Compassion, Humility, and Commitment to Place: Interview with AzuKo’s Jo Ashbridge

The breathtaking video above opened my eyes (and flooded them with tears) to an architect who encompassed the humility, connection, passion, and a grounded sensibility for humanitarian architecture and construction.

Jo Ashbridge–now Director at the new public interest design charity AzuKo–shared the history, research, design, and construction of an earthen home project she had worked on in Bangladesh during a talk at the RIBA (here is the visually rich and informative report about the project.) But it was this video that illuminated the raw emotion and deep understanding of place that drives her commitment and passion for the work.

AzuKo

Jo and I have kept in touch ever since then and I was elated to hear of AzuKo’s launch last Autumn with the support of UK-based Ryder Architecture, a firm with nearly 60 years of experience. With the mission to “improve lives in areas with limited assets through community driven, research based design initiatives that are sensitive to local contexts,” Jo’s previous experience in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Uganda, and the UK combined with Ryder’s 60-year history is bound to make for a strong, well-rounded public interest nonprofit.

Before I get to my interview with Jo, I wanted to share a bit of exciting news.

A month ago, Jo and the Trustee members invited me to join the Board and I was deeply honored to be considered. Being able to help AzuKo grow and develop along with strengthening the number of public interest design organizations fills me with excitement so, naturally, I happily accepted. My first contribution will be facilitating a series of workshops on measuring social impact (inspired by this recent post) that I will share with you next week.

Now to the interview!

What was the pivotal moment that led you to public interest design?

I began the road to architectural enlightenment in 2004, embarking on my undergraduate degree at the University of Bath, UK. There was always a feeling that architecture and the profession could and should do more, although public interest design (PID) was not a term or approach I was familiar with at this time.

Looking back, I would argue that in those early years, the decisions and paths taken were all in pursuit of PID. I took every opportunity to gain experience in foreign lands…  on Erasmus, summer exchanges, voluntary projects…  and I tailored my MPhil thesis to a live project in south west Uganda. I was desperate to learn more, see more and feel more. The humanity behind design took centre stage.

20120508-SC109-Chap 01.indd

My professional turning point was perhaps co-authoring Transitional Shelter Guidelines, whilst working within the humanitarian sector in Geneva. This was certainly a stepping stone to the serendipitous encounters that followed, and indeed the subsequent move into the development sector.

However, the moment/period during which I recognised the real need for PID, was a few years prior in 2007. I had returned to my Geordie roots in Gateshead to visit my family. My father, welder extraordinaire, demanded that I gain on-site construction experience. For an architect to design buildings that stand the test of time, he insisted that we must understand the complexities of creation and indeed the demands which we place on the builder and artisan. An understanding of the craftsmanship cannot be achieved on paper or through a computer model.

Vietnam

I imagine he was hoping for some sort of UK or Europe centric apprenticeship… in reality I found myself on a construction site of a core shelter project down the Mekong Delta, Vietnam. The need for durable housing to withstand the monsoon rains was acutely apparent. However, of all the lessons learnt, it was the need for a dignified process that will stay with me. For development to be truly sustainable, community driven initiatives are the key to ensuring self reliance rather than dependence on aid.

What do you hope to achieve with AzuKo?

In short – to support poverty alleviation through human centred design.

The AzuKo approach is research driven. We believe there are no shortcuts to sustainable development. Our focus is on gathering the right data, understanding that there are no universal answers and that significant progress can be made through an accumulation of small steps based on careful analysis of unique situations. Our methods are participatory through and through.

What advice would you give to a student or someone interested in doing this type of work?

Firstly, I would ask all students to think again about their role in society. The UK education system is not particularly supportive of ‘alternative’ routes within the built environment, but don’t let this decide your future in the industry.

Secondly, I would advise all students (and professionals for that matter) to gain experience in construction and on ‘live’ projects both at home and overseas. It is notoriously difficult to get your foot in the door in the development sector, certainly as an architect – extensive in-field experience will stand you in good stead.

And lastly, perhaps most important – keep an open mind. PID is a glorious concept, but the reality is often daunting and difficult. That said, for all those lows and those times when you question why, keep going because the highs will take your breath away.

What are 3 tools that you always have on you? These can be tangible or intangible, from your favorite notebook to your best skill.

1 – Humility

I think the biggest move you can make as a designer is to leave ego at the door. You will undoubtedly learn more both professionally and personally if you seek to recognise the capacities and capabilities of all those involved in the design process. Work to be a facilitator for change.

Sketch - Sundarban village, Bangladesh

2 – Sketchbook

Perhaps as expected, my sketchbook is one of my great loves. It is and has been my trusted companion on every journey to date. Although perhaps unexpectedly, it is not full of architectural musings; it’s full of portraits. I use my beloved 0.1 Pilot drawing pen to capture the people I have met and have changed the way I see the world. My drawing technique is intricate and slow, verging on unbearable at times. I find it difficult to leave a drawing alone and often long for those sweeping, abstract strokes.

Poor Economics

3 – ‘Poor Economics’ by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

This book constantly makes me question why, what and how we operate. It shines a light on the complexities of poverty alleviation and the human scale of the responses required. I believe it is an integral text not only for individuals working within the humanitarian and development sectors, but for society as a whole.

The connection with people. The beauty of place. The ability to share knowledge. The outcome of providing stability for a family, one at a time. This is the why Jo (and, I believe, majority of us) design and build. I hope that this leaves you with a moment to reflect and remember what drives you to do this work.

Image sources: Jo Ashbridge

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