Developing new architectural ideas from Third World slums

Here is an interesting discussion of how some architects are looking to third-world slums for innovations in design:

The lofty vision of “Favela Cloud” touches upon several trends cycling through architecture today. First, it responds to the rising popularity of “architecture for social change,” for which the profession nobly renounces its service to the rich to address the issues of the poor. But the “Cloud” purportedly distinguishes itself from more conventional do-good design because its principle source of inspiration is the slum itself. As eVolo explains, the success of the design hinges on its “additive system that can grow and adapt to its site conditions,” motivated by the existing self-organizing logic of the favela. In other words, the intervention draws from the social and organizational qualities characteristic of the very environment it seeks to improve, a methodology that has its own backstory in architectural discourse, as I’ll explore later. By returning to its point of departure and theoretically folding back into itself, the shiny edifice straddling Santa Marta brings into question if and how architecture can intervene in communities that have developed in the abject absence of a welfare state…

With basic rights to food, potable water, and shelter categorically denied to slumdwellers, decent public architecture is but a pipe dream. Without functioning infrastructure, working sewage systems, proper housing, and designated civic spaces, slum-dwellers are forced to engineer their own systems of order. Waste from the city proper is salvaged in the slums to form constellations of cinderblock shelters fortified with sheets of tin and plastic-bag insulation; the meager space of a home easily and often doubles as a workshop; makeshift marketplaces sprout like weeds in every available space. As urban sociologist Erhard Berner wrote in his 1997 book examining land use in Manila, “Virtually all the gaps left open by city development are immediately filled with makeshift settlements that beat every record in population density.”…

Around the same time when Koolhaas was traveling to Lagos, San Diego-based architect Teddy Cruz was visiting Mexico’s border towns with a similar resolve to study under-the-radar urban phenomena. Cruz observed in Tijuana how developers were importing a superficial image of the American dream across the border in the form of cheap, miniature replicas of the suburbs. “What I noticed is how quickly these developments were retrofitted by the tenants,” Cruz told the New York Times, bringing attention to the makeshift mechanics’ shops and taco stands that quickly took over front lawns and the spaces between the homogenous suburban shells. Here along the border, the ersatz American utopia could not help but evolve into something much more layered and complex.

Cruz studied the individuated forms and programs and exported these lessons back across the border to suburban San Diego, where he was working on a design for a residential development for Latino immigrants. His resulting prototype weaves 12 affordable housing units, a community center, offices, gardens, and spaces for street markets and kiosks into a concrete frame. “In a place where current regulation allows only one use, we propose five different uses that support each other,” Cruz explains in an article for Residential Architect Magazine. “This suggests a model of social sustainability for San Diego, one that conveys density not as bulk but as social choreography.”

Combining technical and theoretical expertise with how people “live on the ground” seems like it could be a winning combination. It is one thing to impose a particular design or program on a group and another to work with them and utilize their own expertise. This can require some humility on the part of trained professionals…it would be interesting to know how this is viewed within the broader discipline of architecture.

I’ve highlighted Cruz’s work before.

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