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An unusual architectural design competition was launched last week by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to create a more sustainable future for the people of Tristan da Cunha. The Independent, a prominent British newspaper, reported that architects worldwide have been invited to submit their ideas for ways to redesign buildings in The Settlement, the village on Tristan. While they’re at it, the designers need to find ways to improve the physical living standards and energy efficiency of the infrastructure on the island in a cost-effective fashion.

Logo of the Royal Institute of British Architects

Alex Mitham, the administrator on Tristan, called upon the professional association to handle the process of identifying an architect who would be able to design an overhaul of not only the private dwellings but also the government buildings on the island. Mr. Mitham referred to the government facilities as basically agricultural sheds that “are nearing the end of their useful life.”

The Independent quotes him further as saying that improvements to the agrarian systems on the island will be needed to better support grazing operations and to provide a year-round production of fresh vegetables. The success of the competition, presuming it identifies a sufficiently visionary plan, will give the community, in Mitham’s words, “a chance to thrive.”

Mr. Mitham added, “Tristan is truly unique, and offers a fantastic opportunity for designers from around the world to have a beneficial impact on how Tristanians live and work for years to come.”

Another news source also quoted Mr. Mitham: “As the community nears its 200th Anniversary, it is a perfect time to not only reflect on the past, but also look to the future and ensure the community’s viability for generations to come….Tristan is truly unique, and offers a fantastic opportunity for designers from around the world to have a beneficial impact on how Tristanian’s live and work for years to come.”

Several other news sources described the new venture, but the most detailed source of information is on the RIBA website devoted to the competition. RIBA makes it clear that preliminary, anonymous proposals, which are due by June 2, 2015, must be prepared by teams headed by qualified architects. It gives detailed specifications for the formats of the preliminary proposals. The successive stages of the competition, the criteria for acceptance, and the judging process are all described in detail.

The “Competition Brief” page may be the most interesting for those who do not plan to enter the competition—i.e., non-architects—since it effectively summarizes current conditions on Tristan and it prompts reflections on the social conditions of the island 50 years ago. The page provides an overview of the economy of the island: the government is the largest employer, with about 140 people working in 11 different departments. The second largest is the fishing industry.

But then, the description gets even more interesting. The islanders, we are told, still sound a bell on mornings that appear to be appropriate for fishing, and the majority of the workforce will abandon other tasks to help land and process the catch of fish. Even with only 12 small fishing boats, each with a two-man crew, virtually all the men will leave their government jobs to help with the fishing for the day. “Losing 24 men from the Government each fishing day,” the RIBA text states, “is a considerable drain on the limited resource base.”

Those sentences in the RIBA document might remind a reader familiar with the history of Tristan of an incident related by Munch (1971), in which an administrator in the mid-1960s was determined to bully the islanders into ignoring their traditional subsistence activities and accept the needs of the money economy. The idea that the people could take off to work for community projects, such as annual trips to a nearby island to gather sea birds, or that they would work cooperatively on their fishing and farming projects, was opposed by this man.

While the islanders resisted the demands of the administrator only weakly at first, Munch relates, after a year of submitting to his directives they began to realize that they would be controlled by the outside, western world, the same as they had been manipulated during their enforced sojourn in England a few years before. The alternative was to take matters into their own hands to prevent being exploited.

By January 1965, the islanders had been a year without their annual bird-gathering trip to the neighboring island because of the demands of that administrator. They had very much missed the gathering of meat and oil—as well as the strengthened social ties—that had always resulted from the trips. One day everyone knew from the weather that it was the right time to leave, and, in the middle of the morning, men began to dropping their tools and walking off their jobs.

Since almost every man walked off and went over to the other island for several days, the administrator could not fire the entire male work force. Subsequently, the men felt freer to ignore his orders and to walk off as a group when they needed to do things together.

As Munch summarized the story, in a community that lacked much in the way of an internal leadership structure, this instance of a mild form of labor conflict simply reaffirmed that the islanders valued their own social values—freedom, integrity, and reciprocal relationships—more than they did the material comforts of western civilization.

In any case, the RIBA document makes it clear that the Tristan men still walk off their jobs to participate in community work projects such as fishing days. And, it implies, the administrators still look askance at the economic losses those unscheduled activities may pose for the community.

The Competition Brief describes the fact that the economy of Tristan is shrinking. It emphasizes the need for the Islanders to be extremely cost conscious in order to avoid as much as possible being dependent on financial support from the UK. Hence, redesigning buildings so they will be highly energy efficient is essential—and one of the important aspect of the design competition. Furthermore, the water and irrigation systems must be redesigned so they can better cope with possible future demands.

This design competition website is, itself, a creative mix of information and guidance for a process that envisions a strong future for the Tristan Islanders.