TedTalk – Alastair Parvin: Architecture for the people by the people

Title and Link: Architecture for the people by the people

Presenter: Alastair Parvin is the founder of Wikihouse, an Open Source Construction Set which allows anyone to design, download and print house components which can be assembled without formal skills.  He hopes that the project will be able to help people – particularly in situations such as disaster relief, where infrastructure is destroyed and needs to be rebuilt quickly for a variety of reasons.

I watched a great TedTalk today about Architecture… but most talks about architecture can easily be linked to similar concepts within the Industrial Design realm.

Key Points – So the video starts off with Alastair talking about how when we think of a designer or architect we mean a professional who is trained and being paid for their work.  As a young graduate during the economic crisis of 2008 he quickly realized there were no jobs… but if we had gotten a job with an average starting wage he would already be within the top 2% of the world by income.  He quickly realized that all design was made for the top 1% of the population, and if it was directed at others it was because the top 1% had done it for whatever reason, typically philanthropically.

It’s also interesting to think about how designers are typically the ones who have a lot of creative and innovative ideas… which are needed to solve the huge, systemic problems we are facing around the world: such as poverty or climate change.  However, when problems with the economy arise, they are the first to lose their jobs, and their skills cannot be utilized for the changes we so desperately need as a society.

Alastair thinks there are three key strategies to changing design for the 1% to design for 100%.

1.We need to question the idea of Architecture as only making buildings – as that is generally the most expensive solution.

2. We need to question the ideas of the industrial era – which says that we need big finance and big buildings – a one-size-fits-all approach.  This could possibly change to make things more democratic, having people come together to finance and build neighbourhoods instead of monolithic structures owned by huge corporations.

3. We need to remember that design is mostly done by amateurs.  So how are we going to build the tools for an open-source economy?

This is where 3D printers and other new technologies mixed with online sharing communities are becoming VERY interesting! This makes things cheaper, easier, and faster. Therefore, everyone can be a designer or a builder.  Everyone and nobody controls the means of production.  His own online site, Wikihouse, allows anyone to download the parts needed to make a house, cut them on a CNC machine, assemble them with just mallets – using only 2 or 3 people and taking only a day for a small house.

When designing for everyone there are certain things which need to be considered, which are basic principles that everyone should learn in design school.  These include: making sure that every piece can easily be maneuvered, making sure that a piece will not fit in the wrong way or that there is no wrong way, and “be lazy like a fox!”.  Copying is good, because there’s no need to remake the wheel.

The fastest growing cities in the world today are not skyscrapers but slums.  Our existing development models may not be able to solve these problems if we only treat people as consumers.  This is not only about architecture… but it’s about creating affordable, open-source and high-performance solutions that everyone can access to.

The 20th century was all open the democratization of consumption with companies like Ford and Coca-Cola.  Alastair thinks that the 21st century will be all about the democratization or production.

Final Thoughts – I think he is totally right.  We have been designing for the 1%, and that’s not a good idea – socially, morally or even economically.  Designers must look to the “developing world” and work with the people in need to create products that fit their life.  I don’t necessarily believe that one-size-fits-all CNC/3D printing is necessarily the solution, but it is one of the possible solutions for some problems. Other products may need to be created by professionals, however they should be designed with the users, and considering all issues that are important for the specific scenario. These issues are likely to include cost, availability of materials, durability/longevity and many others.

As designers, and people, we need to open our eyes.  We need to look at the world… and not just the world directly outside of our door. Then, we need to work WITH people, instead of just working for people.  It’s only when we work together that the world can become a better place.


About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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