Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Iteration City, more on bottom-up

[This post is in response to Elemental and Are we ready for bottom up?]

Can we, as architects, sitting on a peak of professionalism and 'expertise', meaningfully inject ourselves into bottom-up processes?

Our own vantage point suggests that we can, but the negotiation is fraught with contradictions and assumptions. Bottom up means complexity, diverse conceptions of space and use, contradictory motives, opportunism that can verge on the self destructive. To be bottom up is to forgoe the sense of morality and 'consensus' that architecture depends on - instead one must act opportunistically, to make alliances with other opportunists.
Surveying Paraisopolis, a hillside slum in Sao Paulo

Take the circumstance of the Brazilian favela, typical of the majority of unplanned urbanism in its dense, ad-hoc construction and lack of infrastructure. These are 'critical urban areas' - so named by the Sao Paulo architect Hector Vigliecca, who believes the stigma of the word 'slum' is one of the means in which these zones are marginalized. The favela of Paraisopolis, embedded within the fashionable Morumbi district of Sao Paulo,  developed rapidly in the 90's, both because of its resilience to massive influxes of population as well as its ability to create a *credible* and even attractive lifestyle to many upwardly mobile citizens. Far from being a monoculture of poverty, the favela's of Sao Paulo are economically diverse - alongside the expected swell of the rural immigrants you can find bussinessmen and students, even the owner of Brazil's largest appliance producer. The favela is most striking in its phsyical characteristics more-so than its demographics - as all construction takes place in a legal void, ad-hoc construction, DIY engineering and chaotic spatial planning govern. The farbic, in its unceasing invention and novelty, can create flexibility and ineffiency in equal parts,  unmitigated beauty as well as saddening neglect.

Scheme for Paraisopolis, Hector Vigliecca

Paraisopolis through time, satellite images. From 'Informal Toolbox'

Most bottom up processes are resilient - they self-heal, self-regulate. This is true from physiology up to eco-systems. Self-built slums have their own cycle of catastrophe and healing, usually brought on by over-building or land-slides. The wreckage of older homes becomes the foundation for the new - subsequent clearing and excavation can reveal several meters of construction debris creating a kind of artificial mound. Overbuilding can result in distaster, as foundations are not implemented to support it. The city is constantly being built up and falling down. Despite the density the hillside suggests, the slum sprawls - there is redudancy everywhere. A thin encrustation of building envelops the hill, implicitly hardscaping the terrain. Water runoff is an issue everywhere; sewers, if present, overflow into the streets and ground floors. Residents cope through a variety of mechanisms, including their own ingenuity. Networks of PVC pipes interconnect roofscapes, re-directing problematic flows to the next patch of land.
Statistical view of Paraisopolis, from 'Informal Toolbox'

Our colleagues Urban Think Tank like to think of the hill-side settlements as a hill of houses, a literal interconnected mound of construction. This mental slight-of-hand can be helpful when imagining this complex urbanism as an integrated whole - its articulation, as highly individual 'shacks', is misleading. Some slum dwellers live between several houses, moving through sliver courtyards between small homes, sometimes living in the inbetween spaces - one finds hanging laundry, children playing. Alternately, a grouping of houses can be knit together - an articulated exterior hides a highly integrated interior. These homes are most readily identified not by their morphology, but rather the gates that embelish their entrances.

So what is an architect to do in the face of this plurality and dynamism?

Slum 'upgrading', as it is understood by municipalities across the world, is about infrastructure. Sao Paulo has been extremely aggresive in introducing electrical metering, road construction, sewage channeling and other infrastructural efforts to alleviate the ill-effects of overcrowding and unplanned growth. These efforts were highlighted in a recent 'Global Dialogue', which brought together representatives from governments in China, India (Mumbai), Egypt (Cairo), Kenya (Nairobi). Sao Paulo's methodologies were hailed as the standard bearer for slum upgrading and each delegate seemed to suggest that it could serve as a template for urban remediation  in their own locality.

But what about the space? Infrastructure upgrades invariably mean demolition, wich means relocation. Sao Paulo's response has been zero-degree public housing. Its unforunate, since it is the last stage in a herculian effort of social work which has produced the richest archive of information related to large scale slum inhabitation (for those interested, the city's online GIS system can be accessed at http://www.habisp.inf.br/gethtml/inicial/inicial.htm).

At the Slum Lab, we have identified three modalities of approaching the slum, each of which can be engaged in in parallel, continuing within the framework of opportunism. One can sense the need for preservation, albeit frustrated by the slum's insistence on continual self-transformance. We have engaged in attempts to record the spatial characteristics of the favela, through photo, video, 3d models and data sets. You can approach the slum as a researcher and look to formulate hypothesis and construct models. That is our preferred modality at Proxy - we are foremost interested in architecture as an informational medium. Finding connections between emergent morphology and the myriad variables of sociability, financing, politics and physical circumstance is a deep project, which is made more substantial by the availability of new data and more capable software (software that speeks specifically to the 'bottom-up'). Lastly, the slum is a place of architectural intervention and invention. It must not only act in unconventional ways, but it must do unconventional things. By necessity, infrastructure, community and sustainability invest projects with a moral compass while the challenges of geography frustrate normative designs. These are interesting places for creative minds to work and experiment - especially given the void of conventional practices - but it means coming to terms with 'bottom up', whether through grudging co-existance or synergistic opportunism.

Slum Growth Models, from 'Informal Toolbox'

The 'Informal Toolbox' is edited by Proxy and Urban Thank Tank, presenting strategies for slum upgrading and the discourse that accompanies these tactics. It is published by the Cidade de São Paulo. For availability, contact Mark, email: mark at proxyarch.com

1 comment:

namhenderson said...

This passage,
"Our colleagues Urban Think Tank like to think of the hill-side settlements as a hill of houses, a literal interconnected mound of construction" Seems to connect up nicely with the idea of a Geo-urbanism described in Dave's previous post. Perhaps in a less direct more "metaphorical/analgous" sense.
However, it seems be functional in that it encourages a almost "geologic" approach to imagining urban form.