A few ideas and a debate
Image: UGO’s award-winning project for
a concentrated slum in Dharavi (2013)
The following are some introductory notes by Leopold Lambert of the Funambulist blog, followed by a transcript of the debate:
Last week, an interesting architectural debate occurred on Ethel Baraona Pohl‘s facebook about an award-winning project that proposed a hypothetical architectural project to relocate the population of the largest slum in Asia, Dharavi in Mumbai. The online comments, including the one on facebook, are not known to be the most appropriate place for deep discussions; however, this time, an interesting debate occurred between a dozen of people (some of them like Ethel, Fosco Lucarelli, Cesar Reyes, and Nick Axel are well-known from this blog’s readers), who could be said to all agree about the symptoms that can be detected in this project yet, who do not necessarily agree on what should be an architectural role in the defense of the victims of globalized capitalism. Since then, Ethel and Cesar wrote a synthesis on dpr-barcelona‘s blog, and I decided to add to it a few thoughts in addition than the entire transcript of the debate, in order to give it a form of archival (see at the end of this note).
This debate comes at a moment where I wonder what is this recent tendency from architects to draw things that they did not design. I explored similar considerations in a year old article entitled provocatively “Why Do Architects Dream of a World Without Them?” and I would like to continue such reflection here. Whether we talk of Gezi Park’s temporary structures built by the occupiers, the various standard elements of Chinese cities, or the now well-known Torre David (see past article) in Caracas, there seems to be a common need for architects to appropriate, in their own language, the eminent characteristics of these “architectures without architects.” Is it a strange unconscious means from them to retroactively claim an architecture that they did not design? Or rather, is it a way for them to understand the logic of construction/function of these spaces by interpreting them through a language that they are familiar with? This second hypothesis has the merit of a form of humility, recognizing that the role of the architect in his or her transcendental version, is not necessarily something that these structures lack.
The fascination that architects develop for these structures is not as much problematic as we may think it is. Similarly, the aestheticization of their architectural language in many (student or not) projects, denounced by a few in the following debate, might not even be something we should be worried about. What seems more worrisome is the idea that we architects seem to have, according to which our projects would act as solutions to problems that they are very much part of. The philanthropic intention, that I would deny to none of the authors of the various projects that we can currently see along these lines, is irrelevant if the effects are (and they often are) detrimental to the people that they were supposed to serve. The reason for it is that these projects are often thought in the retired place of an office, if not of another country. This disconnection, depending on how it is made can at best produce some discrepancies between the abstract space of a white page of paper and the incarnated milieu of reality (this is true for any constructible architectural project); at worst, it can operates as a form of more or less conscious neo-colonialism.
To put it simply, a project (a student one for example) that dramatizes a scenario in which an architecture is designed for an urban situation like a slum, is useful to the architectural debate (see below for a proof) in the context in which it has been created (often the Western world, or similar comfortable conditions). However, such project, if thought as an implementable social and architectural apparatus, should follow the logic of the social construction of its context. In the case of a slum, there should probably not even be a project on paper, but rather, a direct intervention on site in which an architect could indeed be useful to supply a certain expertise to a larger set of knowledge, most of which (s)he does not much about. We (and I very much include myself in it) should then probably stop jumping at the throats of whichever student or architect who designed such scenario in the form of a fiction, and concentrate our efforts to both examining what are the capitalist logic that slums emerge from, as well as determining how an architect could possibly be useful in the elaboration of structures that are produced within an immanent political and social context.
Transcript of the debate
(August 15th, 2013)
Ethel Baraona Pohl: Via Nick Axel: The absurd taken to the extreme [designing “new” slums in Asia], or revisiting Kowloon Walled City?
Fosco Lucarelli: It’s stupid.
Diogo Seixas Lopes: Is it? sorry to intrude but, as a provocation, it seems more dead serious than the infamous pig city by MVRDV. From the urban standpoint, it looks to me as a crossover between a phalanstery and Karl-Marx-Hof or a “no-stop city” for the slums, Pompidou style. in order to address social negativity, perhaps it is necessary to provide a reflection of it instead of fake philanthropy and naïve do-gooders. worse things always came from there, when it comes to architecture. Finally, in some way I always viewed the Kowloon walled city as a “citadel of the people”: a place of popular pride, despite the conditions. Tricky subject, tricky project.
Ethel Baraona Pohl: You’re right Diego in pointing that we need provocations (and I’m still not sure if this one is a provocation) in order to rethink architecture as it is nowadays. But the fact that it has become “trendy” to focus on the aesthetization of favelas and slums as leitmotiv of these provocations is driving the debate out of the social, economic and political implication, which is the most important fact in my opinion.
Joana Sá Lima: It is a deadly serious issue, therefore can’t be taken this lightly. First one should consider the insalubrity of such a volume in this context, and then consider its feasibility (not to talk about all the rest). Top-down solutions unfortunately tend to fail in this cases and architects more than ever should know that. This is someone that obviously has no knowledge about the local situation or another one looking desperately for media attention.
Fosco Lucarelli: And I would add to Ethel that architecture can never be a “solution” for what is caused by economical condition. It is at best an implementation of it. At worst (like for the slums) it is physical representation, not a model to study.
Sasha Cisar: I fully agree what was said above. I find this kind of “aesthetization of slums” (or even romanticization) utterly despicable as a “design proposal.” Irony can be a critical tool, but this totally fails to meet any representation of irony — if I were at least try to find a ‘positive aspect’ here, which I just can’t. Furthermore I agree with Fosco in regards to the economical condition, a friend of mine, Fabienne Hoelzel — as a different model of approach — tries to change those economical conditions which you described that will eventually have effects on urbanism and architecture. she focuses on analyzing and to an extent designing participation and processes rather than architectural interventions.
I mean I understand ones attempt of maintaining the social proximity which one can experience in slums, but what I fundamentally cannot believe is the attempt at recreating and redesigning a slum…I may go out on a limb here, but nobody chooses to live in a slum but is rather forced to do so by conditions imposed upon you (a state of heteronomy so to speak). So to above design proposal rather represents a dystopia than anything else and is utterly uncritical of the conditions on the ground. I would go even further by proclaiming that the architects have utterly misunderstood the conditions on the ground. I am furious…!!!
Stefano Casciani: There’s always a simple and easy solution: put the architects to live there, they will damn the day they decided to be architects.
Ethel Baraona Pohl: Cesar Reyes Najera just found this video, which shows the project being awarded an Archiprix International.
Sasha Cisar: What strikes me that there seems to be a tendency amongst architects concerned about and working on slums and precarious conditions to utilise and design a domino-like concrete structure which then would serve as model for appropriation, free programming and resemble the ever-changing and self-built appearance of slums. That is the case here by transporting the entire slum and garbage collection and recycle into the structure, only slightly similar to the model Aravena used, which UTT applied to their school and sporting facility, what in a more admittedly neoliberal way Pier Vittorio Aureli attempted in regard to the Greek polykatoikia and even someone like Brandlhuber in Berlin. It is merely a side note, but large modernist concrete structures which seem to reemerge as a platform for self-adaptation and flexibility. This is only an observation, but it strikes me as odd.
By the way, the video above rendered me speechless…I must admit.
Diogo Seixas Lopes: Guys, if there’s an aestheticizing process here it is rather bleak. And that is precisely what you are reacting against. These are not beautiful images, but rather scary ones. Nevertheless, I insist that this speculation is quite critical in urban terms as it fosters density and concentration rather than the endless sprawl of favelas. Form is a complicated thing, thus I believe it will remain the main problem for architects. The easy solution, or way out of this, is to forget about architecture for a while and just focus on politics. Realpolitik, so to speak. Unfortunately, slums will carry on thriving for quite a while under the current conditions of capitalist exploitation. So, simply forget about architecture and try to tackle the politics of this problem. This has not been easy during the last 150 years of resistance against the pace of capitalism. That is why the absolute failure of so many NGOs is at once farcical and tragic.
We are far away from the short wondrous times when Adolf Loos and Hannes Meyer attempted to envision social housing in some Red Vienna. Again, if there is a problem, it is firstly political. It lies in another kind of huge “provocation” or “bad irony.” That of Rosa Luxemburg when she demanded “luxury for all.” Not so easy to do it, I guess.
For the rest, concerning our “trade,” I believe the early rants by Manfredo Tafuri about a “critique of architectural ideology” are enough.
Sasha Cisar: I agree with most that you are saying and simply add the claim that by extent architecture should be political and each act of building is political. However if one regards this proposal as a way of reorganizing slums to become densified rather than be sprawling in order to free ground for ‘urban development’ or as Harvey would put it for excess capital, well, you see it could be misused ‘ideologically’ and unintentionally. The problems are political and economical but architecture should not retreat to solely formal engagement or discourse. There is potential for architecture to claim a relevant role regarding those challenges we are facing.
Diogo Seixas Lopes: Ditto, Sasha! I would pull the notch one step further. Before architecture, form is political. This is my point. So, let us start there. That is why one of the most obscene forms of aestheticizing misery are the pictures of Sebastião Salgado. This, despite the sanctimonious discourse he had about denouncing the conditions of poor people. This is also what I feel in this sudden surge of “we care for humanity.” Western world, well-off, middle class agents with “high moral standards” believing the universe is going to be saved in a flash. This, for me, is an even more perverse legacy of Modernism than what you perceptively pointed out concerning the ubiquity of Dom-ino. Fight on.
Joana Sá Lima: Well, this reflect the superficiality and lightness of architecture today. As you pointed out Ethel there is and growing interest by designers and architect to tackle increasing problematics in challenging social areas. What is great. Our focus should be in serving our communities, finding the needs and solving the problems to improve peoples lives. Unfortunately, some architects tend to tackle serious social, political and economical problematics by looking at Google Earth. There are tools developed in Participatory Design, Social Design, etc, conceived in order to help designers interact and actively involve all stakeholders (meaning users, citizens, clients, partners, etc) in the design processes, to insure the product/space/infrastructure designed meets the real needs, is feasible and usable. These processes are of course bottom-up and demand a deep local knowledge and compression. I’m not going to name all the offices successfully implementing it, there are some, unfortunately not enough. We (architects.. well..society in general) have been too slow dealing with these issues and they are growing at a warp speed. Continuing awarding, promoting and misleading young architects with this kind of fallacious projects is not going to help.
Fosco Lucarelli: I mostly agree with Sasha’s arguments about this project, and also, more generally, with the potential for architecture to claim a political and social role, although I tend to see the “formal” and “spatial” engagement as the proper tool that architects may use. Anyway, I’m also largely skeptical of many of those bottom-up processes that Joana refers to: often far from solving any real problem (as I wrote before), they mask their mostly mystifying ideological goals with a “social engagement” able to hide the inherent social conflict in the areas they focus on.
Ethel Baraona Pohl: I agree with the potential for architecture to claim a political and social role, but for really try to envision a possible future I think architects must forget their egos and be humble enough to collaborate and learn from other practices: sociology, politics, economics. We can’t solve this kind of problems only through architecture (we never done, this is the main point in all the failed historic projects like Chandigarh et al.) even if architecture can be really helpful to determine the spaces where this changes can happen.
Nick Axel: This project is shocking, yes, there is no doubt. But I would merely like to emphasize that the shock is not merely negative. This is the type of project that truly questions the role of the architect and architecture itself. Political, social, whatever — let’s not get ourselves distracted. This project is naive, certainly. But looking closer, what is specifically wrong with it? Is the idea of the mass Dom-Ino really the problem, or, the way that the project is used to relocate a vibrant urban community, that debatably exists as it is solely from its location, to 7km outside of the city (a la the sub-prime suburbs to engender blight-flight)? Is the problem the form itself, or the qualities of the form? Honestly, what struck me the most from the section is that living in the interior appears worse than living underground; at least underground you can reach the surface somewhat easily.
Where is the light? The air? Furthermore, the claim that the street is all that is necessary is highly problematic: the street, maybe, but if we were to analyze the streets in the original slum we would likely find an intense network of circulation, that cannot be equated to “streets” in the characteristically rectilinear, perimeter plan that they seem to take on here. Most of all, this project seems to be at fault for its omission of the plan. If we had the plan, if the project was thought through even in the slightest bit from the plan, I feel like a lot of the potential real criticisms that can be launched against it (and not just affective claims of injustice) could have been addressed, or at least more properly discussed.
Francisco Díaz: I agree with you, Ethel. This project seems to be another step in the trend of the “aesthetization of poverty”; architects, as usual, naÏvely believe that they are “doing something political” but what they’re actually doing is preserving the status quo. Sad news for our profession.
Joana Sá Lima: Fosco Lucarelli, perhaps you’ve been spending time in slums and you’ve actively used some of the tools I’m referring to (unfortunately not too used by architects), if so I accept your skepticism and lets discuss it. If not, realize that to design in this context you have to address real problems such as poverty, nutrition, health, water and sanitation, economic empowerment, access to financial services, gender equity…and only with local understanding and community participation you will be able to make some incremental changes and that eventually, could lead to a successful design.
Nick Axel: Francisco, there is a very big difference between doing something “political” and doing something “good” — the Left should have learned that quite a long time ago. architecture IS political. just accept it; there’s no point in debating it. wouldn’t it be better to investigate its effects and not its ‘essence’?
Lets think about this further. How does this project differ from the one that Umwelt did for the Storefront for Art and Architecture?
Ross Wolfe: I found this proposal exceedingly difficult to follow, practically unreadable. What little I could make out of it reminded me of Ballard’s “Concentration City” — a multilevel slum in three dimensions. This has to be, as some have suggested, either a provocation or a cruel joke. As a provocation I think I could actually appreciate its knowing perversity. It incorporates standard populist (“the economically constructed housing block allows its inhabitants to shape and modify the functions within”) and cultural relativist (“the replacement flats are based on westernized models of housing and ignore the cultural and social needs of the people”) critiques of modernism while proposing a structure of truly stupefying concrete proportions. Obviously, this is a case of the empty rhetoric so often invoked concerning “bottom-up” modifiable spaces, in which members of the community are supposedly “empowered” to rearrange their surroundings. Even environmentalist motifs about “recycling” show up in the project description. Yes, it’s an instance of flexibilization, if one wants to use the terminology associated with neoliberalism.
Francisco Díaz: Agree with you Nick Axel, architecture is political — there’s no debating it. My question is “what kind of political argument can be found behind this project?” I’m afraid that when you ask that question, most of the projects of this kind show their naïveté. And the example you bring (Umwelt) is super helpful and has the key to the problem: if two projects with different aims can be represented through the same means and look so similar, perhaps there’s something wrong in one of them…
Diogo Seixas Lopes: Also, maybe take a look at an earlier proposal for the same place at Dharavi. Made by none other than multicorporate giants HOK, and all about “sustainibility” and “participation” as a means to make ends meet. That is, extensive takeover of land ownership. This, to me, looks a tad more absurd.
Joana Sá Lima: This one is pure speculative development, involving millions and pressed by many interests, not at all focusing on the locals needs. The previous is a self-indulgent, naive (prize winning) concept, designed by a misinformed architect, trying to solve a very serious problematic. This is a different discussion Diogo.
Fosco Lucarelli: Joana, to be clear, what you call “real problems such as poverty, nutrition, health, water and sanitation, economic empowerment, access to financial services, gender equity” are secondary evils which result from the present-day capitalist mode of production. Let me quote someone better than me in explaining this:
The so-called housing shortage, (…), does not consist in the fact that the working class generally lives in bad, overcrowded and unhealthy dwellings. This shortage is not something peculiar to the present; it is not even one of the sufferings peculiar to the modern proletariat in contradistinction to all earlier oppressed classes. On the contrary, all oppressed classes in all periods suffered more or less uniformly from it. In order to make an end of this housing shortage there is only one means: to abolish altogether the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class.
Joana Sá Lima: Marxist quotes are not operational design tools. Let’s have a reality check here: this image is from the Mathare slums in Nairobi. We are talking about open air swage, lack of clean water, no garbage collection, no toilets, no official security/governance/ property, no jobs, or secondary schools, high criminality, drug abuse, high raping rate and prostitution, etc and no one interested in solving the problem, neither private or public sector. I challenge you to only address an “architecture issue” and come up with feasible housing solutions using locally available materials, meaning mud, wood, garbage, and corrugated steel plates. Enough with the theories, I would like to see action.
Ross Wolfe: I really am not sure what you think constitutes proof in this instance.
Fosco Lucarelli: Nor am I.
Nick Axel: We cannot overcome capitalism if we do not work in the reality of the present. Moving on…
Fosco Lucarelli: Today’s slums are not much different from the London’s slums described by Engels in 1872, Nick. That situation was as real as it is today. And the structural conditions are pretty much the same.
A distinction also has to be made between “improving local conditions” and eradicating a universal problem.
Nick Axel: Yes, Fosco, I’m not disagreeing with the potentially timeless similarity, but more debating the interpretation of Marxism itself (and as such, the nature of “problems” such as housing, property, etc).
Giorgio Talocci: Dear Fosco and all, sorry to intrude but I read this on my timeline and got my attention…Fosco, the main difference from 19th century is that “slums” were not under siege. Now they are, being many times in central position, preys of speculation for the global capital. Global capital was another word that did not exist, the scale of investment (and then of quickness and fierceness of possible evictions) have quite improved. Third, cities were growing slower enough, and the scale of the problems listed by Joana above was much ‘smaller’ (although relevant already). From the architectural debate side…well, I don’t think this project deserves so many of your attentions, from time to time — it is the fashion of the moment — some firms need some show-off, many times done knowing not so well the realities they’re talking about. As for bottom-up approaches, what to say, my personal experience is that most of them works, but do not often end up on magazines. The ones that do often suffer from naïveté, but there are some exceptions.
Concluding with a wish, before ending my intrusion: I didn’t know these UGO people, but I’d like that this kind of critique was used also against those ‘famous’ adventurous firms like MVRDV, and, in a smaller scale, Urban Think Tank and Elemental — not commenting on MVRDV’s glossy mind speculations…UTT and Elemental instead gave an interesting contribution, but the former are now into “let’s show we are the best and let’s present all we design and research as something exceptional” (not true, many people do much better than them, just have less exposure), and the latter are truly overrated from my point of view. The only well known architect that truly understood the problem and keeps working humbly on that is Teddy Cruz. And then thousands of not known ones.
Ross Wolfe: There are different levels at which a Marxist critique, or even program if you’d like, could figure into this issue. It’s worth remembering that Engels’ point of departure in The Housing Question was a thoroughgoing criticism of another left-wing proposal to eliminate the housing crisis, namely Mulberger’s (whose ideas I think Engels convincingly demonstrated was a Proudhonist).
In a revolutionary situation, other problems present themselves which may admit of solutions deriving from a Marxist theoretical and practical framework — i.e., ending the domestic slavery of women, private spaces assured for all adult individuals, providing shelter and livable conditions for the homeless, reducing traffic congestion, eliminating the distinction between town and country. But the point is not whether or not architects should seek to design structures that have some lasting real-world value in ameliorating dreadful urban situations and conglomerations, but rather whether an adequate solution is even imaginable under capitalist society. Architects can be blamed for certain design oversights or botched planning schemes, but the proper object of criticism lies beyond their purview. The persistent unfreedom of capitalist society will not be overcome simply by amassing a large group of clever, socially-minded architects and urban planners. Even if such a group were able to secure commissions on a large scale, they’d still be beholden to antiquated private property laws and the system of ground rent, not to mention the whims and caprice of their clientele
Giorgio Talocci: Ross, some good experiences within (obviously) a capitalist framework but introducing new forms of tenure and advocating the right to stay in the city for the urban poor have been made in Asia in the last twenty years. If you are interested a good starting point can be the second-to-last number of Environment and Urbanization.
Fosco Lucarelli: Of course you’re not intruding at all, Giorgio. I think everyone here is using this UGO project as a mere pretext for more general discourses. There are lots of other examples you can list, but let’s stick to the principles. About the slums: I would say the opposite: that is most of the time it’s the richest area of the city which finds itself in a state of siege, but anyway, the problem is not much where the slum is or that it be subject to speculation, but that the slums exist in the first place. When I say that the conditions between XIX century and today’s slums are comparable I mean that the structural conditions inherent in their developments are not only comparable but quite the same. Capitalism is always the same (old) in its sociohistorical assumptions (the social relation of domination and exploitation of Capital-Labor) and always new in its social dynamics. Furthermore the dimension of the capital is inherently social and global since its historical genesis, as Marx kept on writing lots of times. As for bottom up practices, whether they be architecture-driven or not, I think Ross already made it clear.
Ross Wolfe: Yes, capital has always, from the moment of primitive accumulation forward, been global and social in concept (logically), if not in object (empirically). De te fabula narratur!
Giorgio Talocci: Well, do you mean “the empty rhetoric concerning modifiable spaces…people empowered to rearrange the surroundings etc…” (quoting Ross)? The issue is that in this case what they call bottom-up lies exactly only in the possibility of “rearranging, modifying,” etc. And this is what many times gets published (see Elemental). What I posted, though a much more boring reading than many texts by Aravena or Brillembourg, concerns a much more holistic process.
Fosco Lucarelli: Yes, that, and the second part of this message in particular.
Giorgio Talocci: Well, of course, that’s why the debate is on multi-stakeholder participatory platforms (blah blah blah), multidisciplinary (blah blah blah), community land trusts (blah blah blah), flexible land and housing tenure (blah blah blah), cooperatives and so on…the “blah blah blah” stands for the many constraints the debate still has to overcome, and for some rhetorics that inevitably springs out of it. But that’s the way to go and, although still framed within the unavoidable contradictions a capitalist system has, it has managed to find a good room for maneuver so far.
Ana María León: Coming late to this discussion — of course capitalism is the same, but it’s a different stage of development. The housing conditions Engels critiqued in Manchester were, to a degree, local (even if already part of a global system). The economic machinery that produces the large-scale slums that exist in the present is global in scope — we are all implicated in it (the nearest manifestation of the Sublime, in the Kantian sense of the term, that i have personally experienced). So the scale of these landscapes is radically different, simply beyond human understanding. If i am following the discussion it might seem the choice is then between looking for change at structural levels and rebooting the system, or looking for patches/temporary solutions within the system to solve more immediate needs. I think the challenge for architecture is the possibility of finding a third way out, a way to enact structural levels and change the conditions in which it is produced. I guess i’m thinking of projects that operate at larger scales, necessarily. As an imperfect example, the metrocable in medellín does not change the housing situation of the slums (it doesn’t even touch it) but it changes it completely at the same time. I guess this is the nearest to that middle ground i can think of.
Fosco Lucarelli: I’m sorry Ana, Giorgio, and Ross (the last ones who posted), but I have to leave the conversation as well. I also thank Ethel for starting and everyone else who participated in this interesting debate!
Cesar Reyes Najera: What a great roundup of opinions and crossed references. As Fosco noted, the slum project was a mere pretext for discourses challenging the nature of the system and our role within it. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t renounce to Joana’s call for action with such convictions and all its consequences. Thanks Ethel and all the rest for making such ideas buzzing around our heads!
Ethel Baraona Pohl: Thanks to all, I was out but just now reading the complete debate. I think the UGO project just pushed out several issues that are really important to discuss (I will read slowly now all the opinions and references). I want to thank you all for sharing your thoughts on this matter.
Ross Wolfe: Without reopening this discussion wholesale, I think there are some basic terms that stand in need of clarification before any judgments can be made about their relationship to architecture. Namely, what is “politics”? Before one determines what architecture is or isn’t, the predicates attached to it must themselves be clarified. It’s bad enough that architecture is subsumable into practically any ontology (I am generally wary of ontological inquiries, but use it here in a loose sense). If just about any old thing qualifies as “politics,” then of course architecture is “political.” As long as it was anything at all, it’d be political. Here, I tried to write up something a little more substantial in reasoning this through. This is how I’d pose the question, with perhaps some provisional suggestion as to a response: Before one determines what architecture is or isn’t, the predicates attached to it must themselves be clarified.