Beauty in the dust of slums

2012-03-10 11:27

The best way to sort out South Africa’s housing shortage may be found in a radical idea proposed by architect and social innovator Alfredo Brillembourg.

He argues “don’t build houses, build services”. South Africa’s experience certainly proves Brillembourg right when he says there is simply not enough money to eradicate informal housing.

He brings the idea of healing to his view of how design, architecture and infrastructure can transform a community.

This view is in stark contrast to South Africa’s dominant approach, which seeks to eliminate the informal and replace it with the formal.

Having recently hosted the Fifa World Cup, South Africans will understand the powerful indictment of her country Brazil by Cenira dos Santos (44), who owns a home in the settlement known as Vila Autódromo.

Authorities wanted to demolish the squatter settlement to build a futuristic Olympic City.

She says: “The authorities think progress is demolishing our community just so they can host the Olympics for a few weeks. But we’ve shocked them by resisting.”

Similarly, in South Africa the sad reality is that more than a decade and a half later, and with billions of rands spent building low-cost RDP houses, South Africa is no closer to solving its housing crisis.
Lofty plans to eliminate “shacks” have been put on hold as government realises that for every house built, there are millions of takers. No matter how many formal houses are built, there will always be more people ready to step into the places of those leaving informal housing behind.

Far from being the exception, the informal city should be thought of as the “normal” part of a city, certainly in the global South, according to Brillembourg.

“While they are often great communities, the barrios are facing major problems. We are working in that area because it’s a great opportunity to really change the largest portion of the city,” says Brillembourg.

He adds that architects can’t ignore the informal city because it exists, not apart, but as a part, of the formal city.

“Fifty percent of Caracas is now built informally. Urban Think Tank works very closely with the members of the barrio communities because it is part of our city. One shouldn’t consider the barrios as something separate from the rest of the city,” he said.

It is not surprising that South African authorities were attracted to the idea of eradicating slums as they are often the most obvious scar of apartheid city design.

The goal may be laudable, but it turned the provision into just one of so many passive social benefits for those at the very bottom of the social ladder.

And understandable as it may be, the evidence suggests that the idea of providing formal housing to all South Africans is unrealistic.

Brillembourg’s success both in Venezuela’s barrios and Brazil’s favelas suggests there are other methods of urban design that promote dignity and social justice without turning the state into a building society.

“We realised that once you placed a powerful building in the slum context, you created a kind of urban acupuncture, which actually resonates and creates a lot of change around it.

“So you see that change around the acupuncture of the Vertical Gym, Dry Toilet, or the stations and hubs of the metro cable car,” Brillembourg says, referring to the success of his projects in Caracas City, Venezuela.

Far from seeing architecture in its physical context, Brillembourg urges an understanding of its social context to enhance its transformational role.

The success of Brillembourg’s Cable Car in the Slums, or Barrios of Caracas has been radically transformative, but its success was not just an engineering one, but one that went against conventional thinking.

Brillembourg spoke at Design Indaba 2012 and there are powerful lessons that can be learnt from how he and his colleagues at Urban Think Tank went outside conventional wisdom.

They imagined, designed and built a metro cable system to connect the barrios on the outskirts of the city with the CBD and cut travel time from nearly three hours to only 20 minutes.

The members of the community know what they need most and take the lead. As Brillembourg points out: “We have always worked closely with community leaders, from whom we have also learnt a lot.

With regard to one of our earlier projects, it was not our first choice to design and make the dry toilets.

That was our clients – the community residents – who came up with the idea to put dry toilets on the highest areas of hillside communities where they had no white water and black water sewage.

These were projects that came out of the common sense of the community.”

South Africans know only too well the power of words to discriminate or inspire, and in his typical manner, Brillembourg cautions that terminology changes based on who is talking.

“As our friends in the Petare barrio in Caracas, the Perez family, pointed out to us: ‘What you call a slum is our home.’

This explains why he and his partners at Urban Think Tank have appropriated the word slum, but given it a new meaning, representing Sustainable Living Urban Model.”

As Brillembourg and other proponents of social change point out, it is simply unrealistic to imagine the informal city can just be replaced with a formal one.

South Africa has always had a culture of strong community organisations and these have been typically independent and self-reliant.

These are the kind of organisations that should work with innovative architects, designers and engineers to develop and build housing solutions once government has decided the basic infrastructure and services.

Far from being passive and in need of handouts, we should remember that communities in informal settlements played an important role in fighting for freedom and they should take the lead in transforming their communities into thriving communities with the necessary infrastructure.

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