often becomes frivolous and ostentatious in North America. But the fundamental need is the same. From houses in Bangladesh to a child's deceptively utilitarian ``flaxen puff'' in California, the words of the Aga Khan aptly fit:

``I can think of no human art form which exercises such a permanent influence over our lives. We must demand from our respective national decisionmakers, our architects, our planners and our landscape architects an environment in which we live and work, harmoniously and to the fullest.''

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