Architecture must be defended: informality and the agency of space

To engage in areas where it is needed most, architecture must begin a new critical project to reclaim the inherently political nature of the practice.

Informal urbanism, previously the domain of political economists and social scientists, has recently seen a revival in interest in both mainstream architecture as well as geography, urban studies and critical literature. Informality, or that which exists outside of formal legal-juridical frameworks, has been viewed in myriad ways since its emergence in the early 1970’s in the published works of Keith Hart. Too many to be summarized here, however it is commonly understood as “a state of exception and ambiguity”[1] or as “a dynamic that releases energies”[2] within the urban landscape – slums, pavement-hawkers, self-organising urban services.

Manila, Philippines. Camillo Boano.

Informality may be also defined as “a mode of production of space defined by the territorial logic of deregulation”[3] a symptom of neoliberal economics or “a survival strategy and, as such…a way of evading or manipulating power”[4] traditionally associated with the urban poor. While these definitions span a wide territory, the latter two demonstrate a linkage between an end state, a contingent spatial situation and power apparatuses that create the conditions for such inevitable appearance in cities.

At the same time, the past few years have witnessed a return to the (use of the term) “slum” with a renewed attitude to frame it as an inevitable spatial product of global predatory capitalism.

 In an interesting piece Rao asserts that “slum” captures best the spatialities of historical processes exemplified by contemporary cities[5]. She draws on Davis’s Planet of Slums (2006) and the UN-Habitat’s The Challenge of Slums (2003) to suggest a movement from slum as population and terrain to “slum as theory”. Ananya Roy in this regard supports her claim by outlining an idea of a subaltern urbanism as a way of theorizing the slum. With the megacity becoming a metonym for underdevelopment, third worldism and the global South, Roy recognises the need to develop an insurgent and alternative narrative where resistance and informalities become symbols of the new urban struggle, with the “slum” as its icon.

Despite the great potential in “slum as theory”, to further our understanding of contemporary cities and their constitutive processes, what remains to be investigated is why slums and informality are receiving renewed interests in architecture. Why recent exhibitions such as Design with the Other 90%: Cities exhibit at the UN and MoMA's Small Scale, Big Change received such attention from the industry and general public? Why Hustwit’s film Urbanize was so fully covered by the press? And why Stefano Boeri, star architect, dedicated his last curatorial endeavor to the topic in Sao Paulo Calling? While architectural magazines too have a renewed focus on slums demonstrative in editions of Lotus International 143 (2010) and 145 (2011), Harvard Design Magazine, Architectural Design May 2011, and Il Magazine dell’Architettura, n. 53, (2012) 

Another way of doing architecture

Within the renaissance of interest in informality, the recently published Spatial Agency project led by Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till attempts to uncover more holistically, another way of doing architecture, one that eschews the image of the architect as individual hero, replacing it with an idea of architect as agent, acting and collaborating with, and on behalf of others; a sort of contemporary version of the barefoot architects immersed in contested metropolitan landscapes rather than the remote or colonial.

The book contains a vast array of examples and practices which view informality not as the negation of planning, the dark site of modernization, but as a variegated form of architecture — a resource to be shaped and directed, not eradicated in the ethos of tabula rasa planning: but with renewed interest in a more difficult practice which combine ethics with aesthetics, beauty with scarcity. 

Turner’s legacy: freedom to build

Fundamental to such “expansion” was the pioneering work of John Turner, a British architect who spent time working in the squatter settlements of Peru from 1957-1965 whilst working both at the Architecture Association and at UCL’s Development Planning Unit; and whose work set the scene for subsequent debate on housing policy, community development and the role of architecture in the global South.

Turner's central thesis was that housing is best provided and managed by those who are to dwell in it rather than being centrally administered by the state. In the self-building and self-management of housing and neighborhoods, Turner asserted that the global North had much to learn from the rapidly developing cities of the global South. Through a number of empirical studies, he demonstrated that neighborhoods designed with local groups worked better since people were experts on their own situations, and thus should be given the 'freedom to build', a phrase that became the mantra for a future generation of architects. Whether this freedom was granted by the state or wrestled from it through squatting was less important.

The central idea is that the state as well as private professionals such as architects and engineers, act as enablers, resulting in a shift in thinking that prioritizes experience and local know-how over technocratic and professionalized forms of knowledge. In contrast with the 'aided self-help' policies of the World Bank, for which Turner is frequently credited, his original vision was far more radical contending that residents should not only build their own houses and neighborhoods, but that they should also have control over their neighbourhood’s finances and management.[6]

Turner set a precedent in thinking on housing and informality, on slums and architecture that still remains to this day and has inspired a significant number of professionals and ideas, including Nabeel Hamdi, the co-housing movements, the participatory architects of the 60s and 70s, the ‘barefoot’ architects movement, and more indirectly progressive architecture groups such as: Elemental (Alejandro Aravena, Chile), Estudio Teddy Cruz (San Diego/Tijuana), Urban Think Tank (Caracas/Zurich), and the Community Architect Network (South East Asia).

Of particular note, Nabeel Hamdi was a key pioneer of participatory action planning, his 2004 book, Small Change, has been highly influential in explicating the role which informality plays in urban life.[7] It sets out a way of thinking on cities that gives precedence to small-scale, incremental change over large-scale projects, top down interventions. He demonstrates that the trickle-down effect advocated by conservatives everywhere does not produce the sort of large-scale change that is predicted the mainstream. It is instead the trickle-up effect of self-organised systems that contribute the biggest change.

Professionals interface with communities and the devaluation of design

In reading Turner’s legacy for a later generation of architects, planners and practitioners, his emphasis in rethinking the relationship between community and architects has lead however, to a process of de-spatialization within architectural initiatives. Some more radical Turner-inspired projects, called for a ‘keeping at distance’ approach to architecture and design, while others called for ‘experts’ not to dominate community decision-making processes, and instead to simply listen to the desires and aspirations of the ‘people’. In other examples the key role of the design professional seems to be the translation of aspirations and negotiations between households into a site master plan through typologies and models reducing the design process to a restrictive rather than revelatory process.

There exists a tension between isolated, site-specific interventions, Hamdi’s small changes, and the scalability and wider potency of such practices; and so simultaneously we witness calls for architects to be integral to development planning – albeit with an expanded politico-critical apparatus and with broadened contextual understanding.

But can architecture reclaim its social role? The spatial dimensions alone certainly cannot assure the success of social projects or programmes, but an attention to space remains fundamental to moving toward political emancipation and possible empowerment for the urban poor.

Architecture must be defended: a series of challenges

With such brief reflections in mind I adopt the affirmative statement “architecture must be defended”. Architecture must begin to engage in a new critical project to reclaim the political and social natures of the practice. Such reclamation can contribute to a broader rediscovery of the inherently political nature of space, necessarily produced in contestation and dissensus, in turn revealing the lines of power and agency that are written and rewritten in cities.

We must defend architecture from the pessimism that has been attributed to it in order to utilise the practice’s true potential. Such action, intellectual and practical, calls for a deeper reorientation between politics and aesthetics, not simply a reordering of power relations between groups, but the creation of new subjects and heterogeneous objects. In doing so, architectural design must take different forms, from a conscious act of not intervening physically in the built environment to the production of spaces that explicitly challenge dominant ideological perspectives, and engage with issues at a level beyond the merely technical, aesthetical and physical.

When thinking on informality and design the practice of the urban designer must be deconstructed and recalibrated in order to gain a better understanding of how to deal with the urban project and more specifically in order to deal with the ‘not-designed' and the 'un-designable’.  Some challenges arise:

Firstly there is a need to work against non-critical engagement with the urban environment. Specifically, instead of looking to formally change the physical and formal environment, designing for informality and in informality.

Secondly, we must move away from a certain narrow vision of architectural and urban design, characterized by the mere provision of solutions. Instead seeking to adopt a more nuanced and critical becoming of what Richard Buckminster Fuller’s famously called the new kind of designer, a “synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist, and evolutionary strategist”[8].

The above leads us to a third challenge related to dealing with informality as a constituent material of the everyday urban. Recent urbanization has been characterized by poverty and insufficient infrastructures for organizing housing, employment and basic living and social needs. In many cities today, these services are being self-organised both individually and collectively. Politics here requires one to not romanticize “the encroachment of the ordinary”[9] nor conceptualise informality as an aesthetic of slums but instead approach the issue as “possibility space” where space is both a source of oppression and of liberation.

Investigating and working in informalities have allowed us develop trans-design-research that, despite its inherent forward-looking nature, does not fixate on elements, images and forms, but on their processes, their potentialities, which – in a way redefines architecture.

[1] A. Roy, Urban Informality. Toward an Epistemology of Planning, «Journal of the American Planning Association», vol. 71, n. 2, 2005, pp. 147-158.
C. Balmond, Informal, in M Gausa et alli (editors), Metapolis Dictionary of Advanced Architecture: City, Technology and Society in the Information Age, Actar, Barcelona, pp. 343.
Roy, Strangely Familiar: Planning and the World of Insurgence and Informality, «Planning theory», vol. 8, n.1, 2009, pp: 7-11.
D. Fabricius, Resisting Representation: The Informal Geographies of Rio de Janiero, «Harvard Design Magazine» Vol. 28, Spring/Summer, 2008 pp. 1-8.
V. Rao, V. Slum as theory: the South/Asian city and globalization, «International Journal of Urban and Regional Research», vol. 30, n.1, 2006, pp. 225–232.
J. Tuner, Freedom to Build: Dweller Control of the Housing Process, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1972
N. Hamdi, Small changes, Earthscan, London, 2004.
R Buckminster Fuller, Ideas and Integrities, Prentice Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1963
Bayat, A., Life  as Politics . How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, Stanford University Press, 2009.

About the author

Dr. Camillo Boano is an architect, urbanist and teacher. He is currently Senior Lecturer at Development Planning Unit, UCL, where he directs the MSc in Building and Urban Design in Development. He is also the coordinator of the DPU summerLab initiative. He is also one of the co-directors of the UCL Urban Lab.