What then shall we do?
Far from being irrelevant to the development of the informal city, architects are much needed. But they will have to be a different kind of architect. At the Urban Think Tank, we propose alternatives to conventional architectural intervention, new guidelines for architects who are prepared to rethink their role in the city:
Apply what you already know is true.
We all know, for instance, that policies on renewable energy sources and sustainable strategies should be in place. We need to act as though they already were.
Do not assume that design innovation – indeed, architectural excellence – and practice in the real world of the informal city or rural settings are mutually exclusive. Architecture schools and design practices can produce creative, workable, cost-effective structures and prototypes for lower income communities.
Create incentives for the adoption of environmentally responsible products. Why not a free database of products that lower income communities could sell directly, such as solar panels, dry toilets and housing kits.
Make a virtue of necessity. In many cities, the need for security, especially for homes, is unavoidable – but the ugliness and xenophobic messages of coils of barbed wire, walls topped with glass shards, and bars and gates are not. Security devices and structures deserve as much aesthetic as practical attention.
Share your knowledge, expertise and advice with those with whom you work. Teaching local developers and residents the principles of sound construction techniques, the properties of different materials, the relationships between form and function gives long-term meaning and value to the architect’s intervention in the community.
Help resolve issues of adequate and nutritional food by developing building types that incorporate food production. Green roofs, which could serve both to reduce heating and cooling needs and as kitchen gardens, require further investigation and refinement to make them more widely applicable and cost-effective.
Reduce bureaucracy where it inhibits design innovation and the exploration of informal architectural practice.
Above all, talk to non-architects, engage in discussions with activists in other disciplines, persuade everyone to become involved. It’s time to stop waiting for governments to act and complaining when they don’t. They can’t implement revolutionary change on their own – and they can’t conceive it without the profession.
It is time for professionals – architects, urban planners, social activists and others – to confront the future by helping to build the common, social spaces of their cities from the bottom up; to interact forcefully but productively with politicians, policy-makers, and community groups; and to participate collaboratively in the construction of more equitable, workable and sustainable cities.
Originally published in ICON magazine
Issue 404 | 2007