A small house appears to tackle climate change on the Vitra campus in Switzerland

A steep roof post made of corrugated metal pokes above the tall meadow flowers of a garden designed by Piet Odolf. It shines in the June sun and echoes the industrial look of nearby structures. Although the picturesque setting suggests rural tranquility, it is actually a large manufacturing complex in Weil-am-Rhine in southwestern Germany, close to the Swiss border.

The complex is owned by Swiss furniture and design manufacturer Vitra, maker of products such as the Eames Lounge Chair and the futuristic Panton Molded Chair. However, the structure, with its corrugated metal roof, looks like a quaint little pavilion or a pleasant rural shelter, and is not a Vitra design. This is a house designed to address some of the devastating effects of climate change in Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries.

Gudi Pari („small house” in Bengali) is built on a complex of structures by star architects: Herzog & de Meuron a showroom; Frank Gehry’s Design Museum; Tadao Ando’s Convention Center; Factories by Nicholas Grimshaw and Alvaro Chisa; Zaha Hadid is also a fire station. It has now taken its place as a permanent fixture in this landscape of self-conscious expressions of design culture.

Still, building this tiny house costs about $500, including labor, to buy one of Vitra’s mid-priced chairs. Easy to erect – and even easier to dismantle for reuse – it is made from accessible and affordable materials from the Global South: bamboo, profiled sheet metal and a few mild metal connectors.

Gudi Bari in Bangladesh © Aburbo Hussain

It was designed by Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum and her studio to address the issues of housing provision in flood-prone areas. „Two-thirds of Bangladesh is delta,” says Tabassum. “There are 700 rivers. It would be better to talk about waterscape rather than landscape.

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We sit near the house at a bamboo table and bench, replicas of the houses she and her fellow designers used in the deltas of the great Himalayan rivers. Here in Weil-am-Rhein it resembles a rustic-chic picnic suite – proof that context is everything.

The delta has always been flooded, but the frequency is increasing as a result of meltwater from the Himalayas and rising sea levels.. Some people living in the delta have been making their living for decades, while others are fleeing climate change in search of land. One place they find it is in the peatlands (sandbars) that provide fertile land for farming after a few years when the floodwaters recede. Accessible only by boat, these rugged but vulnerable islands are, in fact, unclaimed land. People who have farmed the delta for generations, or newly migrated from elsewhere, can set up without the need for land titles.

A woman wearing a large pendant stands in front of the bamboo logs and ladder of a simple house
Architect Marina Tabasum stands in front of Guti Bari at Vitra Complex © Dejan Jovanovic

Jump parry couldn’t be simpler – that’s the idea, of course. „They should be easy to erect and easy to remove if it looks like they might flood again,” Tapasum says. „Bamboo can be obtained outside of regular commercial chains, so this steel connector is the only one. [a welded cluster of short tubes] It has to be produced and we are working with local companies. The materials required are minimal and even corrugated roofing is easily available. Once the structure is complete, homeowners create their facade.

She shows me photos of examples. Some have soft membranes of woven reeds, while others have simple, modern metal panels. They look amazingly elegant. As Rolf Felbaum, the company’s former chairman and son of Vitra founders Willy and Erica Felbaum, says: „Architecture of resistance can also be beautiful.”

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While the ground floor is left open, the top floor houses the Japanese residence. It has a wooden frame and large, unglazed windows with white panels, hinged shutters that encourage cross ventilation and simple wooden floorboards. It’s sparse but comfortable, with deep pitches creating an alpine lodge-like interior. „Even if the ground level is flooded, the first floor can still be used,” says Tapasum.

„These sandbars will only last a few months or a few years. Who knows. But residents who have lived in these conditions all their lives will read the changes in the water and know if another flood is coming, so they can demolish the houses before the flood comes,” he said.

Architects have a long history of trying to solve the world’s housing problems through intelligently designed solutions. In fact, next to Tabassum’s small house is Diogene’s house designed by Renzo Piano in 2013. This is another minimalist dwelling, autonomous and minimized as much as possible. However, it’s also very expensive, Fehlbaum says.

People stand inside a cylindrical concrete building with light pouring in from above;  A multicolored cylinder of water falls from the ceiling into a circular pool in the center
Marina Tapas was also praised for buildings such as the Independence Museum in Dhaka. © Alamy

Tabasum’s small bamboo structure is neither a prototype nor a hopeful experiment; It’s a real thing. The first hundred or so houses were funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and Tapas is pushing to build more through his foundation for architecture and social equality.

I ask her what it’s like to live in this modest residence in Weil-am-Rhein, surrounded by designs from some of the world’s most famous names. „It’s symbolic of the climate crisis,” he says, „and a reminder that it’s a reality and our responsibilities as architects. We share our planet.

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This is part of a conscious shift in emphasis on landscape and sustainability at the Vitra campus. It is not only with a nearby garden, but also the hairy garden house of Tsuyoshi Dane, thatched shelter for gardeners.

Tabassum, modest and shy, is now a globally respected architect, acclaimed and awarded for buildings including Dhaka’s stunning Independence Museum and the impressive Bait ur Roof Mosque. Is she becoming a star architect too? She whines a little. „When I became an architect, I had to ask myself: Am I serving the 1 percent who are used to making their dreams come true? Or should I try and serve the rest?

„I get invitations to work all over the world, but I’ve always resisted them. I think I have to understand the place I’m building, the environment and frankly, there’s a lot to do in Bangladesh.

Tickets can be booked to visit the Vitra campus, vitra.com

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