Architecture of humility

WHAT would be the first item you’d save if your house was on fire?

While the right answer is saving yourself first, Universiti Malaya (UM) architecture student Siti Nurafaf Ismail begs to differ – albeit jokingly.

“The first thing I’d worry about is my bookcase that is filled with books. I love books!” said the 21-year-old, who just became the first Asian woman to have won the coveted the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Norman Foster Travelling Scholarship.

She was awarded £7,000 (RM36,582) for her proposal “Architecture of Humility”, which explores the role of an architect within community architecture in natural disaster zones.

Established in 2006, the RIBA Norman Foster Travelling Scholarship, which enters its 13th year, is intended to fund a student of architecture to conduct international research on a topic related to the sustainable survival of towns and cities, in a location of the student’s choice.

“Architecture is not just building for the rich, but for everyday people, too. That’s why my proposal was called Architecture of Humility.

“Architecture can be art, merchandise, humanitarian aid and a lot of other things. As what my mentor Jimmy Lim says, architects should not riot against mother nature but be humble when designing a building,” shared Siti Nurafaf, who prefers to be called Afaf.The RIBA award will enable her to travel to Hokkaido, Japan, and Karachi, Pakistan, where she plans to join local non-governmental organisations working to rebuild communities devastated by earthquakes and floodings.

She will be heading to Hokkaido in the first week of August, and to Pakistan in November, where she plans to document her findings.

“As a student, I am not qualified yet to give advice. All I can do to help as of now is to document what I find so that it can be useful information to have when I’m able to do more,” she said in a recent interview.

Travelling to the two countries is the second phase of Afaf’s research into cities affected by natural disasters.A grant awarded by the Malaysian Institute of Architects (the 2018 PAM Travel Scholarship Award) funded the first part of her research, enabling her to travel to Lombok, Indonesia, in January this year following catastrophic earthquakes last August.

Feeling helpless while looking at a picture of the recent floods in Kelantan was the reason behind Afaf’s “fire” for conducting research.

“I saw a picture where textbooks were floating around in dirty floodwater at a school in Kelantan. That hit me hard because I love books. I was in secondary school then.

“I was packing supplies for the flood victims at the time as I was part of St John Ambulance Malaysia. But what I was doing would not result in the kids getting their books back. The school remained wet, and they still had no home.”

That was when the youngest of five siblings realised that well-thought-out architecture could help victims of natural disasters.

Partaking in the RIBA scholarship, said Afaf, wasn’t planned.

“I was in the middle of my student mobility programme to Istanbul when I found out that applications for RIBA were open.

“Each university can only send one student for RIBA. I was extremely fortunate that UM was supportive of, and believed in, me. I also had helpful mentors including my UM adviser Dr Muhammad Azzam Ismail.”

With more natural disasters occurring due to climate change, Afaf sees a growing need for architects’ involvement in disaster management.

“We can’t prevent natural disasters from happening but we can manage it well,” she said.

Curiosity, she said, is the motivating factor that keeps her going.

“I once read that you cannot work as an architect who wants to help others because you expect them to be grateful for your help or expect a word of thanks.

“You have to do it because you want to satisfy your own needs – mine was curiosity – instead of seeking gratitude from others. But of course, being able to help people is also a huge bonus.”

Afaf hopes she would be able to shadow Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and Karachi architect Yasmeen Lari, observing and documenting their work during her time in their respective countries.

For the future, she plans to complete her degree with flying colours and become an architect who can make a difference in the community.

“I want to work with firms that create unique architecture with a story and meaning behind it. I’m also interested to be more involved with natural disaster issues.”

She will be showcasing her work at RIBA’s London show in 2020.

Past RIBA Norman Foster Foundation Scholars – which include eight from the United Kingdom, two from India, one from Australia, and one from Chile – have travelled through the Americas, Europe, Africa, South-East Asia, the Middle and the Far East, and Russia.

Describing Siti Nurafaf’s proposal (which won her the award) as impressive, RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said her commitment to architecture and motivation for the project was clearly demonstrated.

“I am delighted that the 2019 RIBA Norman Foster Travelling Scholarship has been awarded to Siti Nurafaf to support her research into communities affected by natural disasters.

“I look forward to seeing her findings and wish her all the best for her travels to Hokkaido and Karachi,” he said on the RIBA website.

Norman Foster Foundation president Lord Foster said Siti Nurafaf’s submission stood out from a number of entries that were of calibre and high quality because of its clear focus and objectives.

“Everything from the budget to the choice of locations in Siti Nurafaf’s project was well-researched and she showed a great deal of initiative in self-funding the first phase of the research.”

Wishing her the best, he said he looks forward to seeing the project come to fruition.


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