First-year Tata Fellow wants to use architecture and design to strengthen vulnerable communities around the world.
Born and raised in Northern Ireland, Hugh Magee is trained as an architect, having studied at the University of Ulster, Belfast, and at L’École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Saint-Étienne, France. Hugh spent time in France as an English teacher, a bartender, and an au pair before coming to graduate school at MIT. Now, he brings his sustained interest in the role of architecture and design in resource constrained communities to the Urban Risk Lab and Tata Center. Hugh is part of a team under Assistant Professor Miho Mazareeuw working on PrepHub Nepal, a suite of innovations attempting to adapt Nepal’s traditional “patis”—small public pavilions—into hubs that can provide basic necessities such as water and electricity in disaster scenarios.
How are you exploring your interests at the Tata Center and what do you hope to achieve as a Fellow?
At the Tata Center, a lot of my interests have evolved and become more sophisticated. Through my research I am now able to recognize the limitations that designers face. What’s very helpful about the Tata Center and the Urban Risk Lab is that we are continually trying to use design to impact communities. Technology comes with a social component that affects the way it is developed, used, and maintained, so my understanding of that has grown.
One of the things I’m hoping to achieve by the end of my term is to have a community in Nepal where we are working to validate some of the assumptions that we have in terms of design. The dream is to engage with the community in a way that they become part of the design process. Personally I don’t see my role as designing a technology, even though I am at MIT. My role is as a facilitator between community and technology. I find myself researching the anthropological and sociological ways a community functions, ways in which institution functions and the way they interact with each other. I feel this is the kind of network where solutions are produced.
Tell us about the Urban Risk Lab and why you have chosen Nepal as a site for your project.
The Urban Risk Lab focuses on design in communities that are at risk in disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, changes in ecology and infrastructure. The projects at the Lab have different scales. From planning an emergency preparedness hub to planning a city, the lab addresses the most challenging aspects of contemporary urbanization. We chose Nepal because of an already existing MIT-Nepal Initiative. Relationships with collaborators were already cultivated, and personally I feel the collaborator is more important than the research question itself. The real value of what we do is posing research questions and at the Tata Center in particular, the goal is sustainability.
What are the key things you’ve learned in your first several months as a Tata Fellow?
I think I’ve learned about the world and myself in these past few months. First, I’ve realized that I’m a very social person, and that a large part of my work is making friends not only with the people at MIT, but also our collaborators, the locals in Nepal, and the industry professionals. That comes pretty naturally to me, but all this research also confirmed my assumptions that you need to have collaborators on the ground that work with your technology; otherwise it will not succeed. Overall, I’m now thinking more critically about the role of architecture in society, and especially in resource-constrained communities.
A traditional ‘pati’ pavilion being used by residents of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. Photo: Hugh Magee