Learning From Lagos: Contemporary Architects Harvest the Slums for Design Inspiration

Learning From Lagos: Contemporary Architects Harvest the Slums for Design Inspiration
“Favela Cloud” is a master thesis project by Johan Kure, Kemo Usto and Thiru Manickam developed at the AD:MT at Aalborg University, Denmark.
(Courtesy eVolo)

A few days ago, architecture and design magazine eVolo published a conceptual proposal called "Favela Cloud," a formal scheme to redevelop the Brazilian slums of Santa Marta. Renderings for the master thesis project by Aalborg University graduate students Johan Kure, Thiru Manickam, and Kemo Usto depict a massive, porous steel "cloud" made from interconnected polyhedral modules. The amorphous form is raised upon a forest of intersecting poles and made accessible by lift or by whimsically off-kilter spiral staircases. Perched high above the cinderblock shanties of Santa Marta and basking in the midday sun, "Favela Cloud" is meant to proclaim the dawn of a new age, one in which the long-neglected urban poor are both entitled to and empowered by progressive architecture.

The lofty vision of "Favela Cloud" touches upon several trends cycling through architecture today. First, it responds to the rising popularity of "architecture for social change," for which the profession nobly renounces its service to the rich to address the issues of the poor. But the "Cloud" purportedly distinguishes itself from more conventional do-good design because its principle source of inspiration is the slum itself. As eVolo explains, the success of the design hinges on its "additive system that can grow and adapt to its site conditions," motivated by the existing self-organizing logic of the favela. In other words, the intervention draws from the social and organizational qualities characteristic of the very environment it seeks to improve, a methodology that has its own backstory in architectural discourse, as I'll explore later. By returning to its point of departure and theoretically folding back into itself, the shiny edifice straddling Santa Marta brings into question if and how architecture can intervene in communities that have developed in the abject absence of a welfare state.


The "other" urbanism

Though envisioned specifically for Santa Marta, "Favela Cloud" spotlights a highly pervasive and urgent matter: the staggering growth — and plummeting socioeconomic conditions — of urban slums. As the global urban population continues to climb, so has its population of slum-dwellers. Mike Davis's provocative 2006 meditation "Planet of Slums" delivers a cold shower of statistics, estimating that at least a third of the global urban population now lives in slums, with over a billion people crammed into exceedingly underserviced urban peripheries in Africa, South America, and Asia. Forced out of their rural origins by rapid urbanization and barred from the city center by the state and the upper and middle classes, rising numbers of the urban poor are evicted to the underdeveloped city fringes, where life becomes a constant battle against hunger, disease, environmental hazards, and lawlessness. Victory promises nothing, while defeat means certain death: "If you sit down," one citizen of Lagos explained to a visiting reporter, "you will die of hunger."

With basic rights to food, potable water, and shelter categorically denied to slumdwellers, decent public architecture is but a pipe dream. Without functioning infrastructure, working sewage systems, proper housing, and designated civic spaces, slum-dwellers are forced to engineer their own systems of order. Waste from the city proper is salvaged in the slums to form constellations of cinderblock shelters fortified with sheets of tin and plastic-bag insulation; the meager space of a home easily and often doubles as a workshop; makeshift marketplaces sprout like weeds in every available space. As urban sociologist Erhard Berner wrote in his 1997 book examining land use in Manila, "Virtually all the gaps left open by city development are immediately filled with makeshift settlements that beat every record in population density."

It is precisely this creative and thoroughly bottom-up organization of space and materials that is extoled in eVolo's "Favela Cloud" proposal. Enchanted by the 'other' urbanism surfacing in the world’s unheeded territories, the project attempts to distill the spatial practices of the favela into a prototypical, steel-engineered edifice. Elevated high above the existing slumscape, the "Cloud" makes accessible an immense volume of untouched space formerly unreachable for the favela's resident ad hoc architects. It imports the verticality of the traditional skyscraper — the ultimate symbol of metropolitan wealth — but endeavors to integrate and accentuate the organic qualities of its site through its irregular shape and exaggerated lack of spatial hierarchy. "Favela Cloud" emerges as a sculptural, avant-garde reproduction of the organized chaos just below it. Refined through the computer-generated expressionism of contemporary design, the problem somehow becomes a solution.

How we learned to stop worrying and love the slum

The notion that the slums can be both problem and solution has a rather long history. In "Planet of Slums," Davis cites the notorious early- to mid-century CIAM (Congrès internationaux d'architecture modern, or the International Congresses of Modern Architecture), a faction of which had romanticized Tunisian slums, or bidonvilles, for their “‘organic’ relationship between the buildings and the site…the flexibility of spaces to accommodate diverse functions, and the changing needs of the users.” The concept was further propagated in the 1970s by the English architect John Turner, who was fascinated by the ingenuity he had observed in Peruvian squatter settlements. Then-World Bank President Robert McNamara was particularly delighted by Turner’s subsequent proposal for slum improvement, which advocated for “self-help, incremental construction, and legalization of spontaneous urbanization.” For McNamara, Turner’s proposition was a conveniently cost-effective antidote to an unrelenting problem.

The policies that developed out of Turner's voyeuristic fascination were not just benign but damaging, however. They excused the state for sidelining serious efforts to abolish slum conditions. Through the 1970s and 1980s, as the world's slums and shantytowns grew like a cancer, quickly forming the bulk of megacities like Lagos and Kolkata despite half-hearted NGO interventions and ruthless local slash-and-burn campaigns, the slums were once again recognized as problems through and through—and seemingly hopeless ones at that. It wasn't until the 1990s and 2000s that the slums were taken up as architectural case studies again, this time with a new initiative: to learn from them and apply their lessons elsewhere.

Forecasting the urban apocalypse

Thus, in his 1995 tome S, M, L, XL, Dutch architect and urban theorist Rem Koolhaas showed a burgeoning interest in the development of slum urbanism (or lack thereof): "In spite of its early promise, its frequent bravery, urbanism has been unable to invent and implement at the scale demanded by its apocalyptic demographics," he writes in one essay, citing the population spike in Lagos from 2 to 15 million within 20 years. A few years later, Koolhaas would observe the urban "apocalypse" firsthand, taking a group of Harvard GSD students with him to Lagos for a five-year research project on the city. The project, which culminated in a 2008 publication entitled "Lagos: How It Works," has since become a hallmark in Koolhaas's personal oeuvre and, not surprisingly, a contentious contribution to the discussion of slums.

With Turner-like enthusiasm, Koolhaas remarks on the cunningly improvised conditions he and his students witnessed in a city that has vastly outgrown its modern infrastructure. Though the alternative systems of order that emerge are clearly born out of unthinkable hardship, to Koolhaas, these devices continuously reinvent the city in creative, albeit desperate, ways. The architect praises Lagos for having "developed in reverse of the direction that was intended" when the city was formally planned in the 1970s, and he asserts that this reversal is not a "backward situation" but, rather, an "announcement of the future." For him, the fact that uncurbed population growth and extreme underdevelopment can be reconciled in Lagos through countless individual ad hoc interventions signals the failure of conventional notions of urban planning but also the infinite possibilities of new ones.

By placing Lagos in contraposition to the accustomed Western ideals he demonizes, Koolhaas comes dangerously close to romanticizing the slums once again. But unlike Turner in the 1970s, Koolhaas does not catapult his own intellectual excitement to a level that justifies a passive stance on the matter: "If you extrapolate current trends," he explains in an interview about the Lagos project, "there are many signs that show that the world is going to be a pretty horrible place. There are many reasons to assume that a laissez-faire attitude is not the answer." Unfortunately, Koolhaas does little to suggest how to extract the lessons of Lagos without perpetuating the abject living conditions that foster them.

Towards a "model of social sustainability"

Around the same time when Koolhaas was traveling to Lagos, San Diego-based architect Teddy Cruz was visiting Mexico's border towns with a similar resolve to study under-the-radar urban phenomena. Cruz observed in Tijuana how developers were importing a superficial image of the American dream across the border in the form of cheap, miniature replicas of the suburbs. "What I noticed is how quickly these developments were retrofitted by the tenants," Cruz told the New York Times, bringing attention to the makeshift mechanics’ shops and taco stands that quickly took over front lawns and the spaces between the homogenous suburban shells. Here along the border, the ersatz American utopia could not help but evolve into something much more layered and complex.

Cruz studied the individuated forms and programs and exported these lessons back across the border to suburban San Diego, where he was working on a design for a residential development for Latino immigrants. His resulting prototype weaves 12 affordable housing units, a community center, offices, gardens, and spaces for street markets and kiosks into a concrete frame. "In a place where current regulation allows only one use, we propose five different uses that support each other," Cruz explains in an article for Residential Architect Magazine. "This suggests a model of social sustainability for San Diego, one that conveys density not as bulk but as social choreography."

But Cruz's work doesn't stop at San Diego. Alongside the San Diego residential project, Cruz and his studio developed a proposal for a project in Tijuana, where Cruz had been fascinated by the way residents recycle materials brought in from affluent neighborhoods across the border to construct makeshift dwellings. As Cruz observed, these informal peripheral settlements develop faster than the urban cores they surround. By constructing a prefabricated building frame to support the rapid growth of Tijuana's improvised architectures, Cruz hopes to "strengthen the otherwise precarious terrain without compromising the temporal dynamics of these self-made environments."

Reunifying architecture

One may be tempted to draw a line connecting Cruz’s mixed-use structures to the more aesthetically audacious "Favela Cloud" (and, by that virtue, to CIAM, Turner, and Koolhaas's outsider interest in the ad hoc economies and flexible spaces of the slums). But what is novel about Cruz's approach is its underlying notion of exchange, its premise of a reciprocal interaction between two disparate communities, namely, San Diego and Tijuana, development and under-development. Like Koolhaas, Cruz recognizes that the problem of slums and shantytowns and the socioeconomic disadvantages they reflect is part of a larger problem that exists outside of Santa Marta, Lagos, Tijuana, and other directly affected urban centers. Cruz does not attempt to transform America's Levittowns into versions of Mexico's barrios, nor is he converting barrios into Levittowns. Instead, his designs aspire to bridge the theoretical gap between the two, lending and borrowing material and conceptual elements and facilitating a dialogue instead of a division. To Cruz, the best architecture and urbanism "mediates between large and small, between rich and poor, between formal and informal."

Cruz's practice circles back to the hidden inadequacies behind the notion of "architecture for social change." The establishment of a specified brand of architecture "for social change" immediately divides architecture and the issues it addresses into two separate realms: one that chooses to acknowledge social responsibility and one that is relieved of it. The term might suggest, in an underhanded way, that any architecture that does not directly confront a disadvantaged site can be removed from the problems concentrated there. But the reality is that all architecture — whether it is a stuccoed suburban house in San Diego, a tin-roofed shanty in a Brazilian favela, or a steel white balloon looming above it — plays a part in negotiating the terms of the world's diverse communities.