Beyond Charity

Traditionally the poor of the world have not had access to banking as they are deemed not credit worthy. This presents a problem as one cannot make money without having any in the first place especially in areas where jobs are scarce. Those who have no choice but to take out a loan are forced to use loan sharks who charge exorbitant interest rates which most cannot repay, thus enslaving and sending those who took out the loan further into poverty.

A viable alternative to loan sharking and traditional banking is what is called microcredit. The idea of this loan system is to give small amounts of money to groups of people in need. This group based credit approach ensures loans are repaid due to the peer-pressure of the group. The idea of this system originally came about when Professor Muhammad Yunus was teaching economics at Chittagong University in Bangladesh. He felt useless teaching those who could barely afford to eat economics in the classroom, therefore he set off into the streets of Dhaka to see how he could be instead helpful. While conversing with those in the street he found that many people were enslaved to loan sharks, of those he talked to, 42 people were unable to get out of this situation. He decided to give them the money to free themselves and as soon as they were able to do so, they repaid Yunus.(1) This anecdote is the foundation for Grameen Bank.

The goal of Grameen Bank, founded by Professor Muhammad Yunus, is to break the cycle of poor generation after generation by allowing the them to borrow small amounts of money to invest in either a business or agriculture. This process is called microcredit and as Muhammad Yunus states it “is intended to help poor people work their way out of poverty.” (1) In contrast to Grameen bank, the traditional banking system and loan sharks, only push those in poverty further down. These business models are focused on making a profit rather than aiding those in need. The interest earned by Grameen bank as opposed to typical banks is that it only uses interest to allow new loans to occur so that other members of the community are aided. Grameen bank focuses on elevating the poor and the community as a whole by allowing them through their loans a means to lift themselves out of poverty.

Throughout time the microcredit method has helped many poor families in Bangladesh and has since been transferred to other poor areas of the world. In addition to this expansion, the idea of microcredit has also been re-imagined as a means of aiding those who find themselves unable to afford healthcare or in situations of natural disasters. During times of natural disaster Grameen Bank dedicates itself to the welfare of its members by acting as a humanitarian organization to those affected.(1) On the healthcare front, Grameen Healthcare was founded upon the same principles as Grameen Bank. At Grameen healthcare no one will be turned away from receiving the care that they need. Payment is negotiable and can be done when you have the ability to do so, taking the stress out of healthcare.(1)

The ideas established by Professor Muhammad Yunus understands the necessity of the poor to get loans and repay, not by fear but by trust. The idea of microcredit allows those who take out loans the ability to get the money they need without much stress and in addition keeping their dignity in the process. This allows those getting loans the ability to elevate themselves by their own talents.

(1) SMA News: Interview with Professor Muhammad Yunus: Edited by: Dr. Toh Han Chong


The Role of an Architect; Past, Present, Future

The role of the architect has changed quite drastically throughout the years of the professions existence. The architect began as a jack of all trades in which along with designing buildings the architect was typically a painter, sculpture, and an engineer. Years later the role of architect focused to simply buildings but still kept some remnants of being a jack of all trades. Architects fashioned themselves with knowledge of a great number of subjects rather than actually having the abilities themselves, in a sense they became the overarching organizer. I would argue that this is the state of the architecture profession as I write, however where will it go?

As the world becomes further networked and our resources become further stressed, architecture will become less of an elite art and instead make its way into the common forum. The reason for this is twofold. First, the expanding number of people living in informal/unrecognized settlements which demand architecture solutions to their problems. Second, and also concurrently,  the formal cultures in which architecture is designed is also changing. To fill this new requirement the role of the architect must shift towards a spatial agent, or in other words, an instigator, someone who sets the ball rolling and then steps back to see the amazing outcomes.

Several architects have already begun the transition and have made the jump quite successfully. What is most compelling about this new order of architecture is that both the formal and informal benefit through collaborative learning especially with ideas for sustainability, technology, and community. It is unfortunate however that the formal typically does not see the good that has come of this cross pollination and instead focuses on the negative, this almost always leads to pushing the informal away. It could be said that the informal through this paradigm becomes somewhat of a laboratory in which no one is afraid to innovate through trial and error. (2)

One example of two cities learning from each other is that of Tijuana and San Diego which Teddy Cruz writes about in great detail. Through improvisational construction techniques and the distribution of debris from San Diego, Tijuana has been constructed; Tijuana is a city which “constructs itself from the waste of the other.” (2) So Tijuana gets America’s trash and uses it to their advantage, great, but what are we really doing to help?

Running with the premise that we have established (Tijuana uses our trash to build their city), Teddy Cruz has fashioned a frame which can be hinged to create any sort of form. This frame acts as the glue combined with the discarded materials from San Diego to create a substantially more desirable dwelling. It does not simply stop there. These frames can also be used as infrastructure. In some cases a refillable, clip clip-on fiber-glass water tank containing a weeks worth of water can be strapped to the frame.(2)

It was hinted before, but what exactly are those in the formal settlements gaining from all of this. What we have here is an free, open, and exciting laboratory in which we can test a plethora of infrastructural and construction techniques which can then be applied to any city. This is an increasingly exciting premise which we should take full advantage of.

1) Spatial Agency

2) Tijuana Case Study: Teddy Cruz

Mapping as an Initiator

Mapping is been  typically thought of merely as a means to catalog what is in a particular space but new forms of mapping have uncovered the potential for mapping to instead become a generator uncover what could become of a given space.(1) This agenda of sorts has always been hidden within the practice of mapping. This is due to the fact that mapping has always had an abstract nature; resulting in selection, “…omission, isolation, distance, and codification.”(1) What this ends up meaning is that through the mapping process certain things become evident without any conscious effort of actually doing so.

Moving from mere unconscious discovery to deliberately harnessing the potential in this newly discovered, though not technically new mode of representation offers an innovative look into a somewhat forgotten construct of many cities; the slums. The architecture firm MMBB Arquitetos has been researching new interventions and how they affect the emergence of a new social class living in the slums of the world’s most rapidly growing cities.

There are two projects in Sao Paulo highlighted in the reading Filling Voids, both having to do with water and sanitation in slums; one named Watery Voids the other Antonico Creek Urban Project.(3) The general rule here is that the solution to an urban problem in one area is more than likely found in another; this means looking at the big picture, the entire city. This process can be done through the use of critical mapping, in other words, mapping with intent to find discoveries.

The storm-water reclamation reservoirs setup by the Brazilian government to solve the flooding problem in Sao Paulo is the basis for the Watery Voids project. The idea proposed by MMBB is to “reconcile the metropolitan and the local scales of these interventions.” This project has set out to take advantage of resources at hand to generate communities. Most of the ideas put forth involve the integration of the reservoirs with the urban fabric in order to allow the community to interact with the water.(3) The second project in Sao Paulo, provides those living in favelas open outdoor space, essentially park space running parallel to an open run-off canal. Again, the intention here is to provide space for communities to blossom.

Other such projects revolved around combating both the social and physical spread of cities with large slums have taken place in India. One of these many projects beginning with a study which concludes that slums are consistently located along natural drainage paths.(2) It has become the general theme that the upgrading and integration of slums to the rest of the city is a difficult task, however, the only true way to accomplish such a difficult task is by proposing solutions which are mutually beneficial to both the slum and the larger extent of the city.(2) A networking project located in Indore sets out to create integrated infrastructure which for sewage and storm drainage, and fresh-water which follows the natural drainage paths the Khan and Saraswati Rivers. This particular project not only provides and removes water from the city as a whole but also provides the slum communities with an added sense of security (having personal bathing facilities and no longer being at risk of attack in a public bathing facility) and decrease the hardships which families in the area face day in and day out.(2)

These infrastructure building initiatives bolster the community and lead to an improved quality of life. These dramatic improvements though initiated by the government are then carried on by the community with vigor in other forms.

(1) James Corner: Agency of Mapping

(2) Cynthia Davidson: Slum Networking

(3) Franco de Mello: Filling Voids

The Innovative Approach

The issues surrounding slum clearing can be summed up in the following quote from Slumlifting; “Approaches that involve large-scale, rapid change have razed slums, relocated populations,and infused poverty zones with cash through major public works, but have failed to eradicate the problem precisely because complex systems such as cities can only absorb so much change at one time.”(1)

Time has shown us countless times that simply clearing slums results in an infinite number of new problems. Due to this, the only clear solution to aid those living in slums is to empower those in slums, infiltrate the slums, learn from the slums, and ultimately design a networked solution to these discoveries found in the process.

An issue with planning for these slums is the fact that they, until recently are somewhat hidden from public eye. This has begun to change with the advent of Google Earth and even more recently the designation of Rio de Janeiro as the site for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Both of these events are in a sense an instigator to, as highlighted previously, find a networked solution to the problems associated with slums.

The Sustainable Living Urban Model Laboratory (SlumLab) toolbox, which was designed by Urban Think Tank (UTT) was devised to unpack these issues, sifting through them addressing problems encompassing five themes: “transportation infrastructure, water and sanitation, density and verticality, slum morphology, and local footprints/efficiency.”(1)

It is quite obvious that the categories established by UTT to tackle are, to put it bluntly, things we take for granted, however the solutions to these problems are rather innovative. For instance the Metrocable transit system for the favela San Augustin in Caracas carries patrons 1.3 miles down the hillside to connect with the cities metro system.(1) This solution not only connects the favela with the rest of the city in an energy-efficient, low cost way, but does so without the interruption of the densely populated area below it.

Other solutions solve even larger problems on the list such as water and sanitation through a network of individual rainwater harvesting; water can be collected during the rainy season and stored for use during the dry season. This solution is extremely valuable as water in Caracas now costs more than gasoline.(1) But what about Sanitation? Lack of proper sanitation causes a plethora of disease based issues. One solution, dry toilets are an exceptional answer to this. These toilets have been tested in Caracas and are awaiting to be approved by the government.(1)

It was only until recently that favelas have gained electricity, but this electricity isn’t typically from the grid, at least in a legal way, instead those living in the slums steal electricity by tapping into power lines etc. This process of tying into the grid is not only used for electricity, it is also used for water, the term for the illegal connections made to the grid is called Gatos, meaning “Cats”.(2) Interestingly enough, UTT is researching ways to change this, allowing those living in favelas to get their electricity by cheap legal means, that being using the common favela roof material corrugated metal as a solar panel.(1)

Favelas are a postmodern construction, thus they need new creative ways of solving their issues.(2) That said, with roughly 1/3 of the worlds population living in slums, a shift in the type of design by professionals will come about, this as illustrated above, has already become underway.

1) Slumlifting by Alfredo Brillembourg of Urban Think Tank

2) Resisting Representation by Daniela Fabricius

Getting Results

With the enormous increase in the population especially in urban areas, we are struggling to find a humane solution to the overcrowded, temporary, and erroneous spaces one third of the worlds population is living in, the slums. Throughout time we have made many attempts at “helping” these people, but it usually ends up destroying their homes, displacing them, forcing them to again, fend for themselves, creating more of a problem than was originally present. But what can professionals do to design for these people, when the shiny skyscraper or clean beautiful city is what we envision ourselves to design.

This is unfortunately what happens a great deal of time, slums are cleared for this expensive great design, in the name of capitalism. This doesn’t have to be though, we can design beautiful things as we want, prove the capitalists wrong, provide a wonderful environment where slum dwellers can create an economy and make money, and help the people live overall better lives. It has been done, and is highlighted in the book Design With The Other 90%: Cities.

Most of the projects outlined in the book are an attempt to provide a framework for success, in other terms giving them a compass or simply pointing them in the right direction, whispering, this is the right way to go. This method provides the framework of the formal, that we believe works, while still providing the means to construct and design the way the people in slums have been accustomed to; piece by piece, typically with found construction materials.

In the chapter Designing Inclusive Cities, Cynthia Smith tells a man she interviewed from the slums that she intended to “find successful design solutions to rapidly expanding informal settlements”, she then goes on to explain that the most promising of these solutions, “were hybrid solutions that bridge the formal and informal city.” (1) Though she claims these are hybrid solutions, I can’t help but understand them as infusing the informal with the formal, rather than a true hybrid, examples of this would be bringing bank loans and social security to those living in the slums of Bangkok (2).

Other solutions such as registering and providing brightly colored and numbered vests to drivers of illegal or unregulated motor-taxis allows the demand to be met for cheap transportation in the slums.(3) This solution seems much more of a hybrid solution than and not simply providing what we deem necessary things like social security and bank loans (thought probably very help for those living in slums).

Participatory planning (similar to the “kit of parts” or “framework” discussed in paragraph three), another great solution to conquering the slum’s problems. In Diadema in Brazil, by the use of these participatory planning methods, its citizens “drew up plans and allocated the resources necessary to drop the murder rate from 140 per 100,000 to only 14 per 100,000 in 10 years. (4)

Another strategic example, not necessarily participatory but one of linkages, was the design for a cable public-transportation system in Medellin, Columbia. This solution allows those living in the poorest neighborhoods to travel safely and gain access to the infrastructure (libraries, business centers, schools, medical facilities, etc. provided in the more wealthy areas of town. (5) This holistic linkage solution allows the city to be incorporated into one united body rather than the slums acting as a parasite to the wealthier portions of town.

These examples attempt to incorporate the slums rather than shun them which is typically the case.The infrastructure most of us take for granted that provides us with knowledge and stability are finally being provided to those who are hard-working but destitute.

1) Cynthia Smith. (Designing Inclusive Cities), Design with the Other 90%: Cities. P. 13.

2) Cynthia Smith. (Designing Inclusive Cities), Design with the Other 90%: Cities. P. 13.

3) Cynthia Smith. (Designing Inclusive Cities), Design with the Other 90%: Cities. P. 13.

4) Cynthia Smith. (Designing Inclusive Cities), Design with the Other 90%: Cities. P. 16.

5) Cynthia Smith. (Designing Inclusive Cities), Design with the Other 90%: Cities. P. 16.

Land of Promise?

It seems to be almost ingrained in our minds that cities are the land of opportunity and that moving to them will almost overnight transform a hard working person into someone of stature and wealth. This false promise is what has and continues to bring immigrants to the United States. Taking a step back and forgetting the United States as a whole, let us focus on the city itself as a generator of “fake” opportunity.

In The Right to the City , David Harvey states countless times that cities are the device of “geographical and social concentrations of a surplus product.” What exactly does this sentiment mean? “Capitalists have to produce a surplus product in order to produce surplus value; this in turn must be reinvested in order to generate more surplus value.”(The Right to the City) Basically in order for me as a capitalist to make money, I cannot simply break even on my investment, if I want to invest again to make more money. As stated before cities allow this to happen. This leads to the obvious link between capitalism and urbanization.

Throughout time cities have been transformed due to capitalism and the sparkling, pristine mega city, the “generic city” as Koolhaas calls it, becomes a playground for the rich and hell for the poor. Cities, though they provide opportunity, provide it only to certain classes, thus producing a social ladder which is not climbable. It is heartbreaking to know this when thousands of people have come from all over the world to climb the not climbable. This has proved to be true time and time again.

The first example of capitalist city morphing due to surplus is that if Paris in the mid 1800s. At this time Paris was in a state of unemployment and poverty, Napoleon then took power and promised prosperity. To deal with this he set out building up infrastructural and other grand works around the world such as the Suez Canal, in France, other infrastructural entities such as improved railway network, harbors, and water control, allowed people to get back to work. Back in Paris Napoleon hired Haussmann to revitalize the city’s public works. During this revitalization process, Haussmann demolished anything that stood in his way of transforming Paris into the Utopian paradise he imagined in his head. Many neighborhoods were destroyed, in those neighborhoods were the poor and unemployed which the revitalization projects were originally meant to “help”. In essence the poor and destitute were thrown under the bus in order to make happy the capitalist monster.

This series of destroying impoverished in order to boost the capitalist villain does not stop in Paris, in fact it has happened many times since and continues to happen. In New York City,  Robert Moses attempted to re-engineer the city, again by building up the infrastructure for the extremely wealthy. Again many neighborhoods containing the poor or working class suffered the wrath of Moses. Jane Jacobs, a writer and activist, sought to derail his plans and eventually, Moses’s ideals were no longer favored.

It is apparent that this “infrastructure building” always stands in opposition to the poor, those who can do very little to stop the destruction and bullying. To reflect back on the past readings of this class,  the slums of Mumbai have been marked for the same destructive fate as the previous examples, again, to boost consumerism and capitalism.

There has to be a way to allow both the necessary capitalist agendas while aiding the destitute. Perhaps though, in the current state of things, these two notions are like oil and water. Let us hope for our future that the needs of the people are taken into account during the development of cites rather than turning them into monotonous land unfit for living.

Technology and the Movable City

Speed has always been a powerful word in the construction industry. It has paved the way for new technology, both low and high tech, cheap and expensive, low and high quality. Speed has also been key in shaping post disaster, post war, and rapidly developing areas. Prefabrication, historically has been the answer to these three great problems. That said, the innovative technology that many masterminds have come up with rarely sticks with prefabrication, unfortunately due mostly to cost.

The speed in construction came from a necessity to solve a problem. These problems throughout the ages have been as  varied as the solutions. The article 100 Years of Humanitarian Design catalogs the many prefabricated housing designs which made a mark on history. What it doesn’t catalog however is what can be called the final chapter, the slum dwelling. It is the culmination of all the different types prefabricated houses; including both good and bad qualities. As a lead up to this cumulative prefabricated housing typology, a background of its predecessors is in store.

To begin, an earthquake in the early 1900’s destroyed much of San Francisco. The answer to the housing lose problem was to supply its population with small prefabricated rentable wooden cottages. Worried about permanent squatters in the city’s parks, San Francisco set up a system where renters of the cottages would become owners if they moved them from the city’s parks onto a permanent lot. Several years later 5,343 of the original 5,610 had been relocated; solving multiple problems in one foul swoop.

Another example of prefabricated housing is the Sears house. These houses were available starting in 1908 and ending in 1940 and sold nearly 100,000 homes. These houses could be put up in about 90 days with around 30,000 parts delivered by train car. These models shined in both ease of constructability and quality of the end product. In addition these houses cost only a fraction of the average early to mid century home.

The last example of prefabricated house that will be covered was developed by futurist Buckminster Fuller called the Dymaxion House. Rethinking the conventional house which made “no structural advances in 5,000 years” Fuller designed a house which made efficient use of both materials and structure.This house although seemingly unrelated to the slums of today has one thing in common. The fact that it requires next to no maintenance (the outside of the Dymaxion House is clad in aluminum).

The slums of the world should be categorized as prefabrication in its most crude sense. As a way of further understanding this notion, consider what prefabrication means to the building; cheap, readily available materials, and easy to construct. This aligns almost directly with the dynamic assembly of a slum.

First, Most, if not all slum building materials are found materials; plywood, cinder-blocks, corrugated metal for example, making them both cheap and easy to obtain near and around slums. In addition, the construction of slums is done by the squatters  themselves, obviously this dictates them very easy to construct. To reiterate, the common slum dwelling is in essence the next chapter in cheap, disposable, movable, pseudo temporary housing, akin to a double wide trailer. The most important thing to note is that each and every new version of temporary housing typology was designed to solve a problem.

1) 100 Years of Humanitarian Design

2) Slums and Urbanization

3) PREVI-Lima

Slums as Emergence

The “answer” to the three readings The Pattern Match, Emergence in Architecture, and Nonorganic Life can be asserted through a multiplicity of lenses. That said however; the ideas that will be cataloged in the following paragraphs will be pertaining directly to the kinetic or informal city as that has been the scope of the class thus far.

Emergence can be explained as “how natural systems have evolved and maintained themselves, and a set of models and processes for the creation of artificial systems that are designed to produce forms and complex behavior, and perhaps even real intelligence.”(1) This relates to the informal city in the ways that they grow. Their layout and structures within have grown organically; meaning that the city has grown in such a way to exclude planning, it literally just happens that way. These types of cities grow from just a few people living together into a full blown metropolis, perhaps by chance, but mostly for the necessity of something. This something allows them to actually very well (for the people who live there), while much of the world spends time and money developing large schemes for zoning etc.

This organic and chaotic growth, on occasion allows great things to sprout, means of entrepreneurship which perplex researchers as their success continues to rise. This notion of entrepreneurial excellence turned into study by the developed (structured) world relates to the definition of emergence in that a natural system (think, dabbawallas or Alaba) is being studied and learned from, in hopes of future use in the structured world. In a way just like how researchers learned from the design of termite mounds (how they mound’s design allows it to stay at a constant temperature) and now can apply it to building design, in a sense it seems like a form of same species semi-biomimicry.

In addition the reading Emergence in Architecture alludes to the idea of buildings in a city as fabric(2); that they are not one singular entity but instead are a continuous surface that has energy and life. This, I believe this is an excellent representation of the informal city. Changing, morphing recycling (building materials and everything else), constant motion of selling and buying, popup festivals, etc. add to the life energy and flow of the city.  A less abstract demonstration of the informal city as fabric is the obvious, the aesthetics of the city. All the buildings in the city morphing together (sometimes literally using the same walls to hold up their roofs). In addition the wide array of materials in which they are constructed when multiplied by thousands turns into a beautiful, patterned, continuous landscape landscape (shown below in an image of an Indian slum)(3).

The reading Pattern Match poses the question rhetorically, “Do cities learn?”(4) How might that notion of learning cities be applied to the informal city? This though is not your typical type of learning, it is learning unconsciously, just like computers do, to draw conclusions from patterns. I will answer the previous question by saying that these informal cities learn to expand, multiply, and exist by the same notion as or immune systems do, simply by existing and confronting issues over time. Again, this is something seemingly unconscious and unplanned, again, just like our immune systems. These interesting correlations of pattern, nature, and the informal city may give us some insight into learning from the uncontrollable.

(1) Emergence in Architecture

(2) Emergence in Architecture

(3) Iaac (blog)

(4) The Pattern Match

Handmade City

The dichotomy between the static and kinetic city is a fight between functionality and history. The historical notion of imperialism which occurred in India has a prominence in the past by the British but has been subconsciously re envisioned by the citizens of India into something new in recent times. Imperialism by new definition has become the overtake of old static structures with new kinetic, temporary places of occupation.

These new kinetic places of occupation become spaces of culture, socialization, and economy. “A city in constant motion where the very physical fabric is characterized by continuous change.”(1) The exciting thing about this format of city as opposed to the typical Western static city is the ability for the character and culture of its people to flourish  and practically explode through the streets. For example during the months of August and and September the Ganesh festival transforms numerous neighborhoods with lights and other decorations. During this time numerous temporary structures are set up to house the idol and those there for the celebration. (2) “Within the Kinetic City, meanings are not stable; spaces get consumed, reinterpreted and recycled  The Kinetic City recycles the Static City to create a new spectacle.”(3)

Since the static city structures have some historic value  preservationist fight the notion of ever changing city. it should be noted that the static city structures intrinsically stay the same in their form while they are continuously reinvented to fit the the needs of those in the city who actually use them. Buildings are for the people to use, why should it be a problem to use the buildings for how the public deems necessary. The culture and necessities of life should influence building’s use, not historical contexts. What the people want should not be fought but instead embraced. That said “The kinetic city is not a design tool but a demand that conceptions of urbanism create and facilitate environments that are versatile and flexible.”(4)

The kinetic city due to its fast paced metabolism is a breeding ground for entrepreneurship. One of these extraordinary entrepreneurial enterprises are the dabbawalas. Coming from the farmlands and coming to the city to make money to feed their families, the dabbawalas have created a monopoly. (5) The dabbawalas job is the definition of kinetic. Their job is to deliver food to the customer’s workplace from the customer’s home. This service allows the customer to get a home-cooked meal from usually their wife while at work. This service does more than just give a tasty meal to the customer. The dabbawalas in addition to delivering tasty meals allow its customers to feel close to home especially when many of their customers are gone from 7 in the morning until 7 at night. In addition, it gives the poor to middle class (their demographic) a chance to know what it feels like to have a servant, the dabbawalas are the closest thing many of them will get to this.(6)

As the imposed static structures of imperialism are overtaken by the kinetic Indian culture, we must let it happen, informality works for India and has sprouted numerous entrepreneurial masterpieces such as the dabbawala system.

(1) “Living in the Endless City”, London School of Economics, pg 110

(2) “Living in the Endless City”, London School of Economics, pg 110

(3) “Living in the Endless City”, London School of Economics, pg 111

(4) “Living in the Endless City”, London School of Economics, pg 115

(5) “Dabbawalas, Tiffin Carriers of Mumbai: Answering a Need for Specific Catering”, Marie Percot, pg 4

(6) “Dabbawalas, Tiffin Carriers of Mumbai: Answering a Need for Specific Catering”, Marie Percot, pg 3-4