Opinion | Renée Loth

Slow Space is design with dignity

A computer-generated artist rendering of Khalifa Stadium in Doha, Qatar, prior to constuction.
Getty Images
A computer-generated artist rendering of Khalifa Stadium in Doha, Qatar, prior to constuction.

You’ve probably heard of the slow food movement: the idea that our meals should be wholesome, sustainable, and locally sourced — that is, the opposite of fast food. (And no, it’s not about eating snails.) Started in 1986 by an Italian farmer protesting the arrival of a McDonald’s in Rome, the movement has spawned a variety of offshoots, including slow travel, slow fashion, slow medicine, and slow parenting.

Now comes slow architecture, or as its adherents often refer to it, Slow Space. Applied to buildings and public spaces, the movement’s principles include using local, nontoxic materials, respecting community traditions, and fair treatment of local labor. Slow space promotes a human-scaled environment and the somewhat less tangible idea of human dignity. “There are so many ways to slice it,” says Cambridge architect Mette Aamodt, “but what we mean is places that allow for a connection between ourselves and the world that is deeper and more meaningful than the boxes we inhabit day to day.” She uses words like empathy, intuitive, reflective. Slow space is the opposite of junk space.

A good example is a district hospital in Burtaro, Rwanda, designed for the international aid group Partners in Health by Boston architect Michael Murphy of MASS Design Group. The team wanted to reverse poor conditions at local hospitals that tended to spread communicable diseases and often made patients sicker. They installed large windows that open to freshening breezes and used permeable pavement to minimize the standing water that breeds insects. The hospital was constructed with 100 percent local labor, employing nearly 4,000 residents to excavate, construct, and manage the project. The buildings are clad in volcanic rock from a nearby mountain range that could be worked by local stone masons, keeping costs low and reducing the environmental footprint that comes with imported materials.


An infamous counter-example is the new Khalifa International Stadium in Qatar, designed for the 2022 World Cup by the late architectural superstar Zaha Hadid. That project has been exposed for its exploitation of migrant workers who were coerced into appalling conditions, many of whom died from heat exhaustion and accidents. Qatar has made improving working conditions at the World Cup building site a priority, but human rights groups remain skeptical.

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Even here in New England, immigrant construction workers — many of them undocumented — are put at risk of injury with little recourse to compensation or even decent medical treatment. A Boston Globe investigation last year found thousands of violations of worker safety regulations as the region tries to rapidly meet the demand for new construction. Unfortunately, commercial enterprises far outnumber small-batch, slow space projects that stay close to the communities where they are sited: what Murphy calls locally fabricated or “lo-fab” construction.

Murphy and Aamodt spoke at a recent conference cosponsored by the Boston Society of Architects (where I also work as editor of the organization’s quarterly magazine). They are hopeful that just as developers, homeowners, and other clients have come to want “green” credentials for building energy-efficient projects, they will eventually see the value in “slow” principles. Fair, safe construction practices, clean local materials, and designs that use what neuroscientists know about how physical structures affect personal well-being all are part of the slow space movement.

It is difficult to imagine bringing these practices to scale on large commercial developments, where speed is a financial imperative. Still, some kind checklist or pledge that clients could sign, to show they at least aspire to slow space goals, would be a good start. The built environment around us, Murphy says, is “the physical manifestation of the power relationships in our world.” Slow space aims to change that relationship, one brick at a time.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.