What started as the 15,000 Bottle Caps for Africa concept just a few months ago is now an actual built computer learning center and library thanks to architect Charles Newman and the organization Under The Acacia. The Kenya-based project revolved around Newman’s inclusive approach to design, which made it imperative that he work closely with the local Maasai people and give them ownership over the build. More than an architectural feat decorated with colorful bottle caps laid out by Maasai women according to traditional jewelry patterns, the project also creates social cohesion and introduces technology in a non-intrusive way. Newman explains, “In a community that has historically resisted western influence, allowing them to create something unique to their tribe helps them understand that while computers might be foreign, it is an opportunity to further enrich their own culture.” Read on for Inhabitat’s exclusive interview with this revolutionary architect.
Inhabitat: How did you get involved in development work?
Charles Newman: After working in New York City architectural offices for a few years I began to grow tired not only of the office politics, but also of the fact that I was not reaching my true potential by picking out throw pillows and chandeliers for the wealthy. I was happily laid off in 2008, and started volunteering most of my time with Engineers Without Borders and a few other organizations.
Inhabitat: Were you trained specifically for this kind of work or did you learn as you go?
Charles Newman: No, I was not trained specifically for this work beyond architecture school. However, in the long answer I can point to volunteering with Habitat for Humanity as a youngster, as well as a few weekend workshops on working with under privileged communities. Village Earth stands out as having provided some valuable lessons.
Inhabitat: What’s your connection to Kenya? How did you find Under the Acacia?
Charles Newman: My connection to Kenya grows with every passing day. My first project through Engineers Without Borders brought me to Kenya, and my heart has never left. The genuine hospitality of the people, paired with the unending challenges of life there has helped me settle into a profession that fulfills the feeling of purpose that my time in NYC could never provide.
My connection with Under The Acacia boils down to the cliché “It’s all about who you know.” I met Jess Teutonico through a friend, and within minutes I realized that I had found an organization that was focused on results – lasting results. About a month later, we teamed up to help create a project that was unique in design and would create seemingly limitless opportunities for the Loita community.