Slums are a growing concern across developing countries that require the attention of professionals across multiple sectors. We need to analyse the way we approach designing, constructing and renovating areas. If professionals from outside the affected area are required to interfere, what is the best strategy to do so? Will interfering help the matter or only exacerbate the problem? This is an issue that has long been a topic of discourse and can only be assessed by looking at how precedents have either been successful or problematic in their execution.
From an exterior viewpoint, it can be problematic to assess and provide design solutions for an urban ecosystem that you have never experienced. Alejandro Zaera-Polo said “It’s a constant question of if its legitimate to consolidate these forms of Urban life. As it is not nice to live there”. Everyone knows slums are miserable, poverty-stricken places that no one wants to be in. Merely designing from that level of understanding does not warrant it to be legitimate or morally just. There are deeper complexities at hand that should be accounted for that if ignored, result in irrelevant and often detrimental designs that hurt the very people they were trying to assist. An example of such an approach can be found in interviews with Rem Koolhaas and his book, “Lagos: How it Works”, describing Lagos as a “protean organism that creatively defies constrictive western ideas of urban order”. Naming the slum as “an announcement to the future” romanticizes slums and misinforms the world that slums are creative miracles designed by unknowing geniuses and not just an example of humans adapting to a terrible situation.
Romanticization and aestheticization of slums is dangerous, it is important to keep in mind that these are human beings trapped in extremely unpleasant living conditions. Strangely though, many architects ignore this fact and often retroactively claim slums as an architecture that isn’t theirs. This is evident in students and professionals who design for merit rather than to solve the issue at hand.
Bang Bua, Bangkok, upgraded slums and cleaned canal water. Photo: Rungroj Yongrit/EPA
Architectural projects that “assist” should not be seen as solutions. Well-designed buildings or shacks can’t fix the complex issues that have forced people to live this way. Slum clearance and demolition is another example of a problematic “solution” as it displaces residents and can cut them off from previous support networks. However, small upgrades to structures, residents’ rights, connections to infrastructure and services (access to clean water) and the promotion of clean streets and canals are permanent solutions that over time will increase living conditions without disrupting residents’ lives. Examples that achieve this and have a positive effect on their respective communities can be found from Urban Think Tank who are concerned with the general “system” that surrounds South African housing settlements. The Nairobi Community Cooker Foundation promotes sustainable waste management through incineration of non-recyclable rubbish and provides jobs and skills to the community. Effective solutions are found when you give power to those affected rather than throwing “architecture” at them.
Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa. u-tt.com/project/empower-shack/
A positive drawn from work associated with slums is that no matter the outcome, all interferences made by outside professionals provides publicity and awareness for global issues. Often professional interference in these matters are problematic for numerous reasons, however its important that such professionals continue raising awareness in the pursuit of small changes without aestheticizing the issue.
 (Zaera-Polo, 2013)
 (Koolhaas, n.d.)
Zaera-Polo, A., 2013. Humans Are Not So Interesting Now; At Least Not Exclusively Interesting. [online] Available at: <https://www.jstor.org/stable/43630874> [Accessed 24 March 2020].
Koolhaas, R., n.d. Lagos – How It Works. [Erscheinungsort nicht ermittelbar]: Birkhäuser.
Lee, U., 2019. The Vertical Village. Seoul, Korea: C3 Publishing Co.
Horton, G., 2020. Why Architects Shouldn’t Fetishize Slums – Metropolis. [online] Metropolis. Available at: <https://www.metropolismag.com/cities/why-architects-shouldnt-fetishize-slums/> [Accessed 22 March 2020].
Lloyd, S., 2013. Empower Shack. [online] U–TT. Available at: <http://u-tt.com/project/empower-shack/> [Accessed 24 March 2020].
Unfccc.int. 2020. The Community Cooker – Kenya. [online] Available at: <https://unfccc.int/climate-action/momentum-for-change/activity-database/the-community-cooker> [Accessed 25 March 2020].