Sydnee MacKay

There is no denying it, small is beautiful. In a nation where cookie-cutter McMansions have become common from coast to coast, and the disposable ideal is so prevalent that there is no question when, within one city block, multiple buildings will be razed in a day to make room for the bigger and better, it is refreshing to know that someone is attempting to bring light not only the creative reuse of materials, but the resilience and innovative characteristics of humanity itself. Wes Janz, professor of architecture at Ball State University, acknowledges the importance of local influences with an eye to learn, to bring recognition, and to help the one billion less fortunate among us.

Onesmallproject, Janz’ website and forthcoming book, brings together small architectural projects from poor urban settings, informal shelters in working class neighborhoods around the world, and squatters’ make-shift homes, with the work of those who recognize the value in such places or are trying to help improve them. Onesmallproject identifies the value that these make-shift buildings have in teaching professional designers, as well as students, the ability to be creative with approach and materials. It teaches one to be aware of ones’ surroundings. It teaches one to be mindful of costs and to consider all economic levels as viable clients in the attempt to serve others in practical and applicable ways. And hopefully, it teaches one to be cognizant of all possibilities.

More importantly, onesmallproject brings due attention to those who have built unique and dutiful shelters out of the disposable materials cast aside by others. It acknowledges without personal persecution, the conditions that so many reside in, and it draws attention to the needs of many. It shows what is possible using creativity and innovation under desperate situations. And it gives a visual image of the needs of the under-served.

But most of all, onesmallproject shows us where we can help, where we can open our eyes to see value in what is around us rather than closing our eyes tight in avoidance. Onesmallproject shows us how to use our skills and knowledge to help those that we can help, not just those we choose to help, or those who pay the most. Designers have the ability to identify areas that need help and can in fact render help. A better designed, more durable home is just one way.

Complacency is a very scary place, much more hopeless than any of the areas Janz documents on onesmallproject. Perhaps if we can just remember the beauty of small things we all may stand a better chance of not falling into it.

Sydnee MacKay, a graphic designer for Central Michigan University, is an active contributor to Designers Without Borders. With a keen interest in design and the developing world, she will be conducting design research in Kampala, Uganda this winter exploring the effects of culture on design preference and response.

3 Responses to “Small is Beautiful”

  1. lodaya Says:

    Well said. I would only like to add two other truisms to this, particularly for “designers”:
    1. Designers are more often problem-creators than problem-solvers. Certainly our supposedly ‘divine’ discontent with the state of the present often makes us blind to the beauty of life and other people’s creativity.
    2. Will designers ever be able to make things disappear from this planet? Can we ever escape the tyranny of thinking that a problem (even a genuine one) can only be solved by a thing (usually, something ‘new’)? When will we realize the potency and grandeur of the human spirit?
    We’re aware of David’s thoughts and responses in Uganda. Would love to have yours too! 🙂

  2. Sydnee MacKay Says:

    I’ve been back in the United States for 18 days. Still not sure how I feel about that and I notice more than ever the over-designed world that I’m now engulfed in. Some thoughts and responses about Uganda …

    The most notable is the sustainable aspect of indigenous design, from toys to utilitarian crafts like baskets and fabrics. The recycled, reusable, and natural qualities are those that I admire most. The idea that a serving tray be made of grass, to melt back into the earth when it no longer can perform its duties, the very qualities the Western world needs and sees no possible solutions for in their plastic reconfigured, melted-down version of sustainability. One that merely puts a good face on the issue of less consumption of natural resources and simply sustains the increased waste that finds its way into our landfills.

    The mere ability of an average Ugandan to see value in the discarded, to take old wooden boards, warped and bent, and make new furniture, or to collect plastic bags to make a football, or tin cans and make lanterns, these are admirable qualities. They most likely aren’t seen as such through the eyes of the maker, but they are genuine acts of sustainability that Western designers should take notice of and adapt.

    As I left Uganda, not sure when I would return, there was one thing I was sure I would miss more than anything else, the very thing that I suspect captures the hearts of many mzungu and keeps them in the developing world if not physically, then spiritually. It is the connection to the real world, to humanity and to nature that is so much more tangible and accessible. In America we sugarcoat and ignore poverty, keep nature manicured, and convince ourselves that we are separate from it. We convince ourselves for the most part that life is one-dimensional – ours, and nothing can interfere. But in Uganda, there is no escape. It is felt when a crippled beggar holds his hand out in hopes for a few coins for something to eat. It is heard when listening to the birds sing at precisely 7 a.m. when the sun is coming up and exactly 7 p.m. when it sets again. And it is felt when the torrential rains come in the morning, hindering you from making it to a meeting on time.

    So far, I was right about what I would miss the most.

  3. Rich Morrison Says:

    I like the creative recycling concept and I think understand its utility. One uses what is available. Benjamin Franklin said it well more than two hundred years ago, “necessity is the mother of invention”.

    What a great picture book such examples would make.

    Rich Morrison