Intrinsic Value: Artisanship and Imports

As an architectural community we have the distinct opportunity, and therefore, responsibility to wrestle with foundational cultural and social issues in our work each day. The daily tasks on our to-do lists may not leave that particular impression, however it is important to reflect on trends in our work to see the agency we hold as curators of design culture, specifiers of building materials, and influencers of the physical urban environment we use each day.

As a foreigner working in Uganda, I have been deeply impressed with the beauty of naturally occurring materials that exist in this country. There is wide-ranging and spectacular beauty found in the metamorphic patterns in honed amphibolite floor tiles, the high-contrast wood grain patterns found in Elgon Teak, the subtle variation of earth tones in fired clay tiles, and the amazing bright colours in Karamoja Marble. The value and beauty of Uganda’s indigenous building materials is unquestionable.

What is surprising to me is the continued misuse of these precious resources, and worse, that they are often perceived as less valuable than their imported alternatives. The tension between assessed value of imported and indigenous materials comes with significant implications.

The growing appeal of imported wall glazing and aluminum metal panel façade systems undermines the sustainable development of indigenous and locally produced resources. Consider the economic and cultural impact if the architecture community celebrated the use of Kajjansi clay floor tiles in lieu of imported ceramic tiles from East Asia. Or the development of sustainable hardwood forest management so that Ironwood veneers were specified in kitchen cabinetry in lieu of imported screen-printed laminates. There is a long list of examples that could follow.
While there are existing organisations tasked with protecting and popularising these resources, there are numerous opportunities for the architecture community to join in this work by committing to increased specification of responsibly sourced, ethical, sustainable, natural resources. The purchasing power we hold through the specification of building materials must be well considered, and properly utilised. As large-scale purchasers we also become stakeholders, capable of influencing the means of production to ensure those materials are produced ethically, safely, and sustainably.

An additional impact of the disproportionate preference towards imported materials over their indigenous counterparts is the loss of artisan culture. There is an entire industry of craftspeople around stone, wood, and clay based industries that bring transformative economic value-adding skillsets to raw materials. While these individuals certainly exist today, the preference for imported alternatives undermines their livelihood and threatens the promulgation of their craft. Increased specification of local materials will strengthen the artisan community and ultimately, improve the quality and range of materials available to the design community.

Perhaps the most foundational impact to the architectural community is the social and cultural impact of preferencing imported designs. When contemplating the design features and building characteristics that notable design features extend beyond accommodating the equatorial sun or prevailing wind patterns. In each historical era building styles have responded to pragmatic technical issues in addition to cultural perception of beauty; whether formed domestically or imported from abroad.

There exists today, perhaps more than ever before, the ability to mimic any architectural style in our work. After a few hours researching online or studying a good book, any competent architect can develop the framework for a building design in almost any architectural style. We know this – and so do our clients.
If there are many possibilities, what then are the professional responsibilities? I argue that we devalue our work and disregard our professional responsibility when we neglect our cultural context in order to be excessively agreeable to client design requests. Some architectural styles are inappropriate for this climate. Some styles are dependent on building materials that must be imported from across the world that undermine the local economy and devalue distinct features of contextual design. Other styles use materials that are largely dependent on questionable, if not illegal labour practices.

The architect client relationship must be anchored in dialogue where ideas, values, and implications of choices are discussed in order to develop a project that is distinctly rooted in a place.
In keeping with our professional code of ethics, our work should do no harm. Arguably, our work should be used to strengthen the local economy through the specification of local materials, to expand the skillset and breadth of the artisan community, and as a celebration of distinctly tropical architecture through the integration of locally produced materials embedded in our designs.

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