Lukas Feireiss and Ole Bouman, eds. NAi Publishers, 2011 (240 pp.,US $39.95 ).
Can architecture really change the world or is it really just a tool of the rich and powerful to etch their wealth and power ineradicably into mankind's memory? That is the big question behind the book Testify! The Consequences of Architecture, which was shown in accompaniment to an exhibition in the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) in Rotterdam.
The Berlin curator Lukas Feireiss compiled 25 current projects from all around the world that are dedicated to changing conditions from the ground up. A museum in Japan, an affordable apartment block in Mexico City, schools in South Africa, Afghanistan and China and libraries in Mali, Germany and Thailand. These projects are often associated with development aid and almost always seek out co-operation with local partners, residents and initiatives.
The Ahmed Baba Centre in Timbuktu, designed by the South African DHK Architects, is a case in point. Historical Arabic manuscripts from the 12th century onwards are collected here, evidence of Africa's intellectual history, covering subjects such as medicine, astronomy, theology and law. The building, which was developed together with local craftsmen, was largely built out of clay bricks; its internal organization is based on the traditional form of town-planning in Timbuktu: shaded interior routes ensure that the rooms are naturally air-conditioned and the underground storage for the irreplaceable manuscripts is also kept cool by natural means as far as possible. The idea is for the Ahmed Baba Centre to become a lively place of encounter and communication as well as an educational centre with deep roots in the local history.
Is it therefore possible to build a better world? When reading about the 25 projects in Testify!, there is a positive sense that there are many ideas about how to improve living conditions, even for the poorest people in the world. That education, art, culture and ecology are values that can be taught and that they can also be combined with remarkably attractive building designs.
"Architects generally seem to learn alarmingly little from their own buildings," Feireiss commented in his preface. "Most architects never go back to the buildings they designed after they are built, and therefore know very little about their buildings' afterlife. Finding out what really happens after a building is finished doesn't seem to be anyone's job." Any critique of architecture worthy of the name must therefore address exactly this task: the building should not be discussed on the day of its opening, when it is empty and without any signs of use, gleaming in the sun; it is best to discuss it a year later when the users and visitors can be interviewed about what spatial ideas really worked and how the building was able to alter its surroundings.
The focus here is not the architecture's spatial-aesthetic quality, it is on whether it can prove itself on a day-to-day basis.
Feireiss writes, "These projects are all united in an overall attentiveness towards the complex relationships between context and spatial intervention, and a thorough understanding of the transformational power of architecture over time." If we thus assume that architecture determines the way we live together and is able to alter the way we do that, then we also have to ask whether architecture has to limit itself to just buildings. Or are there architectural endeavours that approach their goals through a strategy that also allows itself to ask whether to achieve these goals a building is even necessary? The needs of communities could often altered much more lastingly through political, social, legal or cultural change than through a building.
Florian Heilmeyer is a curator and writer based in Berlin. He writes for various European architecture magazines, he is editor for the German website www.baunetz.de and contributing editor for MARK Magazine.