There are dozens of annual awards doled out to architects who build beautiful, expensive work. The European Prize for Architecture provides a much-needed counterpoint in the industry, rewarding architects who make "significant contributions to humanity" above all else. And this year’s winners, Norway’s TYIN Tegnestue, embody that mission completely: Their ingeniously thrifty, locally constructed projects in the developing world often cost less than $10,000 to build—a drop in the bucket in an architecture world often mired in excess.
The four-year-old firm’s principals, Andreas G. Gjertsen and Yashar Hanstad, work from a simple prerogative: Architecture is pragmatic, and should help people solve their own problems. They believe architects can be social innovators as well as designers. "We don’t want to give people the ‘fish’ but to teach them how to fish so they can catch their own," the duo explains, citing the famous Chinese proverb. "We start the process with a real problem, not some made-up concept of a problem."
The Trondheim, Norway-based firm has built seven projects since 2008, six of them in underdeveloped areas of Thailand and Indonesia. One of their earliest projects, a group of sleeping huts for a Thai orphanage on the Burmese border, laid the foundation for their mission as an office. TYIN proposed a series of lofted huts, each with its own multi-level layout. The goal was to give each child his or her own private space—a difficult task given the orphanage had recently doubled in size. But by sourcing the materials locally, the orphanage’s staff and inhabitants were able to participate in the construction of their new homes and easily replicate the design as the community grew.
Self-sufficient construction has become a crucial aspect of TYIN’s mission, and almost all of their subsequent buildings have been built at low cost by the people who will use and live within them. Their most recent project, an education and social welfare center for cinnamon farmers in Sumatra, was built in less than three months using discarded cinnamon bark and bricks made on-site. The entire structure is made up of only 10 simple construction details, and has already withstood multiple major earthquakes. The construction crew? Hanstad, Gjertsen, 70 untrained workers, and eight water buffalo.
This month, the duo released the TYIN Architect’s Toolbox, a downloadable kit that will let other designers learn from their extensive experience building with underdeveloped communities. "It contains practical tips on how to proceed with projects with tight schedules, small budgets, and limited resources," say the architects. Publishing a book to help other architects replicate your work is a far cry from the competitive, secretive practices of some of TYIN’s contemporaries.
TYIN, then, is a perfect fit for the European Prize, which is making an effort to distinguish itself as a more humanistic presence in the architecture world. "Our institution is not so interested in the newest skyscrapers gracing the shores of Dubai or the Champs-Élysées in Paris," explains Christian K. Narkiewicz-Laine, president of one of the organizing bodies of the Prize. "Architecture should be a vehicle for social change, social improvement, and real cultural development, and not an end result of over-commercialization, over-consumption, and self aggrandizement which is so overwhelmingly apparent in our contemporary world."
"The architectural profession is changing," confirms Kieran Conlon, director of The European Centre. "The rise of an architecture practice like TYIN Architects that commits itself to the critical issues faced by communities has been much more visible in the wake of macro-level events like Hurricane Katrina."
It’s refreshing to see such unpretentious work rewarded. Speaking over email, Hanstad tells Co.Design that "architecture in crisis" is largely a myth. "Architects are always complaining that it’s hard to get clients," he says. "If you look beyond our safe and comfortable surroundings, you will find that there are millions of people ready to give you a really nice project."