For architect, supporting the poor is best kind of building

By Coco McCabe
Conventional researchers extract information from people. They think it?s their right to do that, and they don?t provide anything in return." - Indira Aryarathne, who tries to ensure that her studies benefit the participants

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Indira Aryarathne stands before a small gathering of villagers listening to them describe the challenges of living in a community that floods often. She probes gently, asking questions, teasing out details, and then offers an artful summary that knits their points, big and small, together.

Watching her in action, in her long orange tunic, it's clear that Aryarathne has found her calling—far from where she began in a Sri Lankan architectural firm working on designs for multi-national companies.

How did she wind up here, near the Kalu River in the Ratnapura district of Sri Lanka, helping women think about how to keep their families safe and ease the constant hardship that flooding brings?

The answer starts with her heart

"I always had a passion to do something for people who are less privileged than me," says Aryarathne. During her university years—as she was working toward her goal of becoming an architect—she couldn't help but think about the community outside the institution's walls: It was impoverished and yet the development of the university had done little to address that poverty. That fact bothered her deeply.

But it wasn't until Aryarathne landed her first architectural job that she got the chance to tackle that kind of injustice herself. Her firm won a contract to develop a Colombo laundry facility—a place where scores of people manually wash clothes and linens on a large scale for clients such as hotels and hospitals. The laundry sat on prime property that a multi-national company wanted to develop—and the city had agreed to let it go ahead in exchange for the corporation's commitment to build a replacement facility.

The design of that new facility fell to Aryarathne. And right from the beginning she followed the instincts that led her to where she is now: a consultant and trainer working with poor and marginalized people who have a great deal to say about how to improve their lives, but little opportunity to be heard.

Warned that the washers could become unruly and that she should be careful, Aryarathne visited the old laundry facility. Instead of being afraid, she found herself deep in conversation with the people there—after telling them the truth about the construction proposal. If it happens, she asked, what would they like a new facility to include?

The floodgates opened, and though she didn't know it then, Aryarathne had her first exhilarating experience with participatory action research—a method of working with communities on problems whose solutions they will own. At that first laundry meeting, she learned everything about their work, from soaking and soaping, to boiling and hammering.

"That was my first exposure to a community—and it was really good," said Aryarathne. "I knew they had a lot to tell me and all that my boss had said was not true."

Soon after followed other participatory architectural projects, and gradually Aryarathne came to see where her real interests lay: With people working on initiatives that will improve their lives.

Fourteen years ago—leaving behind years of training and a budding architectural career—she made the shift from the private sector into the development world. And she hasn't looked back.

"This is more satisfying than architecture," says Aryarathne.

In the small community building in Ratnapura, the session with community members comes to an end. Aryarathne looks thoughtful as she folds up the charts she has just made with their help—charts that list the problems associated with flooding and some of the solutions villagers have proposed. She will compile the findings for an Oxfam-supported study aimed at promoting equal participation of both men and women in programs to reduce their risk of disaster.

"Architects are at the service of rich people," said Aryarathne later. "Just as you cater to multi-millionaires, villagers need our services, too."