Fairy Water: reflections on community

During the course of the three weeks, on top of informal visits to people’s houses, there were five organised events with the community.

  1. Interviews with individual families
  2. Roof tile painting with children
  3. Mapping exercise with parents
  4. Community workshop mapping
  5. Embroidery workshop with women

Interviews and visiting families

The standard of living and the lack of care and concern for the elderlies and children left behind is concerning. One household that we visited was especially having a hard time. The 70-plus-year-old grandpa was ill and had to take care of his wife and daughter who are both mentality challenged. His son and grandson are in the village but does not help or visit him. When asked what his favourite thing is, he replied, ‘death’. Another person was the grandson of a landlord who was criticized heavily during the Cultural Revolution. When he was three, his father was executed by the party and his house (the Guest House) was confiscated and redistributed amongst the families. However, he still lives in the village and remains (visibly) positive relationship with the villagers. Another 90-year-old grandma living next to the Guest House has trouble walking. She has a wheelchair but there is a big step where the door is and so she is unable to travel outside of her place. She uses a bench to help her walk in the village. Normally she just travels to the Guest House and back. Little kids in the village wrote a letter to the big sisters and brothers saying how much they miss them and want them to go back and visit.

There are a lot of stories like that which stick to your head. And there are a lot of little projects which we as architect could possibly do to help the daily living conditions in the village. Building a staircase for one of the old couple, for example. The staircase that they currently have is very difficult to walk in and the grandpa has tripped on the staircase a couple of times. They use the staircase every day and it would make sense to design something that could improve their lives. For the grandma who cannot walk properly, would it be possible to make a small ramp so she could travel around the village with ease? These are little project that could greatly improve the lives of each person. But that being said, it is also necessary that if we are doing one project like this, to continue doing this for other families so everyone is included in the development of the village. It might be that a limit is set on the budget for each household and each student goes in to one household to build something that they actually need, instead of a pavilion.

Workshops

With Alex’s guidance we were able to conduct a community workshop targeting on gathering information and teasing out the needs of the community through mapping. It was a very interesting learning experience understanding how the community should be approached and how the workshop should be run, e.g. how men and women should be split into groups, how people should get physical and record down information, how the students doing the asking should have an interest and sense of responsibility towards their topic. A very interesting thing I have kept on noticing is how to slow down and do it step by step. I have the old habit of wanting to make things perfect, but working with communities require patience and tolerance. It might be that a workshop is unsuccessful, but it does not mean that being unsuccessful means unfruitful. There are still lessons to be learnt, for example, from the previous workshop in March which rushed straight into design opinions and had people sit in teams to come up with a decision. The lessons from that session and this one was that it was important to have 1-on-1 conversations and a process for the community to first understand what themselves and then understand our role as facilitators.

It was also very interesting Alex’s confidence in community versus MM and Henry’s perception of the backward and uneducated villager. What is actually the role of the community in this project? Can we safely say that these communities can help themselves? Julia said while we were suggesting this workshop that the community does not even know what they want. I do not have experience working with communities and seeing a project to fulfilment and I am not yet convinced fully what the role of the community is. However, given that there will be outsiders coming in, the choice becomes more of 1) have the experts run the show 2) have the experts guide the people. The second does seem more sustainable in the long term because it will enable the people to know how to continue after the experts have left. It is interesting though that MM and Henry’s perception is that after the experts leave, the government will come in and support the sustainable development of the place. That is based on the assumption that the government will care. Only if the people care, will the government step in and do something about it. So it is important to have community engagement.

The second question is, how much? How much power does the community have and how much power should we take away? During the design process, Henry insisted that the design decisions remains with the architect. However, Alex (and I would have to agree with him) insisted that it is important to have the community engaged in the design process. So while the design is still vulnerable, there was an argument as to whether the community could join in the discussions. Although the final decision was that the community could discuss the design, showing the Rhino model on the laptop was probably not a very clear way of talking about the design anyways. MM, as the leading figure of the project, gave comments suggesting that the villagers are not able to give sensible comments on the design. It was quite fascinating because the pavilion was quite function-less and the overriding design in the pavilions is aesthetic views of the Guest House and its construction techniques. The first factor is quite personal but the second is definitely within the expertise of the masons and carpenters and could be discussed with them. This process of community engagement during design still need to be improved in terms of both planning (everyone needs to be on the same page about community design) and execution (materials used and workshop planning and communication).

Alex has suggested that it would be best if we start the structure for the community workshops and have it continue running as we leave. That way, the community is able to organise itself in terms of what is needed and how to achieve it. That way, they can demand and look for the ways that can help them. And other people can readily jump in to help them with their needs.