Who’s Afraid of ‘Slumdog’ (and in love with the slums)? – Part III: The End

In my earlier two posts on informality [I, II], I was trying to say that informality is a late-20th century discourse on the “natural” course of  development that draws significant boundaries between “in-process” and “finished” stages of modern progress. Architects, inheriting this discourse without much question, are often interested in addressing informality either as a temporary ailment of global cities that can and should be fixed (thus helping cities “leapfrog” into the finished plethora of modernity)–or–as an information-rich source for learning. This second approach runs the danger of naturalizing the slums as if doing them a favor (‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’).

Not to imply that it is innocent but one of the recent outcries about the movie Slumdog Millionaire had to do with the fact that this fictional narrative doesn’t take a bow to either course, causing much consternation and scandal. It supposedly shifted attention from India’s economic progress, thought to be a final endpoint to modernity’s difficulties. And yet it was also chastised for not poeticizing the life of the citizens of Dahravi. Go figure.

But forget what Slumdog does for a minute. What is architecture to do? By asking this question I flip around the question I asked at the start Part I: What does informality ‘do’ for architects? Both of these questions are related to each other, but to answer the first, let’s start with the second.

Perhaps Western architects have adopted informality out of an imagined necessity. ‘How can we NOT (deal with informality)?’ You can often catch this thought in the halls of the schools of architecture in the United States. (Cue the maps and the streams of data on the size of the urban population of the world, mostly living in poverty). From there, the next step often revolves around treating informality–even if unconsciously–as a perplexing and chaotic unraveling of the cities of the global North, in turn underscored as the model of functional–if perhaps obsolete–formality. See the diagramming by Teddy Cruz, for example, that with all good intentions still preserves a deeply problematic cartography:

(from justspaces, 2007)

To extend out a bit from what Austin Zeiderman argues (pdf), the problem with informality, to begin with, is that it first gets put through the typical architectural motions: plan, section, elevation; and, ironically, processed through the usual first-world devices of the scanner, the computer, photoshop, and now the blog, etc. That is to say, the traditional spatio-temporal coordinates of Western architecture (its theoretical coordinates and modes of production) get reasserted through the transformation and translations of the slum (and again, also reassuring you that informality lives south of the border, formality to the north). This, I would argue, is part of what informality ‘does’ for architecture: re-establish its traditional authoritative role and its accustomed place in the Pantheon of Western knowledges. In addition, I think it well-serves to bury the Western city as a done deal: a place of finished, formal knowledge, (and thus, boredom–both to work on as an architect and to live in; remember Koolhaas in Lagos?). And also, this procedure conceives of the West as a territory without complicity in the global economy (of which slums are ultimately a part of).

So what’s architecture to do, then? It seems like architecture has to work on itself before it can look to “Others”. Maybe we start by asking an old question, though not yet well-answered, about the very means of production in architecture (see what I wrote above). I also find a useful idea in the work of Nestor García-Canclini (see “Rewriting Cultural Studies in the Borderlands”*), who says: “In my opinion, the most thought-provoking artwork does not simply stop with the postmodern celebration of nomadism, or with a global connectivity in which differences and spaces between societies would dissolve(.)”

For me, this previous quote means that we have to throw a caution flag  when architects, following in the footsteps of Venturi et al in Las Vegas, adopt or “learn” from informality with the well-meaning hope to dissolve or disrupt boundaries, because all that is actually happening is that the categories (informal/formal, unfinished/finished, etc) are staying the same (see Part I). Therefore, what architects might begin to do is to reveal the conceptual difficulties and failings of ‘informality’ in order to begin to disrupt the categories themselves. Rebar group’s PARKcycle is one small case study that hints at how informality can operate at multiple levels and with ambiguous boundaries without having to “look” , well, informal, nor operate exclusively in an exploited city of the global south.

The point is to begin to work where the informality discourse least expects it. This can be about taking the formal city as precisely the site of progress myths that it is. Or what would this architecture engaged with informality look like if it stressed, for instance, not only the branded informal city, but also the forced informality of Native American populations, as one student asked me? Or if it revealed secret detention as a form of deliberate informality? What would it have to do if it had to operate in the service of the informal right under the noses of the first world? What would happen if it worked with the outlawed street merchants of New York City but simultaneously set its scopes on the symbols and spaces of power, where the management and planning of informality actually happens?

Finally, the point might be to–why not?– actually go back to Slumdog Millionaire. Enrique Ramirez  sheds some light here when he says: “Altitude, whether sensed from an airplane’s cramped cockpit or the vertiginous height of an unbuilt skyscraper in Mumbai, gives cause for critical reflection. It also affords new opportunities.” In the rest of his brief-but-sharp text he takes apart the visual strategies of the movie, revealing how visuality in the film is a deliberate tool of just that, critical reflection. He zeroes in on something I hadn’t noticed about the film: how the lateral and vertical views coexist, offering a provocative visual-spatial strategy that those thinking about dealing with informality might want to borrow. Architecture might after all not have much to offer BUT this sort of choreography.

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