[EXCLUSIVE] Meet Siti Nurafaf Ismail, The Malaysian Who Brought Change To Disaster Relief Architecture

She may be young but she’s the first female Asian to win the RIBA Norman Foster Travelling Scholarship for her work “Architecture of Humility”. —  Image: Courtesy of Siti Nurafaf Ismail

The meaning of having a shelter over your head has changed drastically in today’s modern society. It’s no longer about owning a sturdy structure that keeps you safe but rather a luxurious asset which you can proudly show off to others. But for victims of natural disasters, their idea of a house differs greatly. To them, it’s a place equipped with clean running taps, and electricity. That simple!

Usually, under such short notice, the most BASIC portable homes are built. However, that doesn’t need to be a long-term reality. Siti Nurafaf Ismail is determined to make a change with her passion for disaster relief architecture.

Preferably called Afaf, the 21-year-old is the first Asian woman to have won the Royal Institute of British Architect (RIBA) Norman Foster Travelling Scholarship with her work deemed the “Architecture of Humility”. It’s a proposal which explores the role of an architect within community architecture in natural disaster zones.

Follow us as we talk with Afaf on how she came to discover her love for architecture and how she turns that to help natural disaster victims.

Afaf decided to bring change to disaster relief architecture after volunteering at a flood disaster in Kelantan back in 2014. — Image: Courtesy of Siti Nurafaf Ismail

What made you decide to pursue architecture? 

The idea came from my Dad when I was a kid. He made a comment about KLCC being designed by an architect and said I should consider doing the same. But the idea fully cemented in high school after trying almost every profession I had an inkling for; Law, Medic, Diplomacy, Business and Accountancy. Doing those things just made it clearer that even though I was able to do other professions, I did not enjoy them as I did Architecture. 

What was your reaction when you found out you won the RIBA Norman Foster Travelling Scholarship?

I was in Istanbul at the time of application for an Erasmus+ programme (student exchange). I was just relaxing in my Airbnb and received an email with a letter attached saying I got the scholarship. I screamed in my room haha. After that, it took a week to really wrap my head around it. 

Can you tell us more about your winning research project? What motivated you to look into disaster relief?

The moment I really decided to pursue Architecture was when I was in St John Ambulance and volunteering for the flood disaster in Kelantan, 2014. Since then, the idea of Architecture playing a bigger role in disaster management was always at the back of my mind. But the opportunity didn’t come until August 2018 when Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia (PAM) had opened a travel grant for architecture students interested in international research. I did the proposal, consulted my advisor Dr Azzam on the topics and sent it in. Lo and behold, I got the grant which enabled me to spend 5 weeks in Lombok, Indonesia. With the results from Indonesia, I applied for RIBA Norman Foster Scholarship in April 2019.

Afaf was able to do a bit of travelling during her research. Recently, she visited Lombok, Indonesia to check out the traditional houses that were still intact despite a major earthquake that happened last year. — Image: Courtesy of Siti Nurafaf Ismail

Can you share a bit about the process of your research? How did you go about it? 

To scout for potential areas of my research, I arranged a recce trip to Indonesia last year in November. I returned the following year and stayed in four villages across Lombok over a period of four weeks. One of the things I did not expect to do was to draw up a map of the area. I did not foresee that the villages do not have maps, only of the districts but not a zoom-in of the villages. It was unexpected but turned to be most effective in establishing a closer relationship with the villagers. Aside from maps, sketches, photographs and interviews were the main things I brought back with me to Malaysia.

Can you explain how architecture plays a part in disaster management?

In disaster management, issues are usually concentrated on the medical aspect for the obvious reason that lives come first. Technically speaking, as long as there is a roof, a floor and walls, that should be a passable shelter. However, we often forget that people have personalities and preferences. It might seem insignificant in the face of a disaster to account for an extra bedroom or a private kitchen, but these small considerations play a big role in differentiating a shelter and a home, one of survival and one of living. Architecture takes that into consideration because the main objective of architecture is to promote quality of life and general happiness of its users. 

What were some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

I had just completed the first year when the research started, so it was a steep learning curve. There were issues with the visas, issues with how to go about things, and what to record and what to set aside. I just steeled my nerves and had a ‘what happens, happens’  attitude throughout the time I was in Lombok. However, Dr Azzam was very calm about it all and just told me to enjoy it. My mom was also with me throughout the trip and even though she mostly stayed at the hostel while I was on-site, having her there at the end of the day was really comforting. All in all, it’s the support of the people around me that allowed me to fully focus on the research.

Credit: Courtesy of Siti Nurafaf Ismail

What are your long-term goals?

In terms of personal long-term goals, I would like to finish my degree first and foremost. Currently, I have completed half of my degree and am now taking a gap year to carry out the research. I used to have a 10-year plan all the way to masters but now, with everything going on I’ve decided to just follow the flow. 

What would you say to young women who are looking to explore a career in architecture?

It is actually a really versatile career but come on board only if you enjoy the whole process. Architectural education is brutal and very costly because you’re expected to finish masters if you want to practise as an architect. Besides, do not worry about where or how you’re gonna fit in a male-dominated profession. Just focus on doing what you love. Let’s not conform to stereotypes, but instead do what feels most genuine to yourselves. 

Is there one unique thing you’d like our readers to know about you?

I’m not all that studious – I play games on Steam, I read manga and watch anime, my friends still (thankfully) laugh at my lame jokes, and I have my days where I want to do nothing particularly productive. I want people to realize that you do not need to check things off a certain list of habits to actually try something out of the ordinary.