Do No Harm: Democracy Through Design

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All photos courtesy of Line Ramstad

“Do no harm.” These are the words echoed again and again by Line Ramstad, the Norwegian-born designer who since 2009 has lived and worked in a refugee camp in a disputed zone near the border of Thailand and Burma. She sees her unique position as Norwegian woman living and working with the Karen migrants as a strength, explaining, “it is nice to travel in between, to be the bridge.” Ramstad spoke at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture.

Ramstad studied anthropology and geography before eventually receiving a master of landscape architecture. After five years of traditional practice, Ramstad traveled with two other Norwegians to the border with the intention of using their design background to aid in development work, eventually designing and building an orphanage. When her partners returned to Norway, Ramstad stayed and founded her current design/build architecture practice, Gyaw Gyaw, with three Karen migrants.

Ramstad describes the current situation of the Karen migrants as one with few options. Possessing no official papers, the Karen have few job prospects and live largely in refugee camps. We learn about their history on Gyaw Gyaw’s website: “the Karen people are the second biggest ethnic group in Burma. Exactly how many are unknown. After World War II, Burma was granted independence from the British invasion that had lasted for 62 years. The Karen people had been loyal to the British and fought with the alliance during the war. Among other minorities, they were now promised their own state, and Kaw Thoo Lei (The Land without Evil) was founded, but the Karen people never got sovereignty of the area.”

Gyaw Gyaw, which means “slowly, step by step,” designs and builds with an ethic of sustainability. Their built work consists largely of dormitories, schools, wells and playgrounds, and frequently incorporates partnerships with local NGOs and design firms. Ramstad thinks their work creates opportunities to promote democracy and encourage self-governance, both within the organization in the camps at large. Karens learn how to design and construct buildings together and this knowledge will remain with their people.

While the organization does not accept volunteers, they do offer an annual workshop in which visitors are encouraged to participate. They only accept funds that allow them to do the work in a way that is consistent with their small-scale and specific mission; their annual budget is only $60,000.

Gyaw Gyaw builds using “traditional materials and techniques used in more innovative and sustainable ways.” Ramstad emphasizes the importance of function above all else. She speaks eloquently about the constraints of cost and material that allow the work to be driven largely by climate and environment. “It’s very liberating to not have such choice of materials.” The organization rarely works with maps or drawings, a rarity in today’s highly technical architectural world. But Gyaw Gyaw also pays attention to the details, as Ramstad takes pride in her colleague Phillipa’s innovation in crafting elegant bamboo screens. Gyaw Gyaw also carefully observes how people use these spaces: Ramstad and her colleagues live close to these buildings and as a result their design process extends to a post-occupancy analysis of the daily life of their work.

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When asked about her landscape background and her current architecture work, Ramstad readily admits her weakness in construction knowledge, for which she relies heavily on her Karen colleagues. She describes her strength in “cultural and landscape adaptation,” explaining that “to be an architect is to have an open approach to the physical space around us.”

Through events like UVA’s lecture and international design conferences, Ramstad has begun to articulate and share Gyaw Gyaw’s ethos. Ramstad co-authored In Search of a Process: Laufen Manifesto for a Humane Design Culture, which states: “We speak out to define an alternative position. We must produce spaces that counter exploitation, control and alienation, whether in urban or rural landscapes. With all our expertise, creativity and power, we need to contribute more dynamically and consequentially to the global quest for equality.”

Ramstad’s visit instigated a broader discussion within the classrooms and studios at UVA. Some students and professors raised questions about the relevance of her work, as it’s particular to a region in Southeast Asia. However, Gyaw Gyaw’s process resonated with many students who are interested in participatory design.

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As design students, we often conduct site research from afar, making our best attempt at understanding place through online research and limited site-visits. Ramstad’s work shows us another type of design model, one that relies on an intimate understanding of place, and the people who inhabit it, as essential drivers of the design process. Ramstad’s approach came across as both refreshingly personal and intentionally limited. For her, community engagement is paramount in the design process.

In every stage of this process, Ramstad and Gyaw Gyaw call for “small steps” and making absolutely sure that if one’s intention is to do good work, that one truly does “no harm.”
 
This guest post by Jenna Harris, Master of Landscape Architecture Candidate, University of Virginia

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