In his 2004 article Fallacies in Architectural Culture, Professor Doug Kelbaugh suggested that there were at least seven fallacies that shaped contemporary architectural culture.[i] These were:
- The Solo Artist: where students and architects often prioritize using buildings as explorations or personal expressions rather than prioritizing the social role of architecture.
- The Mandatory Invention Fallacy: where students and architects feel it is an obligation to constantly invent and re-invent through their production – that is, in his own words “to misunderstand creativity for originality.”
- La Tendenza Extrema: where ever-changing trends mark the pace of architectural production and balance or ‘passionate moderation’ as Kelbaugh calls it, is not recognized.
- Architecture Trumps Urbanism: “If students and practitioners are artists first and architects second, they are urbanists third” – Kelbaugh argues as he differentiates ‘architecture’ as object design and ‘architecture’ as a generator of life experiences.
- Global Trumps Local: where the local parameters and experiences give way to global trends and thus de-contextualized processes of design.
- The Forgotten Middle: where academic and professional work is often guided towards “only the rich or the poor” and often lacks interest in the middle classes.
- More, Bigger, Higher: where architectural production rejoices in projects that typically disguise the impact of their energy and resource consumption and where green initiatives do little to balance the world’s increasing gas emissions.
Ten years later, this description still parallels what is done in many architecture schools around the world: a project brief is handed out; it describes the program and location of a building to be designed; students work individually – and so are they graded; and at the end of the semester a panel of guests that are usually not familiar enough with the specific process or problem, “judges” the “form and function” of the structure. In a sense, this modus operandi is far from what The Boyer Report suggested a real critical and research-based architectural education should be:
“The education of students about the scientific, social, aesthetic, political, and environmental foundations of architecture should not be about teaching disembodied skills and facts. The standards should stress active inquiry and learning by doing, rather than the accumulation of facts from texts, required lectures, or design problems handed ready-made to students. Further, students should be partners in extending the knowledge base of the profession through reflective practice. Learning to define problems, asking the right question, and weighting alternative approaches must be at the heart of architecture study.”[ii]
So, if as in the typical architecture studio, the solution to a complex problem – one that involves economic, social, spatial and cultural issues, is always predetermined as “a building”, the current situation of architectural education is then questionable.
In this post I want to briefly share what my experience in teaching about urban informality has been and thus argue for the importance of looking beyond the traditional studio project. My intention is to offer an alternative to a traditional studio project – one that is usually located in a rigid and known context where the solution to the problem is preconceived as a structure which program is provided and where form making is privileged beyond the social, economic and cultural implications of architecture; and rather to look into the possibilities of projects where context is not predefined and form-making (if needed) derives from thinking critically about often misunderstood spatial and urban conditions. To present my points – gathered through different academic experiences, I will re-organize Kelbaugh’s fallacies.
Thesis Project in an informal settlement by Carolina Uechi.
How Teaching About Informality Address the Seven Fallacies
The studios projects that we work on usually start by choosing an underserved community that usually lives under informal conditions. There is no established program or required structure. Students are asked to define and prioritize their interventions based on their analysis of the spatial, social, economic and political situation. Often the only initial constrain we have is time as students develop their own constrains – economic, spatial, etc. – once they begin the project.[iii] In this sense, we give students the opportunity to define the problem(s) themselves.
The following paragraphs describe my teams’ experience as we addressed problems related to informal urbanism(s):
- The Solo Artist: When working in informal settlements, students are suddenly confronted with the fact that traditional architectural education has not prepared them well enough to deal with the problems most underserved communities around the world face. The initial challenge is usually how to gather or generate the many times inexistent information needed to define the problem to solved. The subsequent process is a humbling one. Students are compelled to engage community members, institutions and other professionals from the very beginning of the process. Issues of legality and construction typically emerge from the start, widening the project’s initial inquiry. A recurring example is the questioning of traditional mapping techniques and the further implications of such processes. The conversations around this point typically include issues of representation, power and interpretation that are critical to a good architectural education but sometimes omitted when the project does not allow for such discussions. At the end of the first weeks, students have a better and holistic understanding of the problems and discover that they can’t define or solve them alone.
- Architecture Trumps Urbanism: To confront an atypical site that is in constant flux is something that students also learn a lot from – especially when this context lacks the traditional urban infrastructure that is often taken for granted in academic projects. This situation is often complicated by the fact that most of the communities we worked with also face environmental threads. As students try to grasp the magnitude of the problem, they become aware of the political, institutional, social and economic forces behind one of the worst problems in the world: urban poverty. In general, the complexity of the issue allows them to investigate the convoluted set of forces that influence urban design and allows them to question how they can have a broader impact by acting as urban spatial agents rather than designers of specifically-located forms.
- Global Trumps Local: Needless to say, each informal community is a unique case. The distinctive problematic that these communities face expand global issues of inequality, territoriality and governance to specific political, institutional, historical and environmental issues. Working with underserved communities presents the opportunity to discuss how local circumstances shape the necessities that individuals and organizations have every day. In a sense it bares the problematic to its social components and so in many cases we avoid having the overly theoretical issues that many of us have witness in studio reviews.
- The Mandatory Invention Fallacy: At the same time that students are confronted with an unfamiliar context and start to work with the community, they develop an appreciation for what Gidden’s calls “mutual knowledge” and collaboration. Many times, the economic, mobility and environmental constrains faced by the communities have allowed them to find truly ingenious solutions that are hard to improve conceptually and thus students are faced with a situation in where innovation is not always necessary, but where creativity enhances the solution.
- La Tendenza Extrema: One of the issues that often arises in the studio, and which goes beyond the notion of trend, is the relationship between needs and desires – and how they are driven and shaped by human (physical and cultural) and global and local market conditions. Understanding architecture as both part and separate from the market, presents an opportunity to discuss the power that built form has. In the case of informal settlements, because of their extra-legal and economic characteristics, they provide a broader framework that allows inquiring about the relationship between the “formal” or dominant systems and alternative ways of operating. What becomes important for students to understand then, is that contrary to what many politicians and urban designers think and have argued for in various parts of the world, the democratization of the city is not the same as democratizing access to it. The need is to actually democratize the power to produce decent urban environments – a process now monopolized by real estate developers, city planners and architects among others.
- The Forgotten Middle: The complexity of inhabitation of informal settlements is a very interesting one – where differently from some misconceptions, people from all economic and social backgrounds live in them. Stories of self-made businessman are not uncommon, but the predominant population in many of these communities ranges from poor to lower and upper middle class populations. Social mobility within these neighborhoods is constant and fluctuates, but we have found something that is generally shared by their inhabitants: the concepts of balance and equality that the “the middle class” represents so well. In this sense, working in informal settlements provides students with an opportunity to face ethical and even personal decisions that they would not face otherwise.
- More, Bigger, Higher: There is probably no place to better explore the idea of doing more with less than in precarious situations like the ones we have worked in. The value of efficiency and simplicity in material choice, transportation, construction and maintenance processes become primordial to students. Rather than solely valuing formal expression, students are faced with the broader physical, economical and constructive implications that their design choices have.
The experience that some colleagues and I have had with community-engagement processes and projects in informal settlements has prompted us to constantly re-think the composition of architectural curricula. This is not new, off course, but it seems that for the first time in decades the profession is looking forward to produce more socially engaged professionals. However, academic curricula around the world have barely been modified. This problem is based in part on the slowness of institutionalized processes that do not allow for quick adaptations within academic systems, but my point here is that community engagement studios in informal settlements provide such a profound immersion in drastically different environments, that they offer a unique opportunity to address many of the issues at the same time.
In his essay Teaching Informal Urbanism Ceridwen Owen supports this view as he argues that “while informal settlements are unauthorized and unregulated, it is misleading to see them as unplanned: strategies, processes, and construction are different from formal urbanism, but are nonetheless complex and at times sophisticated”. He adds that their complex assemblage “positions informality as fundamental to understanding the productivity of cities and turns away from any notion that informality is an aberration or a problem that can or should be erased.”[iv] On the contrary, as I am arguing, they actually present us the opportunity of learning about alternative ways of doing broadly operating in space.
Defining the scope and physical context of the intervention. Thesis Project in an informal settlement by Carolina Uechi.
Studying different scales and depth of interventions. Thesis Project in an informal settlement by Carolina Uechi.
Matrix of social, economic, spatial and environmental strategies and their implications. Thesis Project in an informal settlement by Carolina Uechi.
Design of self-made, scalar water towers. Thesis Project in an informal settlement by Carolina Uechi.
Incremental housing component of intervention. Thesis Project in an informal settlement by Carolina Uechi.
[i] Kelbaugh, Douglas. 2004. “Seven Fallacies in Architectural Culture”. Journal of Architectural Education. 58 (1): 66-68
[ii] Boyer, Ernest L., and Lee D. Mitgang. 1996. Building community: a new future for architecture education and practice : a special report. Princeton, N.J.: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
[iii] We are also aware of the so-called “design-tourism” issue – where students do not get enough time with the community to be able to truly and deeply understand the complexity of the problematic (which unfortunately is true in a majority of academic setting). Regardless, I will argue that because of the intrinsic complexity, confronting students with projects in informal settlements provides them an opportunity to better understand the role of designers.
[iv] Owen, Ceridwen, Kim Dovey, and Wiryono Raharjo. 2013. “Teaching Informal Urbanism: Simulating Informal Settlement Practices in the Design Studio”. Journal of Architectural Education. 67 (2): 214-223.