Spark goes down the rarely trodden path of pro bono architecture for an arts and creative centre for youths writes Narelle Yabuka.
16 April, 2012
It’s not uncommon to hear of pro bono work being carried out in the legal and medical fields. Not nearly as often do you hear of it being undertaken by architects or designers, beyond the activities of a small number of architecture-focused charitable organisations.
Generally, the activities of such groups involve a direct humanitarian or welfare aspect, with work addressing situations of immediate need – improving living conditions in vulnerable communities, or building schools and hospitals for example. Could the design of spaces for the teaching of art and creative skills to kids in a disadvantaged city district be considered as a project equally deserving of work without fees?
Yes, decided international architecture studio Spark (formerly Sparch). The studio recently saw the completion and opening of the Fai-Fah Prachautis Learning Centre for arts-related youth education in Bangkok, which it designed at the invitation of Thailand’s TMB Bank.
TMB’s Fai-Fah programme targets children and youths from low-income families. Kids are offered classes (taught by volunteers from TMB’s workforce) in music, drawing, painting, graphic design, gardening, dance, martial arts, and cooking. The Prachautis centre (in the city’s south) is the second of its kind, with the first Fai-Fah centre having opened its doors elsewhere in Bangkok during 2010.
Fai-Fah Prachautis represents a notable divergence from Spark’s staple business. The studio’s portfolio shows an emphasis on large-scale work such as developments for Raffles City in Ningbo and the Marriott Hotel and CapitaLand in Zhabei. For Stephen Pimbley, co-director of Spark, working on a small project with tangible social value presented rewards beyond those that Fai-Fah’s activities may yield for the community.
“The contribution of art and creative thought underpins all we do,” he says in reference to Fai-Fah’s big-picture goal of using creativity as a social tool, “although it is sometimes forgotten in favour of the commercial imperative. Working on projects like Fai-Fah with the TMB volunteer staff and the kids keeps your feet on the ground by encouraging you to relearn the important things in life that are too easily forgotten. It was like a breath of fresh air.”
Spark approached the design of the Fai-Fah centre in a collaborative manner by conducting ideation workshops with the kids who use the first centre, as well as the staff. Turning the design process into a conversation aimed to distil an accurate idea of what the community wanted its building to look and feel like and to generate a sense of ownership. Of course, the overlap with the centre’s broader aim of empowerment is also obvious.
“The kids drew an extraordinary selection of different ideas and images,” says Pimbley. “They required our interpretation, but the genus of the architectural concepts came from those workshop sketches.” He adds that a key point of discussion was the building’s street expression and the welcoming message it needed to send to its community. “The children had no difficulty in putting their thoughts on paper. Their experience of art classes at Fai-Fah had given them a lot of confidence in self-expression,” he says.
The centre occupies two existing shophouses that have been remodelled internally, extended at the rear, and given a new street expression – an eye-catching lattice-like screen (inspired by ladders) that is attached to the front façade. “It was to be an environment that’s quite inspiring – even unusual,” says Pimbley. “When you see it in the street, its façade looks different from its neighbours. When you cross the threshold, it’s surprising; it’s not quite what you expect of old shophouses.”
Images courtesy of Spark
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