A Commitment to Place: Material, Craft, and Labor

Bijoy Jain, Francis Kéré, and Simón Vélez are three very different architects from three very different places: Mumbai, India; Gando, Burkina Faso; and Manizales, Colombia. What their work shares is a commitment to place. Site-specific context is invoked in architectural approaches as distinct as neo-traditionalism and critical regionalism. But for Jain, Vélez, and Kéré, the commitment to place moves beyond reductive readings of local aesthetics by actively reconfiguring the relationship between material, craft, and labor. The ways in which the choice of building materials signifies local specificity is obvious. Less often discussed, however, are the ways in which the transformation of those materials into architecture – the construction process – can capitalize on local competencies of craft and local economies of labor.

“Architecture is about people,” says Bijoy Jain, in an interview with Gregory Wessner presented below. But the people Jain invokes are not just the eventual users of the structures his firm designs. They are the people who build these buildings, the craftsmen who draw on generational legacies of expertise in masonry, carpentry, and plumbing to inform and co-create the design work of Studio Mumbai.

For Kéré, collaboration with a specific labor pool is about more than accessing its embodied knowledge. It’s about a personal dedication to the village where he grew up and to cooperative fabrication that engages the entire village in a shared process of creation.

And for Vélez, a commitment to local building traditions manifests itself through a sustained exploration of the design possibilities of bamboo, which grew abundantly in the area where he grew up. Vélez is fascinated by bamboo’s material qualities – aesthetic, environmental, and cultural – but the material also allow him to design and build buildings “that are intense in their labor use,” employing as many people as possible.

In 2011 and 2012, these three architects delivered illuminating lectures as part of the Architectural League’s Current Work series, and each sat down for an interview to reflect further on his approach and influences. Revisiting these presentations and conversations together reveals resonances between their work that serves to advance our understanding of what a deep sensitivity to place might mean, especially if we start to ask not only how and for whom our architecture performs, but also who is involved in the process.


Published: April 8, 2013