In Conversation with The MAAK

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As models of design’s ability to act as a catalyst for improvement, there is nothing average about The MAAK co-founders Ashleigh Killa and Max Melvill. Their practice combines design with social impact through diverse endeavours. From the New Rest Valley Creche and the Desmond Tutu Testing Clinic to the Ulwazi Community Centre, their reach extends both locally and globally. Add incredibly moving installations to the list, and The MAAK is the epitome of the potential of the architectural craft. We caught up with Ashleigh and Max to learn more about their design approach and projects.

Can you tell us a bit more about RRRUBBLE and the work you did in Europe last year?

RRRUBBLE is an ongoing body of work by The MAAK and Space Saloon. It is a collaborative research project questioning the role and agency of materials in contemporary architectural production. Our first RRRUBBLE project, titled ‘Futuro Pronto’ (Fano, Italy, 2022) drew inspiration from Marc-Antoine Laugier’s ‘primitive hut’ to create an experimental pavilion structure which presented new architectural (and material) possibilities for the city’s rapidly changing port area. Since Fano, we have worked with different international architecture platforms to apply the RRRUBBLE methodology in four countries across Europe. The format, scale, and outcome of each iteration depends on the unique context of the work. In Georgia, as an example, we worked with the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial (TAB) to create an exhibition of site-specific furniture, ‘Love Thy Monsters’, that raises awareness around the illegal dumping of construction waste in Dighomi Meadows (one of the last remaining riparian forests in the region). The hyper-contextual furniture pieces created in the process formed part of a renovation project transforming part of a derelict power station into an active community space and listening bar for a local internet radio station, Mutant Radio. ‘Love Thy Monsters’ was part of our 2023 LINA fellowship and was co-funded by the European Union.

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With your work being predominantly human-centric, when you start a project, how do you navigate prioritising the building’s end user and staying true to your ethos?

In many ways we are driven to un-learn architecture (or at least how it is typically practised). This includes how we approach each project and the various stakeholders involved. Different to residential or commercial projects, who pays for the buildings we create is often different to who uses them. In this light, we prefer to re-frame the ‘client’ (in the traditional sense of the word) as the financier and see the actual users of the spaces we create (school children, library learners, theatre makers, dancers, teachers, etc.), as our client(s). This re-languaging forces us to better engage in the intimate nuances and unique user needs of each new project. It is the input of the end user, more so than the financier (client), that we use to complete each brief and ultimately develop each scheme.

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When you started The MAAK, what were some of your personal experiences that drove the direction of the practice?

How have the practice and your approach evolved since then? Looking back, The MAAK has really been more about people and process, than it has been about architecture. It is difficult to link this thought to specific personal experiences. Rather, it seems rooted in a collective understanding (shared by our team and collaborators) that architecture is as much about buildings as it is about craft, care, and kindness. Finding (and celebrating) these acts of human connection in our work has been central to our approach and it is fundamentally what keeps us interested in what we do. We have always seen The MAAK as a constant work in progress (#WIP) so we trust that our ideas, motivations, and method will continue to evolve as does our team.

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Tell us more about the process and unique goals for your latest work in progress, the Rahmaniyeh Primary School Library.

We often talk about The MAAK as being a ‘process-based practice’. For us, this relies on trusting the ‘intuition’ of each project and encouraging a sense of equal agency with everyone involved in the process (from engineers to end-users, project collaborators, and so on). Two exciting workflows currently active for the Rahmaniyeh Primary School Library scheme are our engagement with Xanele Puren from The Otto Foundation and what we are doing with land activist and visual artist Zayaan Khan and photographer Kent Andreasen. With Xanele/ The Otto Foundation we have been involved in long-term engagement and ideation workshops with the learners of the school. These sessions are helping inform everything from unique architectural details and material choices to the eventual naming of the library. With Zayaan and Kent we have been exploring the natural clay reserves of the surrounding area/ site and are working towards collaborative gestures that address the geo-political responsibilities of working in District 6 (where the project is located). We are currently on site and can’t wait to see the tangible outcomes of these efforts finally take shape. Stay tuned!

This article is an extract from our April volume, click here to read the follow volume!

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