shelter: Arhipera Romania II


August 2012

Nicoleta looks worried when a large group of people enters the domain where she and her family have just moved, after their old house became inhabitable. They would like this process to be over as soon as possible, they look forward to the moment when the house is theirs to use. They have collected precious things and brought them to their new place.  Around the young walnut tree a stack of tiles for a new oven, behind the house a frame of branches to become the shelter for their horse, the hole in the ground a water well. Bricks, roof panels, they are saving everything that can be of use.

The daughters stare at us with big eyes of curiosity. The Arhipera group members are uncomfortable. We know nothing about their lives, and what do all our architectural skills offer us if the task is so different from all we learned, and our time and resources are so limited?  How can we relate to the family, to the site, to each other? Every proposal seems to block, every idea is received with question marks. What can we offer them if all they want is shelter? How can we provide them with something which provides more possibilities, a sheltered place in winter, a social space in summer, how can we provide an appropriate structure for them to place the few precious things that make their home, and what is more, to give space for new things, that will be collected in the future?  The first sketches are all about reversibility: flexible panels to temporarily close the porch in winter. But time and materials are not available to execute the idea in this phase. Finally, the proposal is simple but effective. The facade offers a social space where objects can displayed on the front side, with a bench to sit and talk with neighbors. The rear facade provides a space where tools and materials can be stored. The framework is concrete and practical but stands also for a larger one: the whole house becomes a framework for the family to appropriate. They can collect things, and make them part of the house - not of just a house, but of their home.

Late July 2012, I was one of the directors of the Arhipera Summer Schoolorganized by the Soros Foundation as part of a larger social and building program for a poor community in the village of Dor Marunt, Romania. Students of architecture and anthropology worked on the finishing of 4 houses for Roma families.  kh