RAW focuses their practice on the process of building as much as on the products of architecture
Practising architecture in a developing economy like Sri Lanka compels one to confront a number of interconnecting challenges with respect to the technological environment, labour skills and industrial organisation. Technologically, the building industry is fragmented into isolated socio-technical pockets with little or no reciprocal connection between labour markets, material supply chains and design advice. Labour-wise, a large proportion of the construction workforce is still produced through informal networks exemplified by on-site apprenticeship, low wages and ad hoc working conditions.
The overall compartmentalisation of the building activity and the irregular labour behaviour have prevented the construction knowledge from travelling across the industry and, by extension, workers from moving across markets.
CONNECTING THE WORLDS OF BUILDING & DESIGN
These challenges are becoming particularly pronounced in the urbanising economies of the developing world because the rates of industrial transformation, land development and building stock substitution are too high and fast to be made part of the overall cultural context of the industry. Subsequently, the urban agglomerations of the developing world are increasingly proliferated by a socially and economically challenged labour pool and a culturally and technically inferior building stock. In such a context, an architectural practice trying to connect the worlds of building (production) and (cultivated) design must remain cognisant of these challenges and work to surmount them.
Overcoming these challenges, however, forces practitioners to look at buildings for what they are socially: the result of the combined work of multiple entities and often internally contradictory decisional processes.
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FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE
Responding to these professional ambitions via tangible outcomes, our work in Sri Lanka is projected as a way of enabling scalable labour performances in different practical environments to achieve culturally and economically diverse building outputs. The subsequent transition from theory to practice required change in both professional attitude and design input. In addition, a series of reciprocal design tactics were felt as essential to be pursued, some of which are outlined below to build up the desired argument on the culture of building.
Developing socially appropriate building technologies & training the labour force ‘live’
Firstly, in most of our work, real building projects are treated as reflective grounds for developing socially appropriate building technologies and training grounds for the development of the labour force. Technology-wise, alternative building systems such as rammed earth; lath and plaster; ferro-cement vaulting; Duraboard panelling; etc., have occupied our material palette along with off-the-shelf, standard supplies such as GI tube structural skeletons, concrete framing and brick masonry
However, what is more critical relating to the context of our architectural interventions is the use of live building processes to upskill the construction workforce.
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Secondly, under the rubric of technological robustness, the ability to tolerate errors and non-optimal applications of trade solutions—as well as changes in the economic variables of the projects and the intricacies of buildings’ cultural and technical attributes—are considered vital to the success of the entire endeavour. From this point of view, it is deemed important to ensure that adequate levels of ‘absorbable’ mistakes (or technical inaccuracies) are built into the production cycle whilst giving the technologies and the processes employed a degree of ‘scalability’ in scope and trade complexity.
Such an approach, we hope, allows us to travel across building markets of different socio-cultural, socio-economic and socio-technical possibilities, but without compromising the architectural ethos and the building performances of the respective interventions. To that end, we like to believe that our practice is built on a particular social and technical approach rather than on stylistic tropes.
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Milinda Pathiraja is Co-Founder of Robust Architecture Workshop (RAW) based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He is academically involved with the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland. Milinda completed his PhD in Architecture at the University of Melbourne, for which he received the RIBA President’s Award for Outstanding PhD Thesis (2011); the CIOB Australasia Excellent Building Postgraduate (Research) Award (2011); the University of Melbourne Chancellor’s Prize for Excellence (2012); and the Australian Alumni Excellence Award for Education (2014). His practice RAW won the Global LafargeHolcim Awards Silver prize in 2015; the regional Bronze prize for Asia Pacific in 2014; a Terra Award for Earthen Constructions in 2016; and the LafargeHolcim Building Better Recognition in 2017. In 2016, RAW was profiled at the 15th edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale.