Building a community

by VIRGINIA LAU on Aug 16, 2011 in Architecture
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 With the help of local residents, Architects Rudanko Kankkunen have built a colourful vocational school for Sra Pou village – which they also helped to raise funds for

In the spring of 2010, Aalto graduate students Hilla Rudanko and Anssi Kankkunen travelled to Cambodia as part of their studies in architecture and urban planning. The objective was to find a design task with a local NGO. “It was an initiative to teach social design to students,” says Rudanko. “When we landed Phnom Penh, we started to look for NGOs ourselves.”

Eventually, the pair got in touch with Blue Tent. Through their correspondence with the local NGO, the two-person team discovered a great need for a vocational school in Sra Pou village, one of Cambodia’s unprivileged communities. Many of its residents had been evicted from their homes in the city. They lacked basic infrastructure, an adequate built environment and secure incomes. What was originally an imaginary design concept for studio works eventually became solid construction plans by the newly-established Architects Rudanko Kankkunen. “The community had a clear need,” says Rudanko. “They wanted to have a school that would be the first landmark in the community.”

Sra Pou lacked spaces for congregation and Blue Tent hoped to empower the community by giving them a vocational school. They wanted the school to be a place where people of all ages could gather and learn to make their own living.

However, funding proved a major issue. While the site had already been secured, Rudanko and Kankkunen could not rely on Blue Tent for funding. “The building project was so big, they couldn’t get it together,” recalls Rudanko. The two architects contacted various Finnish companies and posted a video on Wefund.com in search of donors. Eventually, they received enough personal and corporate donations to build the vocational school.

With a six-week timeline and US$15,000 budget, Rudanko and Kankkunen worked with the local community in constructing the school.  “Blue Tent wanted to use a lot of the money on labour and less money on materials,” says Rudanko. “They had a concern that if we used innovative materials, they might think it was too awkward and unsafe.”

The vocational school was a community effort, built by the hand of its residents. No machines were used except for an electric drill. “People made fun of it because it was the only electric machine onsite,” says Rudanko. “Everyone was onsite. Kids would play here after school. 

The highlight of the structure are its colourful doors. “They are the element we are very excited about,” says Rudanko. Made from palm leaves and bamboo by local handicraftsmen, the architects came up with the design during their initial visit to Sra Pou in 2010. “We were involved in designing activities and planning teaching the community,” says Rudanko. “Traditionally, basket-making is a main source of living in Sra Pou. We saw a way of incorporating this technique of weaving into the doors.”

Additionally, handmade and sun-dried soil blocks were used throughout the structure. Commonly used for sandhouses, the technique of developing these blocks was already familiar to the local craftsmen. “Most people who work with making soil blocks sell their labour to Habitat for Humanity. They understand its different qualities,” says Rudanko. “This project shows it can be applied to non-standard buildings like a school.”

Laid out in a perforated pattern, the soil blocks are placed to encourage indirect sunlight and natural ventilation through the space. “These small holes work well in providing a completely shaded, cool space,” says Rudanko. Bright and colourful shutters also allow users to block the sun while promoting a welcoming environment.

“It was helpful to know how the place would be used,” says Rudanko. On the bottom floor, the architects designed classrooms for handicraft and motorcycle repair workshops. Upstairs, the space is meant for more peaceful activities like sewing and computer-training. The school coordinator’s office is also upstairs. “He wanted to be like a secretary receiving his students,” says Rudanko. “It’s the way he works. He has to talk to everyone.”

Sra Pou vocational school was completed in April this year, and continues to be operated by local NGO Blue Tent, providing villagers public space and training so that they can learn the skills needed to earn their own living. 


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