Who’s Afraid of ‘Slumdog’ (and in love with the slums)? – Part I

What does “informality” do for architects and why do they get so turned on by it? To many architects and planners, when it comes to housing and entrepreneurship, nobody does it better than those who shoulder the worst burdens of poverty. It’s an extreme spectator sport, watching in awe—often just through the web, the Economist, or the movies—as people build out of fridges, scrap metal or whatever comes along. Not to deny the skill of these folks; hey, I wish I could build like that. But once again, what does this fetish really ‘do’ for architects, planners, and even artists? Is it that it challenges our notions (us Westerners, that is) of scale and time?* I’ll come back to this question later (in a future post, maybe) but first, a step back.

As I see it, the discipline of architecture inherits, or indeed appropriates, the idea of “informality” from developmental discourses. It already comes loaded with assumptions about economic propriety and order, and an economistic flavoring about the supposed starting and finishing points of progress. Besides the obvious informal-to-formal flow, there are other competing notions such as ‘chaos to order’ and ‘savage to domesticated’. And so in other words, even when some of these antipodes are rejected by architects or planners (like in the classic ‘let the informal just be informal’ idea), they are prone to supplanting one rejected notion for others that still reassert the same linear capitalist narrative – such as from rural poverty to urban resourcefulness. A recent editorial in the New York Times bears out my point, as in: “It (Dharavi) was built entirely by successive waves of immigrants fleeing rural poverty, political oppression and natural disasters. They have created a place that is far from perfect but has proved to be amazingly resilient and able to upgrade itself.” Oh great (traditional modern Western) city, you gleaming beacon of hope!

As you might imagine, informality is a term commonly used by United Nations agencies, giving it much of its prominence—and authority. Much of the interest in this condition is involved with a larger one, the so-called mega-cities of the “third” world. As you can tell, “informality” can come to be seen as a boundary condition. In the first world, you have the “homeless” (looked at judgmentally as if the homeless chose to be so; as if there were options). In the third world, on the other hand, you have those scrappy, up-by-the-bootstrap post-vernacular homesteaders, taking a few housing risks here and there, flaunting method and codes (as if they made this brave, “frontieristic” choice out of an ample selection).

So in other words, “informality” is a commonly-employed geographical discourse about places (slums), behaviors (job flexibility and resourcefulness), and business innovations as part of a broader “free market”.  This discourse is about where those things are thought to belong in space and time.

I’m going to leave it there for now, but just to go back for a moment to the earlier question (marked with ‘*’ above), I will be turning later on, in part, to an article by Austin Zeiderman, who’s doing his field research on urban risk and the city in Bogotá, an article where he discusses so well what exactly is that notion of space/time that gets projected upon these so-called cities of the future. Any interested souls out there are invited to have a look (pdf).

Finally, in regards to the title of this post, let me say that I just think there is something really fishy going on when folks such as those architects and authors of the aforementioned Times editorial, MATIAS ECHANOVE and RAHUL SRIVASTAVA, seem to say that we should all learn to stop worrying and start to love the slum. Sure, they defend residents that have protested the word ‘slum’ but in favor of what?. In the original version they submitted to the Times, now posted on their blog, airoots, they say (referring to Dharavi): “Its apparently messy organization is not a problem in itself but rather an expression of intensive social and economic processes at work. In an age of complexity, artificial intelligence and wiki-logic, this should be self-evident.” Me personally, I’ll take the portrayal of corruption in “Slumdog Millionaire” over this teleology of Dharavi (i.e. an expression of something -falsely- innate found both in the poor and in technology) any day.

[in the Economist: link ]

Jump to Part II

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