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Sustainable Solutions for Sri Lanka

Sustainable Solutions for Sri Lanka

“At RISD I’m surrounded by creative, highly intelligent people who can begin to solve some of the world’s intractable problems if they’re given the opportunity to collaborate and innovate,” said Professor of Landscape Architecture Elizabeth Dean Hermann shortly after returning from her Wintersession studio on an island in the Indian Ocean. Northern Visions Sri Lanka is part of DESINE Lab, an initiative Hermann founded with Professor of Architecture Silvia Acosta to use immersive learning, design thinking and entrepreneurship as a means of addressing issues of global inequality and social and environmental injustice.

“Within the lab, we can work on projects that are bigger than one department, one course, one semester or one year,” Hermann explains. “We’re after sustainable long-term change. For example, in South Asia we’re committed to the work we started in Sri Lanka for at least a decade.”

DESINE Lab’s work in the island nation, which recently emerged from a 30-year civil war, is to provide approximately 90,000 widows and orphans in the north with the vision, support and proactive tools needed to better their lives. During this most recent Wintersession travel course, students from a range of disciplines spent four weeks exploring Sri Lanka’s rich architectural landscape and artisan traditions and scouting out opportunities to build strategies aimed at social and economic empowerment.

As with all DESINE Lab projects, the effort in Sri Lanka is based on building partnerships with local NGOs and academic institutions so that projects – which extend far beyond looking at the built environment – will continue after Hermann and her team return to Providence. Students focus on capacity-building efforts that meet immediate needs while developing long-term strategies with the community that deal with cultural identity and social and economic opportunities.

For instance, a community center complex they are developing for Kilinochchi – the former administrative headquarters of the Tamil Tigers, the guerilla group that fought so vehemently for an independent Tamil state – will make use of a large “ruin” within the devastated town. The complex will house a jobs training institute, a women’s cooperative and textile initiative, temporary living spaces for women still living in makeshift dwellings (making them especially vulnerable to sexual violence and theft), a library and cultural memory archive and a childcare center.

During their visit in January, students conducted workshops in printmaking, dying, weaving and the principles of construction at an orphanage run by a partner organization. “People in the north are still paralyzed by trauma,” says Hermann. “With our partners, we are trying to nurture a ‘do it yourself’ attitude, so the population can stop waiting for the government to fix their problems.”

Prithika Mohan 15 ID and Hala Khoursheed 15 ID introduced local women and children to Build Up, a game they conceived of last fall that teaches construction principles using wooden blocks and joinery. By having residents actually manipulate the parts and think through what to build and how to orient structures, they hope to encourage grassroots efforts at rebuilding the town. Graduate student Michael Menchaca MFA 15 PR taught women how to screenprint, while his classmates encouraged visual storytelling.

Another group of students, Lyza Baum 16 TX, Habiba Sugich 15 ID, Alyssa Spytman 16 TX, Zoe Clark 15 ID and Sasha Azbel MArch 14, collaborated on a study of Sri Lanka’s textiles and explored the possibility of reviving the use of natural dyes. In conducting an inspirational dying workshop open to locals, they hope to encourage war widows in need of a sustainable livelihood to produce fabric using environmentally friendly materials and techniques unique to the region.

Hermann, Acosta and DESINE Lab co-director Daniel Feldman (an architect from Bogotá, Colombia who is currently studying at Harvard on a Fulbright) will return to Sri Lanka this summer with a small team of students to run textiles workshops for local residents, who will in turn train others, and launch the construction of the community center. Hermann is also looking forward to leading another travel course to Sri Lanka next Wintersession to focus more directly on promoting sustainable building practices and supporting the country’s eco-tourism industry.

“Designed products and places are never the whole story,” notes Hermann. “Together with our partners, we design strategies and processes that empower the community, giving them the framework to find their voices and unleash their imaginations.”

Simone Solondz

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