The Spirit of Meti-School

The Meti-School in Rudraphur has become one of the best known and most widely web and media disseminated projects in the humanitarian architecture field. As part of the new Fourth Door Reviews exploration of web of, links joining north with south and east with west, Bangladeshi architect, Rabeya Rahman, writes about the school that has drawn the eyes of the architectural world

The torrential rain has subsided to a light drizzle and at times even the drizzle takes a break but there is no sign of the sun. Besides the forecast, the reason for anxiety among the crowd in the tea stall is that some of the mud houses in the village are eroding and might not last the season. If that happens then many of them cannot afford to bear the expense. When this is a common occurrence in almost every monsoon, how do you preach the value of mud houses and that they are better to live in than brick houses? Even though it might be cost effective and environment friendly, how does it help the villagers who have to build houses again and again? The reason why such questions arise is because even though the vast legacy of traditional and vernacular earthen construction are widely discussed, the point being missed is, in order to make a fundamental improvement in the living condition one have to develop and show further approaches that can be built by the population themselves.

One of the exemplary projects that exercised this process is the Handmade METI-school in Rudrapur. Besides addressing local needs, the reason for it reaching the heights of popularity is because the project also trained 25 local workmen simultaneously, with the intention of transferring knowledge and information to help people become independent of materials and loans. Here, the process of learning started right from the beginning of the construction process, for instance, the local builders learned the technique of making stronger walls by mixing the wet mud and straw and applying it in several stages. The builders learned that the frame of the building could be made by combining natural materials and smaller, modern "joints". The roof was made of three layers of bamboo rods and mud, all of which are locally available materials. The bamboo was then held in place with steel anchors, and both traditional jute and nylon ropes were used to bind the structure together. Besides learning about improved techniques they also discovered that the best mixing machines are the water buffaloes! Even the spectators who might have been initially skeptical, noticing the enthusiasm of the community came to see the progress out of curiosity, and have witnessed how the construction of the school was bringing out the best in locally available materials by combining them with improved construction techniques. They didn’t need any more persuasion when they saw with their own eyes how the structure consisted almost entirely of materials found in the village surroundings, and that it utilised the centuries-old skills of local builders.

Up until recently the invasion of modern materials has had a crippling effect, silently causing traditions to disappear and cutting communities off from their past. As a result villages were becoming uglier with these alien buildings, forms and materials, which do not last long, are energy-inefficient and difficult to maintain. Their only merit is to look new for a time. The idea of Handmade METI school was eye-opening for many, restoring faith in mud and offering new hope. The previous trend of preferring modern material is now shifting in favor of local materials, as it also helps the money stay within the community allowing for participation, which does not require employing outsiders. Thus, every single person, beside the workmen, beginning with teachers and friends – and not to mention schoolchildren who were enthusiastic regulars, with some extra time on their hands and helped in whatever ways possible - could build the Handmade METI school in four months time.

Now, looking at what they have created they feel an immediate connection and a sense of belonging. Once, earth was assumed to be a fragile, ephemeral material and that is only used for housing in poor rural areas but now it’s held in the highest regard. No one had realised that the very same mud that had been used to make huts dark and susceptible to mold could create such beauty. In fact the community realised that it cannot help being beautiful, for the structure gave the building its satisfying and natural shape. Also unlike the limits imposed by the cost and character of other modern materials, the workers felt that mud being costless liberates them from the constraint of tight budgets, giving the freedom to create spatial beauty, enclosing a volume of chaotic air and bringing it down to the scale of man. The order and meaning of this creation is such that there is no need to add decoration afterwards. The structural elements themselves provide unending interest for the eye.

The Handmade METI school has become a milestone with its artful balance of basic building methods and present-day technology, merging modern design with the rural context and culture. The rural populations now have new perspectives towards local identity and how it can be achieved through exploration of their immediate surroundings Trained labourers are already using their skills to build other modern mud homes in the region. This practice is now bridging the gap between rich and poor. Even though there are differences in the function, materials, and craftsmanship, the use of earth is now unifying the community. Young professionals have also come to realise that one they cannot avoid the work of their predecessors. His work will be in some tradition or the other no matter how hard he strains after originality. What’s the point in dragging alien traditions into an artificial and uncomfortable synthesis? They also comprehend that the general crisis cannot be cured simply by building one or two good model houses so, with their new found clues they are now eager to carry their knowledge and skills to other regions of Bangladesh, restoring cultural identity and facilitating a process of self-discovery of our culture and traditional architecture.

Rabeya Rahman is coordinator and editor of Architecture For Humanity-Dhaka, Bangladesh and teaches in the Department of Architecture at BRAC University, Dhaka