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'Comment' in Blueprint Magazine

by Richard Nightingale

Blueprint, Issue 303, June 2011

'As concrete and tarmac continue to encroach on tourist hotspots, Richard Nightingale pleads for a more sustainable approach.'

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'Some of the world's most idyllic spots have been ruined by alien buildings. It is possible to use local skills and materials to attract tourists, says Richard Nightingale.

'Years ago, on a trip to Australia, I was fascinated and horrified by the seafront development at Surfers' Paradise on the Queensland coast. The wall of competing multi-storey hotels is so high that it blocks out the sun to the beach (the Gold Coast's raison d'etre) for most of the afternoon. Of course this is not the first time that tourist facilities have threatened to ruin the destination on which they depend and, in the last couple of decades, there has been an accelerating creep of concrete and tarmac and air conditioning units into some of the most fragile and beautiful corners of the world. It is inevitable that, with increasing wealth and ballooning populations, people should wish to travel for leisure and, in many places, tourism provides both the incentive and the wherewithal to safeguard valuable heritage (both natural and man-made). But, in satisfying this need, we are increasingly at risk of killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Not only is this a serious threat to the environment, but is, in the long term, economically unaffordable and there is a real need to find other ways of catering for tourists.

'We (Kilburn Nightingale Architects) have been involved for some years on a tourism project on a remote part of the northern Mozambique coast which has been a rewarding and instructive experience and provides some small scale hints as to how these large scale issues might be addressed.

'Mozambique is emerging from the ravages of twenty years of post-colonial civil war. Though the war was devastating and impoverishing, it has meant that the country has avoided the alternative ravages of tourist development that have so affected the east African coast further north. In Tanzania and, more particularly, in Kenya, strings of hotels were built along the pristine white sandy beaches and the coral coves. Less glitzy, perhaps, than Surfers' Paradise, and often with local palm thatch concealing their reinforced concrete frames and cement blocks, the buildings consume huge amounts of electricity and water, produce sewage that pollutes the coastline and are impossibly expensive to demolish when fashion or failure mean they are no longer required. In Mozambique the local villages, largely uncontaminated by concrete or corrugated metal, offer a rich model of how to build using just what is locally available. Learning from the locality and developing local materials and skills, we have built a range of buildings (residential chalets, bar, restaurant, staff accommodation etc) using bamboo structure (bound together with the nylon reinforcing cord stripped out of worn out car tyres), adobe mud blocks, lime render and locally burnt clay tiles. There is no piped water, no water-borne sewage, no electricity (apart from photo-voltaic cell torches and a bio-diesel generator to charge computers and mobile phones) and no air conditioning. And rich western tourists are happy to pay hundreds of dollars to use composting toilets, shower under a dribble of water from a perforated coconut shell and sleep in a room cooled by breezes off the Indian Ocean. What is more, the buildings are cheap and easy to maintain (all done by local villagers) and, when no longer required, they will be largely eaten by termites and dissolve back to nature, leaving this beautiful coastline unscarred.

'While this project is at the more extreme 'eco' end of the resort range and this approach cannot really satisfy the demands of mass tourism, it does, I believe, provide some valuable pointers for more mainstream hotel design.

'It is striking how often major western developers are keen to adopt superficial stylistic motifs in which to wrap their buildings but seldom pay any real attention to the skills and resources that may be immediately locally available. And, all too often, this means that indigenous developers lower down the economic scale feel that they, too, have to adopt expensive and alien construction methods (aluminium windows with blue tinted glass imported from Dubai are particularly popular in rural Uganda, where we are also working). It is as if the rich tradition of indigenous architecture is somehow invisible to modern consultants or is, at least, irrelevant to their 21st century needs. In Uganda we have been advised by good professional engineers that 'village' bricks are not strong enough for use in modern buildings, despite the clear evidence all around of local brick structures standing solidly against earthquakes and neglect.

'Fortunately fashion is, at least partially, on the side of a more responsible future. Tourists are not only happy to acknowledge hotel operators' pleas to save the environment by not throwing their towels in the wash every day, but are increasingly seeking an experience that is more individual than that on offer from the standard international star-rated hotel. Our clients in Argentina, for example, are asking us to design three small 'boutique' hotels rather than one big one because this is what their market prefers. Large-scale operators will need to take their clients' eco-aspirations into consideration and, in doing so, should realise that 'light touch' tourism is more than a matter of taste and actually makes long term commercial sense.

'So, while the Surfers' Paradise high-rises will, no doubt, continue to cast gloom on the beaches, there is, I believe, a more modest, interesting, humane and sympathetic way to accommodate tourists that is ultimately the only way we can afford.'

'Richard Nightingale is a Director of Kilburn Nightingale Architects based in London and has worked on a wide range of environmentally sensitive projects in different countries around the world.'