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

What informality once perhaps looked more like

(What “informality” once perhaps looked like). Eagle Fruit Store and Capital Hotel, Lincoln, Nebraska. 1942 [LOC].

Informality, as Nezar Alsayyad explains, comes into being as its own standalone concept in the 1970s, yet it has much in common with past forms of rural-urban migration and labor. In fact, he questions what is “new” about it at all (). For example, the development of American cities thrived on the pull of a rural population to the cities which performed day labor or “trade services”. Think of transients, hobos, journeymen carpenters and many others that today might fit the category. As Paul Groth explores, this (mostly-male) population often lived in flop houses, single-occupancy hotels, and rooming houses. As of the 1970s, especially with the work of Caroline Moser, “informality” as a term grouped together a combination of urban poverty, lack of property rights, and situations of unsafe dwellings (§).

But 70s research dredged up more questions than what could be answered at the time. Why was it that here in the US and abroad, people were finding it more and more difficult to find adequate housing? Two competing claims emerged, as Alsayyad summarizes. One line of thinking explained informality as a temporary condition—a marginalized, urban poverty sector engaging in survival activities, perhaps a destitution accentuated by the economic shocks of the 1970s. Another line of thinking posited informality as a permanent condition—a sector “part and parcel” of late capitalism. It might be blurry but approaches to informality often show traces of these two positions. Elemental Chile seems to want to provide relief, perhaps with the hope that informality can be eradicated, holding onto something out of position one. Teddy Cruz, on the other hand, surfs the globalization critique of approach number two, but only to turn it on its head and aestheticize it (see this). I’ll come back to this in the final installment.

A caveat. As of the 70s we start to see the rise of a worldwide regime of trade liberalization, privatization, and what Robert Brenner calls the “recycling of petrodollars” into cheapo credit lent at a furious pace for industrialisation in the third world. This of course was well supervised and propagated by the IMF and IBRD. This meant, as is well documented in countless sources, to structural adjustment measures, economic booms-and-busts (i.e. Argentina), and rapid industrialisation, especially in Asian metropoles. (Yes, these global forces notwithstanding, informality can also be the effect of separate local factors). Thus, what the two lines of argumentation suggest above—as opposing to each other as they might seem—is that informality (as even the word itself implies) is a chaotic, unintended side-effect. But we have since then learned, one would hope, that it is a result of masterful planning and a hegemonic policy of control and dependence. To this we might add that informality since the 70s has served a vital purpose: to discipline the formal sector, keeping worker demands and wages in check.

When architects decide to work with informality they tread into the politics of representation. By default, the game as spelled out in the previous paragraph either comes to light or it doesn’t. And most of the time, it doesn’t. Worse, it becomes a fait accompli, as we saw with Koolhaas in Lagos (see Gandy). As Ananya Roy says: “Urban informality is thus also the politics of representation; the poetics of representation is thus also the geopolitics of late capitalism.” () Sometimes it seems like the better they try to do, looking at informality with a liberal reformist zeal, the more they naturalize it, distancing it from its root causes. Small wonder that architects and planners interested in alleviating informality often treat it with the same lens of biomimicry as green architects looking at nature. Furthermore, it’s no surprise either that Slumdog Millionaire is faulted precisely for resisting the lure to “learn” from the slums.

N.B. This is the second installment of postings that introduce informality and tackle how architects have treated it. (Pt. I here, Pt III here).

For additional reference:

Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia
Ananya Roy, Nezar AlSayyad, Ed’s
Published by Lexington Books, 2004.

Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States.
Paul Groth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

See also:

The Economics of Global Turbulence: The Advanced Capitalist Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945-2005
Robert Brenner. Verso, 2006.

“Learning from Lagos” by Matthew Gandy in New Left Review, May-June 2005.