These days, it’s easy to feel that good design is a luxury produced mostly for the enjoyment of the super-rich. But that’s not the whole picture. In recent years, architects and designers like Shigeru Ban and Nille Juul-Sørensen, along with organizations like the recently shuttered Architecture for Humanity, have increasingly pushed for a more humanitarian approach to design. Today, plenty of like-minded and largely unrecognized creative people are not designing for the wealthy, but for the poor.
Arturo Vittori, founder of the Italian firm Architecture and Vision, is answering the call by tackling a single need. In 2012, he and a team of fellow designers visited Ethiopian villages in the country’s mountainous northeastern region. They noticed women were having to walk for miles just to draw contaminated water from shallow, dirty ponds. According to the World Health Organization, 34% of Ethiopia’s rural population lacks access to clean drinking water, one of the reasons that 54,000 children die each year from diarrhea.
Vittori’s team responded to the problem by developing Warka Water, an alternative water source named for the Ethiopian fig tree that serves as a central gathering place in many villages. The 33-foot-tall collection tower harvests up to 26.4 gallons of rain, fog, and dew every day and can hold up to 264 gallons of water. It’s ideal for high plateaus where conventional pipelines often don’t reach and where wells can be difficult to drill. So far, they’ve built nine water towers (one in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa), and are currently raising funds on Kickstarter to construct and test 10 new prototypes.
From a Western perspective, Warka Water is architecturally stunning. The tower’s outer, triangular frame is woven from split bamboo following local basket weaving traditions. Inside hangs a water-collecting plastic mesh inspired by lotus flower leaves, spider web threads, cacti, and the Namib beetle’s shell — all which have developed their own ways to draw water from thin air. Seen from a distance, the structure’s overall shape mimics the geometry of the termite mounds found throughout northern Ethiopia. A fabric overhang also provides shade, much like the branches of the Warka tree, under which people can meet.
But as beautiful as it is, it’s the possibility of what Warka Water could accomplish once large scale production is reached (planned for 2019) that really matters. The water it collects from the atmosphere in rural regions will likely comply with WHO standards for drinking water purity, meaning a lot fewer kids will get sick. The towers could also invigorate the local economy. They’re relatively cheap to produce —about $1,000 in Ethiopia — and easy for villagers to build and maintain themselves, as construction doesn’t require the use of power tools or scaffolding. Vittori and his colleagues plan to offer training courses to village inhabitants, teaching them how to construct, use, and care for the towers.
“It’s about answering a need,” the architect told Hyperallergic via email, when we asked why he was so interested in designing for the poor. “I believe we all should do something to make our planet a better place for all of us and not thinking only to our immediate interests.”