Of Dreams and Spaces
James Mak (麥文熙)
Graduated in BA(Hons) Geography in London School of Economics (LSE) in 2008, James came to study architecture in the AA School of Architecture, currently in 4th year of Diploma School. In 2009, he founded Project Little Dream, a registered charity in Hong Kong, which aims to promote primary education and community services in rural Cambodia.
Project Little Dream designs, builds and runs rural schools in villages of Takeo, Cambodia. Today, 600 Cambodian children are studying English in the four schools built by Project Little Dream. Each year, more than 60 volunteers from Hong Kong and around the world participate in education, school-building and healthcare projects that Project Little Dream organises.
2008年倫敦政治經濟學院(London School of Economics)地理學學士畢業，於英國建築聯盟學院（AA School of Architecture）修讀第四年AA Diploma。2009年在香港創辦了註冊慈善機構 夢•行動（Project Little Dream)，致力為柬埔寨發展鄉村教育和社區服務。
1. A Beginning
(Except from Of Dreams and Spaces: Stories from Takeo, Cambodia)
Project Little Dream began with a tiny but shared impulse. The fruit of 21st century technology of e-mails being written in the basement of a university library. Earlier that day, both Clara and Francis, who had not met before, both emailed me to ask if that last chat about building a school in Cambodia was really happening. And so I replied them including fifteen friends, an email titled “I have a little dream — Building a school in Cambodia”. The email talked about how possible it could be. We knew some contacts from our Jesuit church and we had experiences in Boy Scout building with bamboo. We were going to study architecture, international development, and medicine. We thought we might even start a non-profit organisation at some point.
Although we were studying on three different continents, getting together to talk wasn’t the difficult part. I invited fifteen of my friends over and they all came, ready to commit. The tricky part was to answer the questions raised in the first few hours.
Why not build in China?
How much do we need?
How should we raise the money?
How do we build?
After five very long hours of heated discussion, we found answers we could accept. We thought China faced a more complicated problem than the lack of community services. China faced a very different socio-economical problem; with the inequality and uneven income distribution there, we thought that small-scale construction projects like ours would not be effective. That is why we chose Cambodia. We wanted to work with a country receptive to foreign NGOs and one that was forward-looking towards long-term reconstruction, which remained necessary after its civil war.
We set our budget at HKD 100,000 — a sum we thought we could raise in the coming year. Afterwards, we split into small teams. Most of us had studied together when we were younger, but since we were all at different universities now, we looked into how we could become an independent entity that carries out non-profit work. We also gathered all the contacts we had in order to know more about Cambodia. Those of us who were more interested in fundraising thought of a party in the summer. The last thing that held us back was perhaps the first thing we should have thought about.
“How do we know if they need a school?” Luke asked.
The room fell silent.
It was a question that even the local communities didn’t always know how to answer. Sometimes a more effective development strategy could be additional income sources instead of primary education. Maybe there were more orphans in a village that needed help instead… and the discussion went on as if the last five hours had never happened.
“We should speak to someone who knows more organisations locally. Why don’t we talk to Camkids, in London? They sponsor numerous local groups. Maybe they can point us in the right direction?” Denise finally said.
A few months later, we visited Camkids in London. They recommended two community organisations to us that were in need of a school building. After a 3-hour flight from Hong Kong and then a 2-hour car ride, we arrived at the News Future Organisation in Takeo Province. We spent a week in town and also visited Prey Run Village. It took an hour, this time on tuk-tuk, to arrive at a village. Strangely, most of the children were nowhere to be seen until we slowly walked away from the main road into a cluster of houses. We heard sudden *claps* and *shhh...* in unison. A man’s clear voice, followed by hundreds of children.
“Today is the eighteenth”
“Two thousand, and, nine”
“Two thousand, and, nine”
2. Our first project – Prey Run School
With the help of New Futures Organisation (NFO), we got to know Prey Run Village where we eventually did our first project. Thym, an English teacher, was teaching to a group of 120 Khmer students under his stilt-house. As far as I remember, watching Thym teach was almost magical. He would orchestrate his students group by group to follow him pronouncing each vowel and eventually words. He encouraged each of them to make a conversation to a foreigner, asking them to tell us about their village lives. Shortly after that first visit, we went back to Hong Kong and founded our charity, Project Little Dream (PLD). We thought that with such a dedicated teacher with so many keen children, they simply deserved a much better study environment. Therefore, our goal was to offer the physical hardware and our local partner, NFO, would help monitor it after we left. Prey Run School became our first project.
Our first school was really all about learning what it means to build. Instead of putting emphasis on design, our aim was to safely erect a traditionally-built timber pavilion. The experience from our local builders and engineers were priceless. Without such learning process, we would never be able to do what we do in the years after. Prey Run School showed us that simplicity and modesty is vital in practicing in a foreign developing country. After that year, we had more and more control over our architecture and began to challenge what the local builders can do with limited resources and technology.
One of the main reasons that we continue to build in the same province is that we can establish and maintain a good network of village schools. Over the past few years, we had the privilege to witness the growth of Prey Run School and also successful cases where students from our school won scholarships to study in a renowned international school in the capital, Phnom Penh. Since all our schools are free, local villagers are very supportive and would spare their children with work in farms to study in our schools. This gave us the advantage for later outreach programmes such as healthcare campaigns to be held in the villages we work in. It is our longer-term strategy to consolidate the village schools network that we have developed and ensure its sustainability.
3. About Project Little Dream
Thon Mun Community Centre - Sanitation Facility
Project Little Dream has always operated with the collective efforts of students from several overseas institutions. That is why over the past few years we have been trying to come to a synchronized working rhythm that would fit into all our full-time schedules, either academically or professionally. Today, our long-term staff is composed of three core teams working in parallel, Architecture, Education and Healthcare, in the four villages where we built in. Each team then recruits external short-term volunteers who would come for our annual trip in December, they would build, conduct surveys, organise local events etc. For example, our architecture team in Hong Kong would use summer holidays to design our projects and we will then recruit 30-40 volunteers to help build them over Christmas. In providing long-term and short-term opportunities, our volunteer programmes try to capture a good range of expertise and commitment to our team. Apart from us students, it was also crucial for us to have established a very solid local Cambodian office on the ground. On a work level, we have complete faith in our local team to operate and maintain our projects there. On a personal level, our local team is like our extended family!
In terms of sponsorship channels, after we have started with our first year with a relatively modest budget, a lot of it comes from the trust that we established along the way. In our first year, we began with tough university grants. They requested a very strict systematic accountability process and reporting and it was a steep learning curve for us. After our first built project, it became easier now that we have concrete materials for past projects and plans for our next projects. Nowadays, donors and sponsors know more about us from the media, as well as from the generous recognitions by various awards.
4. Our most recent project
- Of Dreams and Spaces: Stories from Takéo, Cambodia
Olympic Stadium Phnom Penh - Vann Molyvann
Writing and publishing of our book was definitely a project of its own. Of Dreams and Spaces has two main threads. First, we took the opportunity to share our thoughts in the (re-)construction of post-conflict Cambodia through vernacular architecture. Practicing in the developing region, it was important for us to respond to the Framptonian pursuit and write about the architects or regionalists who we consider critical. We are very much inspired by the Khmer modernist architect, Vann Molyvann, who is a true master in channeling a latent Khmer energy in his spaces. For us, our project was to realize the latent regional potential and nurture the stories within architecture.
Therefore, in parallel, the second and main part of the book is a collection of six years of thoughts and stories nurtured by designing, building and running village schools in Takéo, Cambodia. It is a conversation about differences — in values and cultures, of needs and visions, between “us” and “them” — and a conversation about connections. Through the many faces, voices, touches and traces encountered in Cambodia, we have made our way from indifference and unfamiliarity to similarity and family. Today, over five hundred children are studying English in four schools: in Prey Run Village, Khna Rong Village, Thon Mun Village and Thnouh Village. Of Dreams and Spaces is an invitation from us to share with you our narrative journey woven by our experiences in Takeo.
5. Architecture and AA
Of Dreams and Spaces
AA attracted me in the first place because it embraces students across disciplines to pursue architecture. I started PLD during my first degree in political geography in London School of Economics (LSE), so my year-out last year marks a watershed between disciplines, between a geographer and an architect. Like all other soul-searching experiences, which I'm sure all of us in the AA are familiar with, instead of taking a proper Part 1 internship, I chose to build and write. So, I embarked on a mission to finish our 4th project, Thnouh School, and publish our first book on the work we did in Takeo.
To publish a book in this digital age was challenging, especially in Hong Kong, where the publishing and reading culture is despondent. To write and then publish something that deserves a printed form, an artifact, entails a love and determination for a palpable presence in what you create. Luckily we were not alone. We are indebted to our extremely encouraging local publisher, MCCM Creations, who not only understood but also reassured our work. It took us half a year to turn our thoughts into words and another half a year to make it legible. Against all odds, Of Dreams and Spaces was published a few months ago and I have to thank all the friends who helped along the way.
For me, the AA is a place where we should never stop asking what architecture is. Being in the AA made me realise the importance to continually discover, define and disseminate new architectural agendas across the world. Having published this book is a small step towards formulating such an agenda. To be able to build, write and study at the same time has been a fascinating experience, mainly because my exposure to architectural education almost fluctuates from year to year with the AA unit system. But now that I am in 4th year, with Pier Vittorio and Maria, made me think that all that really matters comes down to is our ability as an architect to actualise, whether on paper or physical form, the potentiality of a "project". This means that behind all the modes of representation, after reducing it to its bare minimum, architecture is about the spatial mechanics and poetics of a way of life. Especially in built projects, when faced with a multi-scalar magnitude of economical and political constraints, what we can deliver were the most essentials. For example, in our most recent project, Thnouh School, our strategy was to extend the village domestic landscape to a learning platform. That's why the school is a simple elongation of a vernacular Khmer house. Simplicity and modesty was crucial. This not only gave our local builders strong frame of traditional reference to what they are used to but also the opportunity for us to reinterpret the Khmer house.
As we progress, we see our career paths closely intertwined with the growth of Project Little Dream. I don't think we will eventually become full-time staffs any time soon, but the opportunity to use architecture to provide for underprivileged communities is invaluable. We aspire to be practices like Studio Mumbai and MASS Design Group, but let's see! One little step at a time!
Thnouh Village, Takeo
夢．行動(Project Little Dream)源自大家一個共同的小念頭和二十一世紀發達的電子郵件技術。我們的故事萌芽於一個大學圖書館的地下室中。當日，素未謀面的Clara和Francis二人分別致電我，打聽上次提及到柬埔寨蓋一所學校的事會否付諸實行。於是，我藉機寫了一封題為“我有一個小小的夢──到柬埔寨蓋一所學校”的郵件，並將其發給了我的15位朋友。郵件主要討論此事的可行性。我們能夠聯繫到耶穌會會堂的一些成員，而且我們也曾經參與過童軍訓練，學習過用竹子建造房屋。我們打算去研習建築學、國際發展學、藥學等相關專業。我們甚至有想過，也許，我們在未來的某一天還能成立一個慈善組織。
幾個月後，我們拜訪了Camkids。他們為我們推薦了兩間有意在當地建校的社區組織。坐了長達三個小時的飛機，再加兩個小時的車程，我們終於由香港來到位於茶膠的New Future Organisation。我們在小鎮上待了一個星期，並拜訪了普瑞阮村。後來，我們又再坐上「篤篤」顛簸了一個小時，最後到了一個小村莊。奇怪的是路上一直未見小孩的蹤影。直到我們離開大路慢慢走近村舍的時候，才有小孩陸續探出好奇的小腦袋。我們隨即聽到不約而同的拍掌聲以及噓聲。原來，是一位老師，帶領著過百位小孩朗讀：
我們透過New Futures Organisation (NFO) 認識普瑞阮村，更在當地開展了第一個項目。英文老師Thym在他的家教導120位學生，他的教學彷彿有魔力。Thym將學生分成小組，先輪流指導各組如何發元音，繼而學習朗讀詞語。他鼓勵學生與外國人交流，向我們分享他們的鄉村生活。那次探訪後，我們回港便成立了夢．行動。如此熱心的老師和好學的學生，值得擁有更好的學習環境。我們希望能提供硬件配套，而我們在當地的伙伴NFO則負責監察學校日後運作。夢．行動第一個項目——普瑞阮村學校於焉誕生。
Project Little Dream Team
Olympic Stadium Phnom Penh - Vann Molyvann
Of Dreams and Spaces
Thon Mun Community Centre
AA (建築聯盟學院) 吸引我之處，是它海納百川的精神，讓不同學科的學生能夠學習建築。我在倫敦政治經濟學院修讀第一個政治地理學學位時成立了夢．行動。我在去年休學一年，這一年也成為了我作為一名地理學者和建築師之間的一個分水嶺。大家聚首在AA，大概也有一番尋找自我的經歷。我放棄了中規中矩的第一部分實習，選擇了親身去建設和記錄——開展夢．行動的第四個項目——興建Thnouh村及出版夢．行動第一本書，紀錄我們在茶膠推行的項目。
對我而言，AA是一個讓你不斷探索建築真諦的地方。在AA修讀期間，我體會到持續探索、闡明和傳播全球各地的全新建築議程的重要性。出版此書也是向制訂這類議程邁進一小步。AA的小組制 (unit system) 讓我每年都有不同的建築教育體驗，更讓我有機會去同時執行建築項目、寫書和學習，實在是難忘的體驗。來到第四年，接觸了Pier Vittorio和Maria後，我明白到建築師最核心的價值是要在紙張上或現實中，將一個「項目」的潛在可能性展現。在種種表現方式背後，將一切繁瑣撇開，回歸最基本的狀態，建築不過是空間力學和一種詩意的生活態度。尤其是面對種種經濟和政治因素限制的建築項目，我們的設計只能保留了不可或缺與最精華的部分。就像夢．行動最近落成的Thnouh School，我們的策略是將村莊地貎融入學習環境。因此，其校舍就像一間拉長了的高棉傳統房屋，設計簡樸無華，既讓當地工人可以沿用傳統建築方法，亦為我們保留了重新詮釋傳統的空間。
隨着夢．行動不斷成長，我們的事業發展亦與之緊密相連。也許我們目前不會成為夢．行動的全職員工，但能夠活用建築服務弱勢社群，實在是珍貴無比的經驗。我們夢想成為Studio Mumbai和MASS Design Group等組織。大家拭目以待吧！我們會一步一步向目標進發！
Founder, Chairperson of Project Little Dream
Author of Of Dreams and Spaces – Stories from Takéo, Cambodia
AA 4th Year Dip 14
Of Dreams and Spaces - Stories from Takéo, Cambodia
200毫米 (高) x 150毫米(闊)
現於誠品香港、Open Quote PMQ元創方及 AA Bookshop發售。
Project Little Dream: https://www.littledream.org
Project Little Dream Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/projectlittledream
Video - A Bit of Architecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWXKew5xUNg
Video - A Conversation in Education: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBI-h7vBTX8
James' Website: https://jcmak.com
MCCM Creations: https://www.mccmcreations.com/#!of-dreams-and-spaces/c18bv