Combatting social exclusion through innovative and sustainable policy and practice in the context of urban planning (ASF Mitchell application letter)

(Motivation letter sent November 2006 to apply for Mitchell Programme run by ASF Italia (Architects sins frontiers) I was successfull in reaching the last selection stage which involved traveling to Rome for a tri-lingual interview but did not get the grant.)

Combatting social exclusion through innovative and sustainable policy and practice in the context of urban planning (ASF Mitchell application letter)

2 months ago i left my home in Dublin, Ireland. I was not sure exactly to where I was heading or how i was going to get there. It had something to do with confronting the “world of architecture”; challenging their closed system and attempting to pull down the walls they have built around that snug little world. I left to connect, support and learn from others in the world which is growing outside that “world of architecture”, those today who are struggling for and building a better world. This was the natural next step in a journey that began ten years ago on the beaches outside New York while finding out about Gandhi’s views on Ahimsa and direct action. Im not sure when or where this journey will end but its getting more real, profound, beautiful and a pleasure to be on, step by step.

1999, 7 years ago, was my last wander of discovery like this one. That time I only knew roughly where I was going, for how long and why: Unsatisfied with the education i was recieving from my university and feeling too disconnected about the reality of others which I was learning about from books and films, I went to see, smell, touch, hear and listen to their realities. 6 months over land and sea through Eastern Europe, Iran, Pakistan to India, to what had been previously only names and places from history and the news. I went and saw first hand the fresh graves in the old football pitch in Sarajevo and the “red roses” in the old city’s streets, the places that led to those graves being filled, the places were old men and their frightened grandchildren had been blown out of existence by their fellow human beings. I saw the landmine filled no go zones alongside the once beautiful road that led there and those Serbo-Croat border villages with one half burned out: “was this were all those men were rounded up and massacred?”. I saw that dead child on the busy main street of old Delhi in India and how the local people bypassed that little bundle with its blank stare looking out, perhaps they just got on with trying to survive? would it have been different if it was one of their own?, did they care?, does the world have to remain like this?

I’ve seen the bad side of this life, I chose to see it, I forced myself to see it. But i did so for a simple reason; the pain, the hurt, the fear, the killing that is so prevalent in our world; i know it doesent have to be this way and i know architecture CAN play a huge part in resolving these conflicts. for 10 years now I’ve been traveling on this road, trying to create solutions, trying to find out what solutions are out there. All that time I came back to the world I’m part of, that “world of architecture”, to let them know what THE OTHERS were doing and constantly i was pushed away. They didn’t want to listen, they still only wanted to talk about their precious “architecture” of little boxs that look nice. So with this I drifted more to the world of the others and it has been with them i began to do REAL architecture: the homeless of Dublin trying to tell people their reality and to seek dignity in doing so, those seeking a greener city with places of their own to grow organic food, the artists of Nicaragua who place emphasis on the dialogue as the tool that leads to the mural, the eco builders of Frilande who are building their own houses due to the ever increasing unreachable cost of making a home for oneself, the radio volunteers of Africa who are desperately trying to have their stories heard by the world, the clowns, jugglers and street performers who simply try to bring more joy to their otherwise cold and dreary city streets, the squatters who are turning old military zones once used for control and violence into zones for collective, creative, sustainable, peaceful, open living. Traveling to India was my time to learn. This time, here and now in Genova is my time to do.

What’s a thesis for? Is it the equivalant of the final exam in school, that which must simply be passed to allow for progression to the next level. Or is it a unique opportunity to make a statment, your personal architectural statement, to tell the world what matters for you at a specific point in time. Unlike other architectural thesi in my university, I tried to turn the architectural idea i was exploring for 9 difficult months into a physical reality.While the end mark is a mere pass, for me it was far more, it was the beginings of an experiment in community, skill sharing, open participative systems, food production; living. While my classmates were refining a 1:10 railing detail I was out with others in the rain and a bag of baby trees, in an abondoned field behind an old factory, alongside a canal in one of the most socially excluded parts of the city digging the earth to attempt to make a new community garden. A garden for us, for the area and its people, for the city. A simple gesture that things can be improved, a reminder of HOPE. I passed University, thats all I was looking for. Maybe If I had simply designed a little library instead of a redesigning a 330metre long park as part of a city eco corridor I would have got a top mark, but i chose to do that which mattered for me, for others and for the story of architecture. More importantly, the real project grew from strength to strength; From a small number of rain soaked beginners clambering around a fence to stick a few Hazel trees into the ground there are now a large and ever widening crew who have shared their workload, stories, food, skills, jokes, dreams, time together. For many it has already been a beautiful experience.

I am officially an architect for a year now, but I have taken breaks during my studies to understand all the different sides to this strange profession. I have worked on 12 building sites in 4 countries and I have worked for over 3 years in 6 architectural offices In Ireland, from the very small to the very large. I know a bit about the real world, and ive been lucky. 6 years ago someone who is now a dear friend took a risk; they handed the redesign of an existing hostel for Dublin homeless women to a firey young architectural student who had just returned from the slums of India. I got to take that project, Haven House, from initial brief analysis to a fully designed building. I was thrown into the deep end, having to deal weekly with government authorities, the tired but passionate workers of the existing premises and those with the purse strings. But we succeeded. We proposed radical ideas; the straw bale units were rejected but the oval playzones remained and the seasonly changing 6×6 metre wall mural on view from the street was given the green light. They said that they saw in our proposal an example of how things could be in the future; places for living and growing in, a special place that offered a more connected existence, a home. A few days before leaving my own home for this journey I’m presently on I got to walk around the just finished Haven House with Bernie, the manager, who was beaming with the joy of the reality of the situation. What a feeling: Architecture matters.

The last month has been truly amazing, it has opened so many doors for me. Im currently working on the Harambee project with Nick Macharia for the WSF (world social forum) in Kenya in January and from that attempting to raise funds to build schools, a hospital, homes, a farm and a self energy production plant on land outside the slums of Kibera in Naoirobi. I have just returned from participating in the ResidentMeta workshop in Metavilla, the French Pavilion at the Venice Bienalle where I got to “widen the discussion” with the “world of architecture”. And now, here I am sitting in Ali’s internet shop hoping for the opportunity to learn from and work with you, ASF (Architects Sans Frontiers). I support the arguments made by Fritjof Capra and others that the the world is going through a PARADIGM SHIFT. I support the idea that on November 30th 1999 ” the political lanscape of the world was changed forever” and that we are in the new age of civilisation; the NETWORK age. It is with all this that I firstly congratulate you on your own structure, work and goals and with that offer myself as someone who would love the opportunity to participate with you on this journey. That simple journey with the idea of that better world soon becoming the reality.

Yours sincerely,

Duncan Crowley


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