It may be a little nerdy, but for me, one of the highlights of the London calendar is the London Open House weekend that happens every September. Interesting buildings, or parts of them, that are usually closed to the public – fascinating houses, commercial headquarters, artists’ studios and church steeples – are thrown open to the curious, guided around by volunteers who live or work there.

It may be a little nerdy, but for me, one of the highlights of the London calendar is the London Open House weekend that happens every September. Interesting buildings, or parts of them, that are usually closed to the public – fascinating houses, commercial headquarters, artists’ studios and church steeples – are thrown open to the curious, guided around by volunteers who live or work there.

This year’s open house was last weekend, and I was, I admit, a bit overexcited. I enjoy seeing the unexpected gems in this massive city – things you never knew existed just around the corner of your daily walk, or hidden behind the walls of an ordinary-looking building which barely warrants a glance from the outside.

One of the best surprises was the Village Underground. Unbeknownst to me, it is located just around the corner from an office I often go to for meetings. But it is in complete contrast to the drab office blocks that dominate that neighborhood. Perched high on an unused viaduct that you would not notice if you kept your eyes at street level, is a complex of disused Underground train carriages that have been turned into cheap studios for artists and other creative professionals.

I felt very arty to walk up the tight spiral metal staircase to the top of the viaduct, where a DJ was swaying to reggae LPs, two artists were spraypainting a mural on one of the trains and ironic newspaper clippings hung above the desks lining both sides of the carriages.

Another gem was Container City, located on a disused wharf in the Docklands of east London. Also designed for creative types – painters, sculptors, musicians, photographers – it was an entire complex of buildings fashioned by stacking colorful shipping containers on top of each other at funny angles.

The Village Underground and Container City may seem vaguely bizarre, slightly frivolous buildings, but they are actual highly innovate solutions to modern urban problems. Both complexes are made with recycled materials and aim to provide low-cost space in a city where renting a “reasonably-priced” one-room apartment can cost $1,500 a month.

While I have always had an amateur appreciation for architecture, lately I have begun to realize its importance to shaping the world in which we live. Over the last nine months I have worked closely with a non-profit architectural practice, Article 25, that provides low-cost design, quantity survey, site supervision services in poor communities. Article 25 is helping the school reconstruction program I manage in Haiti for Outreach International, an Independence-based charity.

What has impressed me about Article 25 is how seriously they take the importance of making sure buildings fit into the local surroundings, draw on vernacular architectural styles, use local labor and locally-appropriate building supplies. This means they have been able to produce wonderful buildings at low-cost, that blend nicely into the local environment.

Great architecture is not necessarily about creating massive, gleaming “white elephants.” It can also be the creative use of ordinary materials and surroundings to create a space that is comfortable, inspiring, interesting and unique. A building should complement the local setting, not assault it.

Sadly, much of the new development in Independence has settled for ugly, cookie-cutter, commercial box buildings with immense parking lots.

These eye-sores make Independence uglier, less environmentally sustainable and less interesting. It is a shame that the human-scale, unique and interesting architecture of the Independence Square or the Country Club Plaza has been forsaken in favor of poorly-designed alternatives.

What the work of Article 25, or the examples of the Village Underground and Container City show is that great architecture, that surprises, amuses and inspires can be affordable and environmentally sustainable.

There is no reason the same can’t also apply to Independence.