Great Design comes with Responsibility: Interview with GRAFT Architects
GRAFT Architects were honored with an iF SOCIAL IMPACT PRIZE 2022 for their compact, autonomous modular units with integrated solar panels for sustainable energy supply in remote regions of Africa: SOLARKIOSK. We talked to them about architecture and social responsibility.
The idea is simple, yet genius. A project of dripping creativity and originality and an idea where you might think: Wow! Wish, I had it! Berlin based GRAFT Architects designed a compact, autonomous modular unit with integrated solar panels for sustainable energy supply and light in remote regions of Africa. The SOLARKIOSK was honored with the iF SOCIAL IMPACT PRIZE 2022.
Sustainability is not new to GRAFT. In 2007, they co-founded the "Make It Right Foundation" with Brad Pitt (for whom they already designed his “Pitt Studio”), Bill McDonough and the Cherokee Foundation to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
We talked to GRAFT founders Lars Krückeberg and Thomas Willemeit about sustainability and the importance of design in “doing good”.
iF: First of all – can you tell us where the idea for SOLARKIOSK was actually born and how?
Thomas Willemeit: Actually, the original idea stems from a chat with German lawyer Andreas Spiess that took place in Addis Abeba, Ethopia, where we realised a children’s hospital.
Lars Krückeberg: He said something like why can’t there be something like micro power plants combined with retail spots in remote villages of Africa to supply people with energy? Together with him, we thought of how architecture could help in such a project and out of this a huge rat tail emerged and two months later we had the first designs.
iF: How does the Solarkiosk help exactly?
Thomas Willemeit: First of all: The Solarkiosk gives local people in offgrid communities the opportunity to learn new skills and gain economic stability, protect their health and the environment, and gain direct access to global markets without censorship or financial control by governments or corporations.
Lars Krückeberg: Solarkiosk encourages entrepreneurship and enables communities at the bottom of the pyramid to create their own value chains. An operator in Kenya uses the clean energy provided by the E-HUBB and expanded her business to power an adjacent restaurant, a butcher shop (both requiring solar cooling) and even a cinema.
GRAFT was established in 1998 in Los Angeles by Lars Krückeberg, Wolfram Putz and Thomas Willemeit. Further offices followed in Berlin and Beijing. Conceived as a studio for architecture, urban planning, design, music and the pursuit of happiness, GRAFT has been commissioned to design and manage a wide range of projects across multiple disciplines and in numerous locations since its establishment.
iF: Solarkiosk is not the only project related to the whole idea, right?
TW: SOLARKIOSK is currently expanding its business with about 200 stations, providing electricity, space and infrastructure to customers such as telecom tower operators, refugee camps, health stations, schools and other purposes.
LK: In 2019, Solarkiosk implemented five solar clinics in Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. It is the largest refugee camp in the world, housing around 640.000 people. In 2017, SOLAR CLINIC was inaugurated. It provides basic medical care to refugees and locals in the community near Al-Mafraq, near the Syrian border, powered solely by an independent 8KW solar system. The staff can treat up to 75 people per day. The SOLAR SCHOOL was installed in 2017 in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp, which houses more than 80,000 refugees, including 25,000 school-age children. The connected school uses the solar energy provided by SOLARKIOSK's E-HUBB technology to provide electricity, light and a broadband connection.
iF: Social projects and sustainability are a part of GRAFT’s DNA, not just since the Make it Right-Project in New Orleans (see below). You even use terms like “Architecture Activism”. Why and what are your thoughts on this?
LK: Sustainability and social responsibility is not only part of GRAFT’s DNA, it is always – or should be – actually in the DNA of every architect. Nothing concerns us more when beginning to design a building than topics like energy supply or infrastructure. How can architecture make people’s lives better? A core question of every design process!
TW: For example, when we talk about improving people’s lives: with the “Make it Right” project, we designed new homes that were able to massively reduce energy consumption and monthly utility bills from as much as $300 before Katrina to just $25.
LK: ...but we should not forget that quality and beauty should always be at the heart of architecture, creating identity.
GRAFT and Brad Pitt: Companions for the good cause and the beautiful
The single family house was built in 1998 in Los Feliz, a district of Los Angeles, USA. 1998 is also the founding year of GRAFT Architects who opened an office the same year in Los Angeles. The studio, as GRAFT puts it, "responds to the patterns of multicultural urban life, effecting a flexible self-organizing, fluid balance between the poles of need and cultural heritage. It is a habitat that serves as a stage for the continuous re-allegorization of life."
Make it Right Project
In 2007, GRAFT started the "Make it Right-Foundation" together with Brad Pitt, Bill McDonough, and the Cherokee Foundation to rebuild the Lower 9th Ward after the Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
GRAFT as Curator
GRAFT invited a group of 21 architects to create a range of architectural solutions. GRAFT also contributed two designs for affordable, sustainable and safe houses based on popular dwelling typologies and the rich traditions of New Orleans.
Studio for Hybrid Lifestyle
The so-called "Pitt Studio" incorporates Hollywood actor Brad Pitt`s interest in multicultural architectonic references and his hybrid lifestyle. "The studio needs to accommodate living and working in one space and provide a means to shift flexibly between professional and private life." (GRAFT)
Traditional Japanese and European proportion systems
The formal language of the studio translates the haptic material quality of an adjacent guest house into a fusion of traditional Japanese and European proportion systems. The studio grafts the Chigaidana of Japanese furniture with the European idea of the golden ratio.