Mantanani Arkitrek Camp: Connecting Tomorrow’s Architects with the Real, Renewable World

Mantanani is a remote island northwest of Kota Belud in the South China Sea, off the coast of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Recently a group of architecture students visited for an innovative three-week design challenge to build a village centre using recycled and renewable resources. Richard Nelson Sokial reports.

Mantanani, Malaysia. 25 May 2011. What kind of environment would you create if you were stranded on a tropical island with nothing but driftwood and recycled items to build with?

 Students from across the region came to learn - and make their ideas happen in the real world

Students from across the region came to learn - and make their ideas happen in the real world

This was the design challenge of the first ever Arkitrek Camp on the idyllic island of Mantanani off the coast of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The island is known for its amazing island scenery, turtle-spotting and stellar diving spots to spot the rare dugong.

However, like many islands in this region, Mantanani has seen the adverse effects of human activity; floating garbage and debris from the mainland wash up on its sandy shores and unsustainable fishing practices prevail. The island community - predominantly Muslim people known as the Bajau Ubian - make a meagre living selling fish to Kota Belud’s land-locked townships, and infrastructure facilities on Mantanani are poor.

With the collaboration of Camp Borneo, a branch of Camps International has established a local campsite on the island. This is where Arkitrek Camp planned to build a learning centre using recycled debris as a showcase of how architecture and sustainable design can be both practical as well as empowering.

Building on Adversity

 It wasn't all tough, living on a tropical island paradise . . .

It wasn't all tough, living on a tropical island paradise . . .

“The Arkitrek Camp allows students to design and build a project in response to a real brief on a real site”, says Ian Hall, founder of Arkitrek and Arkitrek Camp. “Through the experience of realising a design, we bridge the gap between theory and practice. Even better, the project brief supports environmental conservation and sustainable development objectives”.

The Arkitrek Camp runs for three weeks with young architect participants from as far away as the US, UK and Malaysia. All have a rare opportunity to put their design skills and knowledge into real-life practical application. For many of the participants, this is a dream come true – a modern-day take on island living like Robinson Crusoe.

 Anything from driftwood to old tyres was considered as usable resource for the new village learning centre

Anything from driftwood to old tyres was considered as usable resource for the new village learning centre

Hall says participants will not only have to cope with the physical challenges and hardships of living on a tropical island but also learn to live and work together as a group to solve challenges such as manpower, logistics, materials sourcing and selection, and idea development. And all as part of a grand plan to help the local people take control and stewardship of their environment.

“The overall aim of the Camp Mantanani project is to assist the village in working towards a much better stewardship of the marine areas, and will provide the relevant knowledge, expertise and input to see this happen,” says Melanie Chu, General Manager of Camp Borneo. “Camp Mantanani – under the supervision of Camp Borneo - is committed to seeing this project turn into a model conservation-for-education initiative.” The end objective is to provide education (either facilities or knowledge, or both) in return for a commitment by the community to protect their environment.

Working on the Land

 Integrating their ideas into the local culture in a sustainable way was key to the students' exercise

Integrating their ideas into the local culture in a sustainable way was key to the students' exercise

After their arrival in Sabah, the Arkitrek Campers were given an introduction to the Land Below The Wind and the city of Kota Kinabalu by way of an architectural city tour as well as an educational walk-through of marine eco-systems at the Green Connection aquarium and science discovery centre. They were also treated to a night of local culture, food and hospitality at Kipouvo village, a rural Kadazan settlement in the district of Penampang before being ferried by speedboat to the island of Mantanani, where they were greeted and briefed by the coordinators of Camp Borneo.

With the help of the Mantanani islanders, Camp Borneo established Camp Mantanani on the island in 1998 with a brief to use responsible tourism to help address the education needs of the island’s two villages, the lack of awareness of marine conservation issues, and the improvement of the livelihoods of the local community. Camps International is currently developing its ‘Conservation for Education’ initiatives, with the full backing of the community elders and the Malaysian Department of Education.

 During their time on Mantanani the students both learned, and learned to appreciate the fragility of our Earth's environment

During their time on Mantanani the students both learned, and learned to appreciate the fragility of our Earth's environment

Chu says the idea is that ongoing beach clean-up activities and data-collection surveys will help to shed light on conservation issues surrounding Mantanani. “Subsequently, we hope to develop a long term initiative to help protect the waters around the island,” she adds, “fostering the community’s participation – which we believe will ultimately gain from this protection”.

In the design brief for Arkitrek Camp, the participants were required to help fulfill three key criteria for the structure: a place that will be a learning centre; an iconic architectural structure for the island; and a playground for local children. “We hoped that the participants would rise to the challenge and design something amazing for the Mantanani island community”, adds Chu.

As we go to press, the participants of Arkitrek Camp will be hard at work meeting those expectations. Will they be able to create an empowering community centre using the very basic of available materials? What will the building look like? How will the group solve their construction and limited manpower resources?

Tune in to find out the outcome of the Arkitrek Camp at Mantanani in an upcoming article.

Photos courtesy Ian Hall

  • Arkitrek is a Kuala Lumpur-based design consultancy motivated by the conservation of the environment and sustainable development. It works with social and environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) as well as responsible tour operators, creating opportunities for work and social enterprise.