Alfredo Brillembourg is enthusing about Zurich’s blue recycling bags. “They are an incredible thing,” he says, his accent revealing his Venezuelan roots. The architect and former Columbia University professor talks at a breathless pace, most sentences ending in exclamation marks. “Zurich is an incredible city for recycling! Not only that but they figured out how to finance the whole thing, everyone is obliged to throw their garbage out in one type of bag, the Zuri-bag. That bag is more expensive than a normal plastic bag, you get fined if you don’t use it so the price of the bag includes the cost of collection and an incentive to reduce waste.”
However, we’re not here to talk about Zurich, the latest home for his urban design practice Urban Think Tank, jointly run with co-director Hubert Klumpner. Rather, our conversation regards slums. The informal settlements of the global south, off the map and off the grid, which could not be further removed from the Swiss financial capital. But the Zuri-bag offers an interesting contrast – recycling is something that slum inhabitants do naturally, without expensive schemes. And Brillembourg is one of a number of urbanists who believe we can learn a lot from slums.
After training in New York, Brillembourg returned to Caracas in the early 1990s and saw his city with fresh eyes. “I realised that the formal city couldn’t survive without the informal city … in the slums I discovered a whole new social geography … I began rethinking my whole profession, unlearning what I had learned, and then re-focused on adaptation and reuse and using scarcity as a resource.”
It became his life work to not only improve the conditions within slums, but to highlight the aspects that function better than the formal city around it. “Number one: slums are more resilient,” he explains. “Why? Because they work in approximation, they work organically, they grow and adapt together. Number two: they produce less trash than the regular city. They use fewer resources. We are selling a westernised lifestyle to the world … developer projects that have nothing to do with any reality.”
He adds: “What’s interesting about the slum is that it is both the individual and the collective. Think of a mountainside full of houses as one house the size of a mountain. Composed of incredible individual effort, [the houses] retain this incredible sense of community because they are connected in incredible ways. This cohesion, the new urban village, is the greatest innovation that I see coming out of what you call a slum, but they call their home.”
In 2010, the UN estimated that 830 million people lived in slums worldwide, and predicted the number to rise to 900 million by 2020. In Latin America, almost 80% of the population live in urban areas; in Dhaka, Bangladesh, an estimated 3.4 million people live across the city’s 5,000-plus slums. These are huge numbers living in dangerous conditions. Yet Brillembourg isn’t the only urbanist who argues that while improving the conditions must come first, so the innovations that arise from slums should not be ignored.
Cynthia E Smith, curator of socially responsible design at the Smithsonian’s National Design Museum in New York, recently spent a year travelling around the world researching slums, culminating with an exhibition at the UN. “We can all learn directly from developing and emerging economies how to create innovative solutions from limited resources and challenging environmental requirements,” she argues. “We need to show a new generation of practitioners how to design for density, mixed use, and social inclusion.”
She cites projects such as that in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya – often cited as the largest slum in Africa – where a community cooker designed by local firm Planning Systems runs by burning waste: members bring their collected waste in exchange for use of the cooker, to cook a meal or boil water. Smith found green energy initiatives, from biogas from human waste to solar schemes. Indeed, those interested in off-grid, micro-generated renewable energy are increasingly looking to, or working in, slum areas.
“Urban Think Tank’s vertical gym, designed for the violent slums of Caracas, can be translated easily for the dense borough of Queens in New York City,” suggests Smith. “And Planning System’s community cooker can serve those in remote locations in Canada.”
However, not everyone agrees. “I am in some ways sceptical,” says Alejandro Zaera-Polo, dean of the School of Architecture at Princeton University. “I have been to [the slums of] Medellin, to Rio, to all these places, it’s one of my interests. And when you are there you have mixed feelings. They are becoming tourist destinations, there is slum tourism. But you don’t know if it is legitimate to consolidate these forms of urban life. Because it is not nice to live there.”
There is a danger that championing slum innovations romanticises the conditions, and ignores the poverty, crime and disease that slum inhabitants face daily. Zaera-Polo argues that there is a desire in the west to escape from, “the order of regulated life that we have developed, where everything feels so organised and so safe that one feels sometimes trapped. Even if you watch movies, the slum-run is now part of James Bond films … but there is also a public desire to incorporate individuals in a way that happens on a daily basis on the internet, through Wikipedia and crowd sourcing. These processes are now normal but have not yet descended on the physical structure of the city.”
This notion is that the slum at its best – or at least at a conceptual level – is a Wiki city. There are no rules other than the resources available and the collective agreements among residents. “An interest that the profession has had for a few years, and it is shared by the public, is that cities don’t need to be so planned,” says Zaera-Polo. “That cities can be more varied … this raises interest in the idea of cities that are almost self-built: the Wiki house, and the crowd sourcing of design.”
The Wiki house does exist. The brainchild of London-based architects 00:/, it literally allows anyone to “print” CNC-milled houses (several designs are available, and people are invited to upload new ones) and construct them following simple instructions. A similar innovation by Chilean architects Elemental, designs half-built houses and leaves the occupants to fill in the rest. These ideas offer a glimpse of how home-building could move away from the effective monopoly of the big developers, creating new towns and suburbs in soulless uniformity.
“What is probably most fascinating about going to [slums] is that you see the public realm emerging from the bottom-up, you experience it literally,” says Zaera-Polo. “As opposed to those of us who have been lucky and born into wealthy economies where it was already there. To see the favelas and slums in South America gives you an incredible insight into how the public realm emerges out of a group of individuals. I think this is something that advanced economies need to look at now.”
For Brillembourg, this is also the most exciting lesson slums have to offer his profession. “The architect is well positioned to become the guy that designs the process, not the form. The framework, and not the actual building.” His latest project involves designing a basic solar shack that can be assembled in a single day, and is intended for the townships of South Africa.
“The way they are now, informal settlements don’t have the answers,” he admits. “But what looks like a slum on the outside – that is, incredibly stigmatised – on the inside lets you learn a hell of a lot about society, about living, about aspirations, and about the economy of resources, re-use and adaptation. It offers incredible lessons for the rest of the world.”
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