I’d like to take as my starting point the blog entries posted here by Proyectos Arqui5 about their experiences designing upgrading projects in barrios in Caracas, Venezuela. I’m struck by the sense of frustration and urgency in Ms. Soonets’ and Ms. Pocaterra’s writing. We in the US can only imagine the strange reverses they are witnessing which are, in their view, resulting in the downgrading of the planned city. They describe a professional context in which laws and sources of political support are frequently turned upside down, and projects that have been in planning for years are inexplicably stonewalled.
In thinking about the challenges of practicing architecture in such a context I thought back to my own education at UC Berkeley and my architectural research in favelas in Sao Paulo in the mid-1990s, when the idea of architects designing projects in squatter settlements would have sounded quite bizarre to most people. At that time, studying community design had gone out of style. Computer-generated rendering was beginning to be taught, so that a student could put a glittering skin over any form and present it as a building. Most students’ focus was on the building as an object, not on design in the service of users (in spite of the best efforts of the faculty) and the real estate boom of the last fifteen years saw many of us working on large, costly buildings.
The knowledge that we spend so much of our time mastering – complex planning and building codes, sophisticated materials, structural, lighting, HVAC, and LEED requirements – is specific to the formal context and has little to no relevancy in a less formal setting. Instead, relevant areas of knowledge might include participatory design, local social, political, and commercial practices, health, violence, sanitation, transportation and water issues, local land use policy, tenure and access to credit, sustainability in the context of the local geography, the socio-economic programs that have already been implemented, identity and community activism, and of course the incremental process by which houses are built. And each project site will necessitate re-learning and understanding the subtle variations in context, since the success of an intervention is not necessarily replicable.
In light of the vast differences in context, I would suggest that architects’ core competencies – listening, analysis and invention – are the skills that will translate best between formal and informal settings. A designer who can generate idea after idea will always be a valuable part of solving large- or small- scale spatial problems. But in recent years I’ve been struck by the rapid spread of the idea that “design will save the world.” Websites and competitions promoting the idea are multiplying. (This one turns a common assumption on its head). Participation in and visibility of organizations like Architecture for Humanity has increased, while the University of Catalonia has created a Master’s Degree of International Cooperation in Sustainable Emergency Architecture to formally train architects to work in less-regulated environments. It seems that everyone is championing the value of design-centric, replicable solutions to poverty-related problems in developing countries. But as described elsewhere in this blog, some of these projects will be successful long-term, and some will not. This may be due to lack of attention to local context, or to forces far greater than a the project itself, but even the most sensitively-designed projects may not achieve the hoped-for results. We may not hear much about stalled or failed projects in the media. But when architects are willing to share their experiences in a public forum we all benefit.