polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

The Reflective Architect

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Architects in almost every part of the world are trained to translate our interpretation of client needs into sophisticated abstract spatial compositions. We are trained to communicate our spatial ideas and technical solutions through a sophisticated urban graphic design language. This is what the great majority of architects aspire to: creating artistically advanced projects for clients who have the power and wealth to afford them.

Source: Urban Nouveau

The reality that architects live seems to be blind to the fact that today one third of people living in cities worldwide live in slums. That is, they live on informally occupied land, in hazardous environments, without rights, basic services or security of tenure. Moreover, according to UN-HABITAT, 95% of urban growth in the world is taking place in the form of slums. There is a massive need of professionals, including architects and planners, to help city authorities and slum dwellers sort out this crisis. However, the training that architects traditionally receive has mostly produced vertical slums in the cities’ periphery, still in service of the rich and powerful in their pursuit of accumulating wealth and power.

Last May and June I was in Pune, India, documenting a housing project that is an excellent example of the role that we, architects, can adopt in order to contribute effectively to sort out today’s urban crisis. This project was developed by the Indian Alliance, a partnership of urban poor groups and the NGO SPARC, with a group of young architects from Brazil, Portugal and Sweden (urbanouveau). This role can be defined through the following logical points:
  • If architects talk less and listen more, architecture improves, instead of imposing, quality of life.
  • If architectural language is understandable to those living in slums, many of whom had never access to basic education, solutions are more likely to be appropriate and to contribute to alleviate poverty.
  • If architects create a design methodology that allows a minimum level of customisation, solutions are more likely to integrate the features that can help slum dwellers escape from poverty.
  • If construction costs fit the economic limitations of the urban poor, preventing corruption and wrong management, developing an improved version of the natural process of consolidation of slums’ houses and neighbourhoods, and give priority to slum's enterprises and women collectives as contractors, the project is more likely to alleviate poverty.