As Super Typhoon Haiyan was bearing down on the Philippines last week, across the Pacific in San Francisco, the Curry Stone Foundation announced the winners of this year's Curry Stone Design Prize. Now in its sixth year, the award honors architects and designers who devise innovative, often low-tech responses to help strengthen communities faced with natural disaster, political upheaval, or a poverty of resources.
At an awards ceremony at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on November 7, prize secretary Emiliano Gandolfi praised the three 2013 winners for zeroing in on local issues. "We're not looking for a solution that will address all the different problems," said Gandolfi, an architect and cofounder of the design cooperative Cohabitation Strategies in Rotterdam. "We're trying to learn from local conditions and look for designers who understand how to develop small ideas that are implemented locally."
In an industry that has fallen hard for prefab and the promise of one-size-fits-all construction, the Curry Stone jury honored three practices that think small before thinking big. The India-based housing nonprofit Hunnarshala harnesses the traditional building techniques of local artisans, whose time-tested rammed-earth and mud-roll structures outlast concrete in India's variable climate. The nonprofit Proximity Designs, led by husband-and-wife duo Jim Taylor and Debbie Aung Din, develops and distributes super-low-cost irrigation tools that help poor farmers in Myanmar increase their crop yields. And a collaborative team formed by the Venice-based architecture firm Studio TAMassociati and the health-care NGO Emergency constructs free, sustainably built hospitals for war victims in Africa and the Middle East. The foundation gave each winner $40,000 and inaugurated a new prize, the Vision Award, which went to Cameron Sinclair, the outgoing executive director of Architecture for Humanity, and Architecture for Humanity cofounder Kate Stohr. The festivities kicked off Architecture for Humanity's annual Design Like You Give a Damn: LIVE! conference, which took place the day after the ceremony in San Francisco.
The jurors—among them prize benefactor Clifford Curry, founding executive director of the Autodesk Impact Design Foundation John Cary, and Rahul Mehrotra, chair of urban planning and design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design—singled out the three winners for working outside the status quo. "The winners share this notion that they don't have to wait for a client," said prize curator Chee Pearlman. "A client would probably slow them down. I think it's hard for a lot of practitioners to imagine—that they could rebuild after a disaster without having to wait for a client to commission them."
For this year's honorees, the usual hardships of the developing world, such as a lack of electricity and other infrastructure, are not the setbacks they appear to be. Low-tech innovations can turn gravity, mud, or wind power into resources every bit as significant as industrial-grade solutions. Proximity Designs, for instance, sells a $17 plastic water pump that farmers can operate with foot pedals, and a $20 plastic water-storage tank that inflates to hold 250 gallons. "It was inspired by a kiddie pool," said Proximity chief executive Jim Taylor. "It fills up and maintains its shape. You can't tip it over."
For the Salam Centre for Cardiac Surgery in Khartoum, Sudan, a part of Africa where dust storms rage, Studio TAMassociati avoided installing an expensive air-filtering system by sending breezes down a system of chimneys and into a labyrinth of walls. Like the sand trap in a car radiator, the walls knock the dust to the ground as the air moves through the maze. "It's a very simple mechanical system," said TAMassociati cofounder and senior architect Raul Pantaleo.
Crucially, all three winning organizations go beyond solving pure design problems and build social infrastructure as well. Proximity runs a loan program to help farmers afford its products; Hunnarshala gives communities the tools to rebuild themselves, using their own expertise; Studio TAMassociati relies on the health-care experience of their NGO partner, Emergency—the first NGO to win the Curry Stone Design Prize. Gandolfi applauded the explicitly social direction this year's awards have taken. "The Curry Stone has become more and more interested in the softer side of architecture, in building what's between the walls, the functioning software that brings life to our buildings," he said.