Non-Design: Architecture’s (Counter-Intuitive) Future

Quinta Monroy development after occupation. © Cristobal Palma

Global architecture underwent a seismic shift in the 20th Century. Governments, keen to mitigate the impoverishing effects of rapid urbanization and two world wars embarked on ambitious programs, pairing with modernists who promised that design could be the solution to social inequality and poverty. Today, the problems inherent in these mid-century tower blocks are well documented and well known, and these modernist solutions to poverty are often seen as ill-conceived failures.

If the 20th century was all about designing to solve social problems, then the 21st century has been about the exact opposite – not designing to solve social problems. These days, it is much more common to see architects praising the social order and even aesthetic of illegal slums, which in many cases provide their residents with a stronger community and higher quality of life than did many formal social housing projects of the past. The task of architects (both today’s and tomorrow’s) is to develop this construction logic: to use design and, rather counter-intuitively, non-design to lift these urban residents out of their impoverished conditions.

More on the social potential of non-design after the break…

Torre David/Gran Horizonte Installation. © Nico Saieh

The emergence and importance of this ‘non-design’ was highlighted by a number of exhibits at the Venice Biennale of Architecture last year – most notably the winner of the Golden Lion, the Torre David/Gran Horizonte installation by Urban Think Tank, Justin McGuirk and Iwan Baan. This installation focused on the remarkable case study of the Torre David, an unfinished and abandoned office tower in Caracas, Venezuela, which has been invaded and appropriated by a community of 2,500 people who would otherwise be living in more typical slum conditions.

The intention of the Gran Horizonte Cafe was to provide visitors the opportunity to discuss this complex issue in a genial setting. Possible interpretations range from a hard-line understanding of the invasion as criminal trespassing, to a liberal understanding of it as a means of self-empowerment, to the creative, efficient occupation of a structure that had stood, wasted and useless, since 1994.

Regardless of one’s opinion on the legality of Torre David’s occupation, it remains an intriguing architectural lesson in community development: the occupants have created not just apartments, but shops and a gym, and residents voluntarily follow a set of self-imposed rules to provide a more pleasant experience for the entire community. These aspects of life in Torre David were explored in detail by Urban Think Tank’s investigation and analysis of the building, and by the photographs provided by Iwan Baan.

The case of Torre David demonstrates the remarkable tenacity and ingenuity of impoverished people. In a structure that would usually be considered entirely unsuitable for living, the process of creating and appropriating their own homes has seeded a true community, where residents not only improve their own lives but help to improve others’ lives.

Torre David/Gran Horizonte Installation. © Nico Saieh

Compare this to the example of many carefully considered, modernist housing developments where residents often experienced the almost complete dissolution of community values. A fundamental difference between these complexes and the Torre David is one of process: whilst residents in Torre David invest their own time and hard work into creating dwellings, residents of the ill-fated tower blocks were given their homes fully formed. As a result, there was no sense of true ownership, particularly in light of the repetitive and unadaptable design of the apartments within, and residents were apathetic when it came to maintaining the structures and communities they lived in – in short, they didn’t feel as though these homes were worth expending energy on.

The installation at the Venice Biennale, and its subsequent award of the Golden Lion, shows that the architecture community is willing to consider the Torre David from new angles: not just from the point of view of legal ownership or empowerment of the poor, but also to learn from this example with the intent of bringing these lessons into everyday practice and understanding.

Another pertinent example from the Biennale was the Angola Pavilion, “Beyond Entropy Angola”. This installation explored a potential scheme to improve the quality of life in the extensive slums (known as musseques) of the Angolan capital Luanda. The basic premise of the scheme was to plant expanses of Bamboo and Arundo Donax to provide a number of advantages: firstly the thin, wispy roots of these plants serve to filter sewage water, making the local environment much cleaner and safer; secondly, as two of the fastest growing plants available, and the fastest at absorbing carbon dioxide, these plants will both clean the air and provide efficient biomass fuels for local people to generate energy (which they can then sell or use for themselves.)

However, as essential to the scheme as the planting was the idea to preserve the existing built character of the musseques. Curator Stefano Rabolli Pansera believes that these settlements ought to be seen as an acceptable example in urban development, saying: “We looked at the morphology of the African city and realized that there is a spatial intelligence in what is defined as informal urban settlements of Luanda, that often is neglected by researchers – and especially it is neglected by the people of Angola and Luanda, that try to import other models like the American city with the gated communities or the Chinese city with the high-rise model, and they don’t realize that their own city could be much more sustainable and much more efficient than any other model we know.”

An often recited mantra of Beyond Entropy Angola is the aim to “change everything without changing anything”. The other curator of the project, Paula Nascimento remarked: “our goal is not to destroy the musseque, the morphology of the musseque. As an architect, I believe that we’re going through a stage that architecture works provided it works for the people whom it serves.”

The highly thoughtful and researched proposal demonstrated by the Beyond Entropy team demonstrates that the spatial logic of informal settlements may in fact provide an economic and ecological benefit; and on the flip-side acknowledges the environmental and social damage that is caused by destroying these communities and replacing them with overly designed social housing. In many ways I think that Beyond Entropy Angola is a more useful exhibit than the Torre David case study, as it presents forward-thinking solutions which could potentially be adapted to multiple locations. Asking questions about the particular case of Torre David may be very interesting, but the Angola Pavilion presents an applicable solution to a problem that is common worldwide.

Quinta Monroy development before occupation. © Tadeuz Jalocha

However, despite all of this recent attention given to the attitude of not designing where it is not welcome, one architecture practice in Chile has been successfully developing their own unique response to this issue for nearly a decade.

Elemental, led by Alejandro Aravena, first confronted the issue of rehousing slum communities when the Chilean government asked them to design replacement dwellings for the informal settlers of the Quinta Monroy area in Iquique, Chile.Despite the location of Quinta Monroy (near to the city center, where land values are higher than is usually affordable in social housing), Elemental were determined to design a solution which would allow the community to remain. With a budget of just US$7500 per dwelling for both land purchase and construction, the architects designed a repeating unit with individual apartments both above and below, each containing a bathroom and basic kitchen, as well as some empty space. With basic sanitation and simple shelter provided, residents were free to divide the space up as they wished, working with years of experience building their own homes in the previously illegal settlement. Each apartment also had access to a defined portion of empty space, which they could occupy when they could afford to do so.

Quinta Monroy first floor plans. On the leftmost unit, the plan is shown as built; on the two right hand units, potential future plans are shown. © Elemental

This design by Elemental successfully mediated the competing issues of slum redevelopment: the humanitarian need to provide infrastructure such as a clean water supply and sewage disposal; the societal and economic imperative of the government to legitimize and control the occupation of the land at a low cost; and finally the psychological desire of residents to have a role in their own destiny, as people who were particularly used to controlling their own domestic situation.

What’s more, in a piece written for Architectural Design Magazine in 2011 Aravena points out that after five years, the $7500 investment by the government, plus around $1000 contributed by the residents has yielded homes that are each worth no less than $20,000. Quinta Monroy was more than just a piece of humanitarian design – it proved to be a positive investment in the local economy.

Quinta Monroy interior before occupation. © Elemental

Following the success of Quinta Monroy, Elemental has deployed similar schemes in cities across Chile, as well as one in Mexico. Clearly these low cost developments, which encourage expansion by residents are a model that can be employed in a variety of locations to great effect, not only improving the living conditions of the poor, but building upon the investment made in the local community by governments.

Forcing ‘top-down’ design upon a community which is used to building their own living environment from the ground upwards is often counter-productive, no matter how well intended. The success of these schemes is based on their grassroots approach and community involvement; when a family commits its time and intelligence to improving its surroundings, they usually take more pride in the end result – and pride has the result of increasing happiness and fostering successful communities. The examples explored above show different approaches to a universal problem: In Caracas, the use of a leftover structure created by mainstream capitalism to provide shelter to the poor; in Luanda, the addition of a single element to improve living conditions without risking expensive and damaging development projects; and finally in Chile, combining the best that traditional architecture has to offer with the advantages of improvised self-building.

Quinta Monroy interior after occupation. © Cristobal Palma

Each of these three methods has advantages and disadvantages: the Torre David example is obviously only possible where there are empty structures to inhabit. The Quinta Monroy typology involves the destruction of existing dwellings, and the top-down approach to would probably cause problems if the community were larger than the 100 or so families in this example. The Angola solution requires careful planning, and the conditions must be right for the plants to grow and do their job. It now becomes the architect’s job to assess which of these approaches will work in a given situation, and how to best adapt them to each specific situation.

The Venice Biennale was very successful in promoting these issues so that they are now at the forefront of architectural culture, but now architectural practices must follow Elemental’s example and put these ideas into practice. What I hope to see in the future is not just continuations of these three approaches, but ideally creative combinations of them and the proposal of similar approaches that could significantly improve the lives of people worldwide.

About the Author, one of our Spring 2013 Interns: Rory Stott is a UK based graduate, gaining his BA in Architecture from Newcastle University. He is most interested in the psychological and social impact of architecture. The only thing capable of distracting Rory from thinking about architecture is NBA basketball. @StottR

Cite: Stott, Rory. "Non-Design: Architecture’s (Counter-Intuitive) Future" 07 Feb 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 Aug 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=329356>

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