Insights May 03, 2013

The Application of Good Will

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Today we had an initial meeting for a school in Zambia.  The building is supposed to provide secondary schooling for the children of an informal settlement.  The client is a charity with a presence both in Zambia as well as in the UK and with a strong commitment to the cause.

Without much effort of imagination, one can consider the real benefit that formal education, in proper facilities, can have on the lives of young people who are born into areas of extreme poverty.  A chance to break from the cycle of poverty, the cohesion of a community around the hope for their children, and the eventual integration of a marginalised group into wider society are all pretty fantastic aims.

So what could there possibly be to contradict?

I’m not sure.  But a few years ago, a member of the architectural cognoscenti, Farshid Moussavi, had some sharp criticism of architects choosing to apply their good will in developing countries.  I thought of this today as I have, once again, become one of those people.

What I had to ask myself from her bold critique, was whether I was actually so interested in bettering society, that I might not apply myself to the many challenging problems that exist locally around me in my far-from-developing city and nation.  What I still haven’t found a way to answer, is how much of my ego am I serving versus people who are in undoubted need of help.

Perhaps Moussavi’s statement is more of a personal challenge.  I find it rather similar to a statement made by the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, who suggested that meditation could involve a simple footstep.  Both ideas imply that it is our commitment and mindfulness to an action that give it meaning.  Both ideas imply that the answer to a challenge is found from within, rather than from beyond.  And this is what makes it so hard: it’s easier to rely on a foreign experience or a ritual outside of our normal lives to teach us something; it is much harder to learn that same thing from what is around us and the quotidian.

I am not convinced that I have the good will to transform the lives of everyone around me.  I lack the resolve, commitment and creativity that it must take to see people in my city, in my community, in my own building as needful of help which I could offer. I am, however, certain that in spite of my limitations, I can offer something.

And this in-between is perhaps where a lot of us fall: neither possessing of exceptional capacity nor of dispossessing a personal concern.  Fortunately, there are individuals all around us that can help us to excel beyond ourselves; to apply our good will in what ways we can.  Personally, I am glad to have met individuals from Ramboll, Architecture for Humanity (UK), and the Zambian Gems who have enough exceptional in them to bring out the best in me.

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