If you haven’t seen some iteration or other of the “KONY 2012” campaign yet, you have lived a dearly rare life in America over the last few months. Likely as not you’ve even seen comments on social media about how played out it is: “get over it already,” “people only care on the internet, not in real life,” that sort of thing. You may, however, have missed the series of Tweets by an extraordinarily bright and talented writer called Teju Cole. If this is the case: here’s your chance to make good.
I bring up Mr Cole because of late I have been working on three new posts: one on household energy use in Rocinha, another that discusses the sense of community observed in favelas, and the one you’re now reading that’s been on my mind for several months now but hadn’t started writing for lack of a launching pad. Teju Cole finally provided that for me.
Now that you’ve clicked through the link and seen his article at The Atlantic, you’ll begin to see what his Tweets and the article that sprung from them has to do with favelas. It’s all about systems and symptoms, causes, and effects, intentions and privilege. Mr. Cole is American of Nigerian decent, and you may have noticed, is a PEN/Hemingway winner. In other words, he is legit. And given his cultural heritage, life experience, perceptive mind, and provocative voice, he’s more than equipped to comment on the KONY 2012 phenomenon.
Skipping back to architecture and planning for a moment. Many moons ago, I ran into an interview on Archinect with Mike Davis (here), a noted author on themes of social justice and economic systems and how they interact with architecture and urbanism. Davis is an avowed Marxist, and his book “Planet of Slums” is a veritable catalogue of the data and details involved in the rapid spread of informal development over the modern world’s metropolises. He squarely blames neoliberal global capitalism with it classist baggage and colonialist heritage for the formation of “slums” (I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard him use anything other than this pejorative); In doing so he’s not too far off, in the bodega of ideas, I’d buy it for a buck.
However, (and this is a big however), I tend to agree with Tom Agnotti who reviewed “Planet of Slums” in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research when he stated flatly that Davis is playing into the capitalist hand with his portrayal of “slums” (It feels nasty to write, is it that nasty for you to read?) from his very use of the s-word to the way his “apocalyptic rhetoric feeds into longstanding anti-urban fears about working people who live in cities.” 1 That fear is of course present, real and, today, loaded with racist and classist overtones.
Still, the premise of “Planet” leaves little for me to pick on: global capitalism creates losers, those losers are left without choices, people with no choices make their life on the margins of society, this marginalization is changing the the character of how and where the world’s population is living, making the world more urban, and widening the rift between misery and luxury. In short, capitalism creates urban slums. Probably all true. But before I had read “Planet of Slums,” I read the interview on Archinect wherein Davis’s thoughts on Rem Koolhaas’s study of Lagos Nigeria as reported in “Lagos Close/Wide”–even his thoughts on the study of informal development at large–colored greatly my opinion of his take on informal development in general, an opinion I found ratified by the conclusion of “Planet.”
To understand this, let’s just read from Orhan Ayyüce’s interview. Ayyüce asks leadingly:
“What do you think of the current interest in slum communities? It is almost unfortunately ‘redeeming’ to talk about slums and their informality. The architecture is high on slums, minus the critical process and minus the perception of poverty and political injustice…”
He answers after a secondary pause,
“You know, in architecture school most people talk about icons and counter icons, rather than try to understand the larger social networks, hierarchies, and conditions that produce particular types of urbanisms. That is taken to its highest level of trendiness by Rem Koolhaas. His stuff on Lagos is crazy… In my mind it is a sleazy apology for social evil.
Sure, if you want to see human self organization at work, go to Lagos, but face the poverty and oppression by the military regime, destruction of formerly proud communities… Maybe he should talk to my friend Chris Abani about that stuff… Chris would laugh at his hyperbolic formal exercise…”
The somewhat comical name dropping aside, Davis, so sure of his own righteousness, accuses anyone studying informal development of playing with “slums” as a fat house cat swats around at a hapless mouse. He evidently is quite serious in thinking that the architecture community is simply enamored of favelas in that sort of ivory tower way that, in its zeal for discovery, ignores “the larger social networks, hierarchies, and conditions that produce particular types of urbanisms.”
If anyone has read Davis changing tack on this issue, I’d love to be pointed to it, since it was so far off when he said that nearly three years ago, and is even more amiss today.
At the time that I read this interview, I took particular issue with that statement because I identified with Koolhaas’s intentions and premises more than I had with most work related to informal development up to that point. There are still scant examples of architects and planners who approach informality as a source of learning, and I have commented elsewhere that Koolhaas’s work in Lagos is one such (very prominent) example.
It’s quite understandable that a guy like Davis would have that opinion of Koolhaas’s Lagos work, given his tendency to severely pathologize informal development. But to misunderstand Koolhaas’s academic intentions here is to misunderstand his work at large. Koolhaas is a gleaner, and one that tries to be aloof from snap judgements. When OMA designed the Prada store on Broadway, it took Prada’s aesthetic of opulence and translated it into a retail outlet. The store can easily be interpreted as a perfect indictment of Prada, as well as a prefect expression. (A friend of mine that worked at OMA on the Prada project maintains that it was indeed a criticism. But then again, Prada consciously paid a lot of money for it, so the critique was taken lightly at very least if not as a compliment).
In discussing Lagos/Koolhaas, Karl Sharro points out that the crux of Koolhaas’s intentions is seeing, and seeing differently, the urban conditions of Lagos. He say that Koolhaas offers us a chance to, “see Africa not as Bob Geldof and Bono want us to see it, as a site of helplessness and an object of charity, but as a locus of dynamism and aspiration.”
Remember Teju Cole? From reading his Atlantic piece, we know he would add Nicholas Kristof to Bono and Bob Geldof’s names among those who in their own, well-intentioned work in the “Third World” continue to frame it as the other, as the unfamilar, the weak and the incapable.
His criticism of the KONY 2012 viral campaign, and the work of people like Nicholas Kristof or Bono, or Bob Geldof, is that the issues they treat are deep seeded and their implications as tangled as roots. Cole says that his concern for phenomena such as this is condensed into a comment he makes about Kristoff in particular: “His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally.”
It’s a compelling image. And it’s at the root of my own unease with Mike Davis’s take on informal development as well as his opinion on Koolhaas/Lagos. I don’t begin to think that Koolhaas is a perfect constellational thinker (or to put it in terms I’ve used before “ecological” thinker), nor does Koolhaas regard his work that way. It had been quite easy to take a side between Davis and Koolhaas, but after reading “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” I think taking a side is quite unnecessary and quite beside the point.
For those of us that pursue planning and design work related to informal development, Koolhaas has much to offer. To see the favela in and of itself is invaluable, and for many of us, a real challenge. The barrage or information and context found in “Planet of Slums” of course has immense significance as well. For those of us working in, on, and around favelas we cannot afford the standoffishness some critics see in Davis’s work, nor could we ever afford to neglect the context and implications as Davis claims that Koolhaas does. Above all, though, the intersection of these approaches, the way we synthesize them into our own work in favelas expresses what’s truly important here: being concerned enough to discover effective and needed points of actions, and then acting on those concerns. Teju Cole did not set out to demonize the do-gooders necessarily, but rather as he says in his subtitle, “If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.”
1 Tom Angotti, ‘Apocalyptic Anti-Urbanism: Mike Davis and his planet of slums’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 30, No. 4, December 2006, p. 961 http://abahlali.org/node/240. I found this quoted in a worthwhile review of “Planet of Slums” by Richard Pithouse found here.