MASS effect 

Can a building catalyze social change? Lo-fab says yes

click to enlarge On display at CC: a rendering of the GHESKIO center.
  • On display at CC: a rendering of the GHESKIO center.

The aims of the GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, are great. The first permanent cholera-fighting facility in Haiti, it's designed to serve an area of 60,000 people. Separately, it has the capacity to treat 250,000 gallons of wastewater annually with state-of-the-art technology.

On another level entirely, this fusion of concrete and steel is also meant to raise some heady questions: Can architecture create meaningful change? Can design promote social justice? Can a building save lives?

GHESKIO is an example of "lo-fab," short for "locally fabricated," architecture, a movement created by the people of Boston's MASS Design Group. Over coming weeks at Colorado College's I.D.E.A. Space, their work will take center stage via speeches by MASS architects and TED Talk alumni; forum discussions involving Colorado College staff; and a visual exhibition.

That Lo-Fab exhibition, which will run well into October, includes three videos and several photographs featuring GHESKIO. MASS members helped fund and design the Cholera Treatment Center in response to the 2010 earthquake that brought about an epidemic of cholera (among other maladies), which hadn't been seen in the island country in more than a century.

"Visitors [will] get a good sense of the people involved in the process — the architects, health-care workers, construction crew, and patients — and how they all contributed to the design and construction of the building," explains Jessica Hunter Larsen, I.D.E.A. Space curator.

One of those people is 32-year-old Alan Ricks. After graduating from CC in 2005, he went on to manage an art gallery in Jackson, Wyoming, and then completed his master's in architecture at Harvard, where he co-founded the MASS firm. Today he serves as its COO, meaning he's involved with projects around the world, such as construction of a primary school in Zambia, and hospitals from the U.S. to Rwanda.

Ricks explains the lo-fab approach this way: "In many of the places we work, which is in the developing world, construction relies on imported goods and materials. Often after disasters, like in Haiti ... many of the solutions promote pre-fabricated ideas that could be air-dropped into the area. ... What we're looking for is how to maximize impact and leverage local materials and expertise to keep the local economy impactful."

To see what this looks like, you can survey the treatment center's custom designs for natural light and ventilation, and a façade made by local metalworkers.

One of the key aspects of the lo-fab movement is what Dr. Paul Farmer, a public health expert who has worked with the firm, describes as the "dignification of space."

"We believe that health is a human right and everybody deserves access to high-quality services," explains Ricks. "So when we try to deliver something that's not only functional but beautiful, people will say that it isn't necessary, that it's just aesthetics. But we disagree. We think that beauty is actually one of the surest forms of sustainability, because when people think something is beautiful they take care of it, they take ownership over it, and that ensures its longevity over the long term."

Closer to home, MASS has drawn up plans for the planned revamping of Tutt Library at CC; drawings for that can be found at bit.ly/1hMZvGK.


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