Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

For the last few years in London, I have been volunteering at my local section of Crisis Open Christmas, that great institution which shelters and entertains thousands of homeless people every year, I was wondering what to do now that I am a full time volunteer in Mongolia, and with so many homeless people in Ulaanbaatar.

On Friday we had a very enjoyable little birthday party at UB Deli for Zuhura, a Tanzanian-born English volunteer with some Mongolians and international friends, including our newly arrived Kenyan volunteer Nickson, and lively conversations in English, Mongolian, Contact signing, and American and Mongolian sign languages.

Returning after the party slightly merrier from a few glasses of red wine, we noticed at our neighbouring apartment block on Bariilgachni Gudamch (Builders Avenue) a chap on his back on the cold gravel, inadequately dressed in t-shirt and open cardigan for the -20 degree night. A merry Mongolian trio walking just ahead of us shouted back to him, presumably along the lines of "what the devil are you doing, fool? - get up, you will freeze to death there, where do you live?"

I was hesitant after the experience I recounted on 22 November in another day closes .. but I watched on as the two women, despite their male companion's reluctance, came closer and shouted again, without a satisfactory response. Another Mongolian woman, well dressed in furs, then came walking up to the group. Through some sort of non-verbal communication, she and I then took an arm each and dragged the staggering man to entrance ten of block 23, where we live at entrance five. After some negotiations by the group with the guard at the entrance, the guard seemed to agree to his need to recover in the warmer stairwell. I hope he survived the night, to remember that he was somebody's father, brother, son or friend.

Meanwhile we will have a peaceful and quiet Christmas at home, thankful that our family, friends and colleagues are warm and happy.

Friday, December 21, 2007


"I forgot" was the response when I asked my colleague what happened about a meeting we had arranged the previous evening. I can hardly believe someone can forget a meeting within a few hours. It was the same reason given by the college director immediately after avoiding a pre-arranged staff English language CPD session. One is tempted to feel offended, but there is a cultural issue here. The last couple of weeks have been difficult. Today I asked three students why they did not attend a meeting on the 12th, as confirmed in writing on the 10th. Being too busy, another appointment, etc were given as vague reasons.

Fourth year students are busy finishing studio projects today, (prematurely) inking their final plans for design projects. The lecture discussion last week - including my Wagga Wagga Civic Centre case study - about diagram analysis seem to have been in vain. Clearly, these students can produce drawings of buildings, but the design process is seen as entirely linear, and the sketches and site analysis (if any exist) seem to have been abandoned when 'drawing up'. Nothing new in Western schools. The opportunities to think laterally at a design stage about energy efficiency, accessibility, habitability, and design innovation have all been missed.

Meanwhile, a colour vinyl banner of about three by five metres (possibly 30000T or STG15 worth) has suddenly appeared in the college stairwell, promoting a competition to design a commemorative fountain for Mongolia. The site, judges and prizes are unspecified, but the A2 drawings are due on Monday. There will be a Christmas holiday on Tuesday and the following week for new year.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Participation and Access

Today a student came in at about 7pm, asking in Mongolian, "Багшаа" (please teacher..) and showed me a scribbled list of Mongolian words. I have no idea what she wanted. She said "Баярлалаа" (thank you) and left.

An ongoing aim of the work here is to fight disadvantage and to increase accessibility of existing resources. I believe making buildings more physically accessible is therefore instrumental. The most recent meeting of the accessible buildings group was hosted again at VSO headquarters. Although the three CTC students who had promised to present their work on accessible buidings in Western UB failed to attend, the core of the group, including Chuluundolgor (Wheelchair Users Group), Alison (VSO Director) Mr Oyunbaatar (MNFDPO President) held to the agenda of preparation for a new VSO / MNFDPO volunteer, promoting the 3 December Disability Day activities, and advocacy for accessible buildings in Mongolia.

A new pattern school for Mongolia, developed with GTZ, was discussed, being apparently accessible and in accord with the Mongolian Wheelchair Accessibility Norm. It was decided to suggest this as a model for the new CTC college buildings currently on the drawing board, also as an educational tool for CTC students.

Chuluundolgor and I reported on the Tour of UB 3 December Wheelchair 'march' and I showed a rough diagram of the barriers experienced at the seven locations. We all discussed arrangements for a new volunteer with a hearing disability and expertise in accessibility work. Chuluundolgor and I hope to do some work on Design for Independent Living soon. And to look at the accessibility of the Microdistrict Centre and School Designs with CTC students at a meeting in late February.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ger district architecture

Ulaanbaatar is increasingly comprised of and surrounded by ger districts (Mongolian tent dwelling districts), the informal architecture of encampments claimed by Mongolians under their traditional right to nomadically and temporarily settle on their land, in this case close to the capital. Now more than a colonial symbol, the capital is an increasingly environmentally repulsive complex, albeit of great financial and cultural attraction for Mongolian citizens.

Dirty yet progressive, ill-equipped yet full of potential for poor migrants, the chimera of gleaming towers at the city centre attract citizens of Mongolia from the farthest corners of the vast and relatively sparsely populated Republic.

In the process, the city's solitary East-West artery, symbolic of distant connections to Russian and Chinese neighbours, is completely clogged with private and 'SUV' vehicles and ailing microbuses, buses and trolleybuses, all heaving with passengers. The 4x4 vehicles in this predominantly rural country make for a perpetual Naadam festival, parading along Peace Avenue, demonstrating 'progress' and creating havoc for pedestrian and public transport. The latter are regarded the upwardly mobile as more symbolic of the bad old solicalist times, where the streets were deserted and people queued sliently for five identical grocery items at any one of the identical grocery stores throughout the city. Now the 4x4 owners, returning from their summer camps in the countryside, complain that the smog and haze is the product of the ger district residents burning coal for heating in the informally planned peri-urban areas.

From my window in the gridded high rise apartment subdivision, I look out over the informal district to see a horse and cart loaded with belongings bound for an unsealed track to the north. One of many vapour trails from the north west leading to the south east reminds me of the extremely high technology of international jet engines, while coal smoke puffs from chimeys in the unsewered and waterless ger district.

The informal urbanism of the ger area is horizontal and rhizomic, constantly changing and metamorphosing. My north facing window in building 23 represents the threshold of the vertical gridded, arboric city system 'core'. Women and children collect water and coal while men attend to ger covers, smoking cigarettes and jockeying cars.

Besides gers there are myriad fences and gates along a labyrinth of dusty vehicle paths and footways, stretching organically over the landscape, under power lines and around drain culverts. Tiny shops appear in shacks or recycled railway carriages or shipping containers. Small hourly rate hotels, a community centre and garages are interspersed without apparent planning logic. Empty space becomes a meeting point for 'taxi' drivers to gather or for another stall. The informal architecture here is woven or knitted together, temporarily, without a concern for the future.

Construction teacher training

Encouragingly, I discovered some staff had been researching teaching materials using techniques from the first CPD seminar. A text about Robert Venturi's Vanna Venturi House was being analysed with students. A further success: about seventeen staff attended the second staff development seminar last Friday evening, and despite many threats of participants being 'too busy', we began about half an hour late, with the vice director Khashaa in attendance, after a last minute venue change and furniture reorganisation.

Our newest and youngest English teacher, Enkzaya, welcomed colleagues to the session from a script, and everyone introduced themselves by name, (often footnoting meanings of names in English translation), with their teaching roles, and in a few cases, the purposes of English at the Construction College. The last part was rather difficult for many to express, but a bright first year student called Lhagva spoke to the group about the English-speaking walk she had attended with me, representing our college with a group from the University of Humanities.

Each teacher took a turn at translating part of Lhagva's story about the walk from Chinggis Khan Airport to Chinggis Khuree camp, and the subsequent litter collecting stop, on a cold sunny November day. Most staff were reluctant to commit to further training, but the session had been satisfyingly interactive and positive.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Wheelchair-users City Tour / Rollstuhlfahrerstadtrundfahrt

I wrote this bilingually for my college Director D. Gankhuyag, (not to be confused as I once did with Z. Gankhuyag) who studied in Russian and German before '92, and who like other colleagues, finds little time to read or learn English.

Yesterday was International Disability Day. I took part in a well planned campaign of the Mongolian Whellechair Users Association. (I wore my CTC branded jacket, Boss!) The Wheelchair association chair Chuluundolgor, (with whom I am working, via VSO, on architecture accessibility norms and 'independent living'), organised a 'Tour of Our City, UB' with help of one Tsevelmaa. Fourteen wheelchair users visited (by prior arrangement) seven publicly accessible buildings in the city on the tour. After opening speeches at the 'Open Society Forum' the group, including busness leaders, researchers, fitness teachers and computer workers, wheeled through heavy UB traffic on the cold and sunny morning to the bus parking. Volunteers lifted eight at most into each of two rented City Buses. The Brewery visit, with lab capes, was crowded, and very noisy in the bottle filling hall, but apart from the entry steps, was straightforward.

The next stop, Bayar's Construction, was actually held at 'Diana' school, and despite the founding principles of the funder (to fight exclusion of poor and disabled children) all participants had to climb five entry steps, then over a stage blocking the doorway. The programme, entertainment from pupils, and food and drink were great. Interviewed about my impressions as a foreign expert and architect on my departure, however, I had to say the physical barriers were a major problem for the visit. At the Mongolian Youth Federation, everyone had to go up two flights of stairs, with other building users shoving their way past, to a first storey meeting room and a comprehensive powerpoint presentation. A the next visit, Mongolia's biggest mobile phone company, there were good ramps, floors andcloakroom, and telephone credits were given out.

At the City Governors, temporary wooden ramps had been emplaced on the six stairs in the entry lobby, and down a few more into the public meeting room. As with the building firm, the hosts seemed not to recognise the 2002 building norm (31-101-04) for wheelchair users. Nice books about the City of Ulaanbaatar were presented, but little hope was instilled for improving the state of accessibility of UB streets and buildings. He apologised that the officially counted 18032 disabled people represented a minority in the Market Economy, while an actvist beside me suggested 35-70 thousand would be a more accurate national figure.

Finally, to Tengis Cinema, founded 2002, where I had previously overlooked so many steps. We carried the fourteen wheelchair users down from the busses, through the busy parking
area, 8 steps to the entrance, then two long flights of stairs to ticketing and cinema entrance. I admired everyone's patience as I saw one wheelchair user manhandled to the inaccessible toilet. The Cinema Manager was responsive and friendly, and after a glas of champagne, everyone sat in the front of the cinema and enjoyed a new Mongolian Film.

(German version)
Den Direktor unserer Schule, D. Gankhuyag moechte ich ermoeglichen, dieses Blog zu lesen; deshalb ist es nun bisprachig hergestellt. Gankhuyag hatte vor '92 in Russland und Deutschland studiert, hat aber, wie meine restlichen kollegen hier, findet wenig zeit, Englisch weder zu lesen, noch zu lernen.

Gestern war Internazionale Tag der Behinderten Menschen. Ich nahm an eine sehr gutgeplanten Aktion des 'Mongolischen Vereins der Rollstuhlfahrer' teil. (in meine gebrandeten Jacke, Chef) Vereinsvorstand Chuluundolgor, (mit der ich bereits an architekturnormen und 'accessible living' durch VSO zusammenarbeite), hat mit hilfe der Tsevelmaa, eine 'Rundfahrt unsere Stadt, UB', georganisiert. Vierzehn rollstuhlfahrer-innen schliessten seiben oeffentlichen gebaueden an diesen Tag in ihrem rundfahrt ein. Nach dem eroeffnungstreffen im 'Open Society Forum' fuhren die gruppe- geschaeftsleiter, forscher, fitness lehrer, EDV arbeiter- durch der dicht verkehrten strassen an den kalten sonnigen morgen zum Busparkplatz. Dann hiebten die freiwilligen jeweils hoechstens acht rollstuhlfahrer-innen in zwei vermiteten Linienautobuessen hoch. Der Brauereibesuch ging, mit weissen kleiden angezogen, sehr dicht beieinander, sehr laut im flaschenfuellungshalle, aber ausser der eingangstreppe, relativ einfach.

Naechster haltestelle 'Bayars Construction' fand eigentlich in der 'Prinzessin Diana' Mittelschule statt, und trotz des grundprinzip des Diana Funds (gegen ausschliessung der behinderten in armen laendern), muessten alle teilnehmer fuenf treppen, dann eine der Tur blockierenden Buehne, ueberklettern. Das programm, unterhalten der schueler, und das essen und waren sehr gut. Beim abschied aber, auf anfrage meines gesamteindrucks als fremden 'Experte' leider beantworten, dass die physikalische barriere den besuch sehr schwierig machten. Bei den Mongolischen Jugendverein muste allen sogar zwei treppenlauefen im ersten stock hochgehoben werden, waehrend vielen vereinsangehoerigen vorbei drangten, um einen powerpoint-praesentation in einem schoenen saal zu erleben. Beim naechsten besuch, an der Mongolei's grossten Handy-firma Mobicom, gab es gute rampen, boden und Garderobe, und telefonkredite wurden geschenkt.

Zur Stadtgouverneur; kuerzweiligen holzrampen gingen ueber sechs treppen hoch dann wieder drei runter, alle kamen dicht zur hauptbesprechungssaal hinein. Wie beim Baufirma, erkannten die Gastgeber die baunormen fuer rollstuehle (31-101-04) scheinbar nicht. Sie bieteten schoene bueche uber den Hauptstadt an, weniger hoffnung teilten Sie aber, fuer die verbesserung der strassen- und gebaueden-begehbarkeit des Hauptstadts. Der Stadtgouverneur entschuldigt sich dass 20 tausend der zahlbaren Mongolischen behinderten sei im Markt-Oekonomie eine minderheitssache, wahren einen aktivisten-kollege schaetzt 35-70 tausend wohnen hier.

Schiesslich zum Tengis Kino, im 2002 gegruendet, wo ich frueher gar nicht gemerkt habe, dass so viele treppen stehen. Hier hiebten wir die vierzehn kollegen aus der buessen nieder, durch parkplatzverkehr, 8 treppen zur eingangs portal hoch, dann zwei lange treppenlaufe zur Kasse und Kinoeingang auf. Ich bewunderte alle, wie ich ein rollstuhlfahrer sah, der im WC koerperlich zur toilette behandelt werden musste. Der Kinomanager war sympatisch, und nach ein glas sekt, sassen alle im vorigen reihe des Kinos und geniessten ein Mongolischer Film.