Pushing away memories of a devastating Tsunami, a fishing village in Sri Lanka springs back to its feet with the discovery of compressed earth blocks, rubber wood and the expertise of superstar architect Shigeru Ban.
It’s no surprise that Tsunami survivors often harbour mixed sentiments regarding their survival. There’s elation at having escaped the finger of Death and then there’s the weighted-down reality of having to pick up the pieces and start life anew. For the Tsunami survivors in Kirinda, Sri Lanka, the future seemed somewhat surmountable thanks to the intervention and benevolence of star Japanese architect Shigeru Ban.
Sri Lanka is famous for many things – gemstones, beautiful beaches, seafood and cricket but in 2004 it made headlines worldwide for the death and destruction wreaked along its coastline by a raging Tsunami. One of the more ravaged areas in Sri Lanka was the Muslim village of Kirinda in the south-east where the landscape was rudely flattened and survivors were left bereft of both house and belongings.
Assigned the task of housing the survivors, developer Philip Bay declared his vision for the rehabilitation, “This was not going to be a traditional disaster relief effort where we go in and make homes really fast and leave. I wanted to treat this like a development project.” Helping him actualise this vision was Shigeru Ban, an international architect and a humanitarian often found at the forefront of disaster housing relief.
Having worked as a consultant to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ban has displayed remarkable prowess as an ‘emergency architect’, capable of intervening rapidly to create temporary structures.
Ban’s aim was to adapt the new houses to the tropical Sri Lankan climate and to use local labour and materials that would help revive the local economy. He also sat in direct consultation with the villagers tuning in to their specific needs and lifestyle. “This is the first time I’ve worked for Muslim societies,” said Ban, “so before I built the houses I had a community meeting to find out what exactly was required. It all depended on the generation concerned; for example, here we had to have separate spaces for men and women.”
Ban’s final prototype incorporated a single-storey structure with walls made from compressed earth blocks and a pitched roof made from locally sourced teak and coconut wood. This house had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, a hall and a sheltered courtyard. The courtyard was to be a flexible space for dining, entertainment and could be even used as a place to repair fishing nets.
More importantly, it met municipal stipulations which required a separate place where women can retreat to in private. Ban also designed furniture for the residence using wood from the rubber trees which grow aplenty in the region.
The use of rubber tree wood from the surroundings for partitions and furniture eliminated the need for steel frames and ensured the house is not just safe but also sustainable. Ban also made it simple for locals to participate in the building of their houses with the use of prefabricated walls made of compressed earth as well as building modules that could be fitted together, almost like Lego blocks.
This aspect greatly reduced travel miles that are normally incurred on construction sites. The outcome was impressive: in two years, the locals put together a 100 houses measuring 71 sq.m. each. All of them were perfect replicas of Ban’s prototype.
The new houses are bright, spacious, well ventilated and elegant in their simplicity of design. They not only exhibit a respect for the local culture and gender dynamics but also a profound reverence for the environment. Shigeru Ban who is often lauded for his sustainable designs and use of eco friendly materials especially his paper and cardboard structures, dismisses ‘green architecture’ as a passing fad and says he is personally more concerned with “just using materials without wasting!”
Nevertheless, Ban’s post Tsunami housing relief project in Kirinda was shortlisted for the Aga Khan Award 2013. An architect with a conscience, Ban has committed himself to creating buildings that can truly be useful – whether or not they are permanent fixtures on the horizon.
He chooses to eschew glitz and instead relies on solid and sensible environment friendly measures in each of his designs.
Text By Christabelle Athaide
Photographs Courtesy Dominic Sansoni,
Shigeru Ban Architects and Eresh Weerasuriya