As I sat down to write my first entry for this blog, a blog analyzing urban informality, I started to wonder how I, an architect – trained to be the agent of our formal built environment – relate to urban informality? Over the last decade I have worked with communities who built their own environments (or ‘homegrown’ neighbourhoods so eloquently coined by URBZ ) in Nairobi, Cairo, Caracas, Erbil and Port au Prince.
Valuing the Urban Dichotomy
Many consider the demarcation between ‘informality’ and ‘formality’ unhelpful as it often results in a value judgment. ‘Informality’ then refers to something that should be eliminated or at best be reined into the formal systems (2). On the contrary, I endlessly try to recognize and define the two urban practices. I feel that it is only by doing so, that I can aim towards finding a balance between informal and formal urban processes. The two practices are maybe opposing modes, but in my view, are in fact interdependent and complementary and when in balance enhance the habitability, sustainability, affordability etc. of our cities.
The informal urbanity is what reaches and finds opportunity where the formal can’t. The informal solutions, as opposed to the formal solutions, are always dynamic, always effective and always respond to a real need.
Slums are not synonymous to urban informality as formality can exist within a slum and slum conditions can be found in the formal city. But slums are the most intense manifestation of urban informality. On the other side in the formal built environment, professionals such as myself are trained in the formal systems (only!) and conditioned to perpetuate it. Architects , like and other professionals, are highly regarded as we follow a code of conduct, have a certified skill set and an exclusive right to perform certain legal and construction procedures.
The Urban Vernacular
Informal urban development has much in common with vernacular architectural processes. Vernacular architecture develops locally in response to a certain context by the people for the people as Paul Oliver so famously termed. The vernacular or informal building culture matures over time, as knowledge is refined over generations. Slum vernacular building styles are sprouting far and wide, albeit many in their infancy. Not only are many slums only some generations young, a slum vernacular also has the forceful contemporary urban context to deal with. The new contextual challenges include complex space contestations, recurrent migrations, temporality and industrially systematized construction materials and processes as well as climate change and other hazards. Urban informality is always built from below through a myriad of negotiations while the formal city is imagined by a myriad of professionals following predefined procedure, style or zeitgeist.
Slums have a great ability to adapt and ultimately improve if given time, albeit not always fast enough, but improving nevertheless. In the quest to speed up the pace of advancements, professionals are enticed to intervene and introduce the lacking services; building better housing, sharing our construction knowledge, mapping the neighbourhoods – often for the first time – in an attempt to achieve their their security and citizens rights.
I, the architect, like to think that architects can solve urban problems through constructed and spatial solutions. But then when we engage with urban informality we are at once confronted with a large and increasing group of ‘normal people’ who are solving one urban problem after another independent of professionals. Above that they don’t just theorize about it, they make it happen. Organization here is rife albeit a little unfamiliar to the professionally trained architect. In mainstream architectural processes a client chooses me and pays and directs me as I translate their vision into a built reality. This is turned on its head when engaging with the informal sector. Here we invite ourselves then I – or the agency that sends me – chooses my client(s) usually based on the needs that I or an external agency define. The community doesn’t pay me, but a third-party pays me. This divides my accountability between the one that I am trying to serve, and the one that I rely financially on. I make sure to devise all sorts of participatory processes to ensure that the people I am designing for (woops, designing with!) will appreciate the result. Achievement is on par with the successful level of the participation of the community into our formal processes. But I often think, we are doing this the wrong way round.
What would happen if the architect – an exogenous agent – participates in the endogenous process instead of the community being brought into the formal architectural process? Instead of ‘the other’ participating in the formal processes that we steer, what about if the professional participates in the informal urban processes? I foresee that it is this way we would get the best of two processes. We could start to discover how far urban informality can be the driver while ensuring that the formal processes are not barriers but facilitators of human endeavor. Making sure that each, the informal and the formal urban processes warrant, what they are good at. The informal processes ensure tailored, effective and needed solutions that are rich in life, while the formal processes warrant access to services, justness, etc. Urban informality provides ingenuous solutions and yet there exists a great divide between the formal and the informal, between the formal architect and the inhabitant of a slum. We need to break down that divide, get to know each other and make progress together.
Related Readings: MORE DEFINITIONS: INFORMALITY VS INFROMALITIES