Learning From Lagos - Slum Architecture / Part 1
Contemporary Architects Harvest the Slums for Design Inspiration, Kelly Chan reports
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.
Architecture and social change
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.
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."
Lack of infrastructure in the middle of a city
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 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.
First published by Kelly Chan in Artinfo
Foto 1: by godwin d, creative commons flickr
Foto 2 by khym54, creative commons flickr
Foto 3 by. Abhisek Sarda, creative commons flickr