Becoming Builders Again

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1. BecomingBuildersagain78 BECOMING BUILDERS AGAIN IN AN AGE OF GLOBAL CRISIS Douglas Klahr A new type of social responsibility that is as raw and gritty as the global…
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  • 1. BecomingBuildersagain78 BECOMING BUILDERS AGAIN IN AN AGE OF GLOBAL CRISIS Douglas Klahr A new type of social responsibility that is as raw and gritty as the global cri- sis of one billion slum dwellers must become a new ethos in the pedagogy and practice of architecture. These individuals – which do not include those living in merely “substandard” housing – account for 14.7% of our planet’s population, or one in every 6.8 persons.1 Current programs to address this almost incomprehen- sible crisis are too limited in scope, too self-reflective as “design” exercises, too lei- sured regarding time frame, and totally incommensurate regarding materials and scope to address the extremity of dire conditions in developing-world slums. This new ethos of social responsibility needs to match the crisis in its unrelenting inten- sity, meaning that it is exquisitely priority-sensitive and therefore defined by two simple criteria: urgency and magnitude. This essay examines how social responsibility can be reintroduced into ar- chitecture, not as a philosophical matter to remain a cerebral discourse internal within the profession, but as a means toward finding pragmatic solutions to the global housing crisis. This criterion is essential, for it does two things. First, it does not permit students and practitioners to retreat comfortably to the familiar territo- ry of an American/European “affordable” housing design ethos that, although perhaps noble in intention, has utterly failed to address the vast scale and expo- nentially growing magnitude of the crisis. Second, reintroducing social responsi- 1 The most recent United Nations statistics of 10 September 2010 place the global slum population at 830 million persons, yet demographic experts routinely question the parameters and accuracy of the United Nations’ figures. For instance, the list of 10 September 2010 includes only 106 of the 192 entities recognized as countries by the United Nations, a paltry 55%. Furthermore, the most recent data for 46 and 12 nations were from the years 2005 and 1990, respectively. The United Nations list therefore is deficient in terms of both comprehensive and current figures; hence the estimation of one billion global slum dwellers used by most demographers and, at times, by the United Nations itself. The standard responses within architectural pedagogy and practice to the long-standing slum housing problem in the developing world are challenged in this indictment of the profession regarding its failure to respond in commensurate magnitude, rapidity and commitment to the crisis. The creation of a new model of pedagogy and practice – the Participatory Housing Practice – is proposed and encouraged.
  • 2. DouglasKlahr79 bility as a means towards accomplishing a specific goal places this investigation firmly within the post-ideological era that slowly is beginning to emerge. In this new age, a priority is placed upon continually evolving networks of individuals and nimble, lean organizations working together to find – and more important, imple- ment – pragmatic solutions. The question is not whether some architecture schools and some architects produce “affordable” housing. This they do, but the current pedagogy and practi- ce suffer from a major flaw. These still are primarily projects that focus upon the creative aspect of the practice, instead of focusing upon pragmatic solutions that might not be centered about reaffirming an architect’s creative identity. Unfor- tunately, this mindset is a result of our pedagogy, which may produce well-intenti- oned individuals but spectacularly fails to train them to respond to this global housing crisis. To make such statements naturally is subversive to the entire noti- on of what it means today to be an architect, but that is the point of this essay. In a world careening from a long-standing global housing crisis – let alone the loss of dwellings due to increasing climate disasters – this essay is a wake-up call, meta- phorically shaking this tone-deaf profession by the shoulders, if not shouting at it in a voice thick with frustration. When one raises the issue of developing-world slum housing in conversati- on within architectural circles, the response often is almost antediluvian in its par- ochialism: “You are talking about building, not Architecture.” When one then prods further to inquire what group of professionals should address the crisis, the response often is, “Well, some problems in the world simply are intractable.” This attitude – and the state of the profession – is akin to what would occur if the most widespread epidemics were ignored by the medical profession. It is as though de- velopment of the polio vaccine had remained a polite, effete, dinner-party topic of conversation among health professionals for decades and never reached massive, global production. Cries will be raised within the profession that we are not delivering a pro- duct such as a vaccine, but rather we are providing a service to our clients. Perhaps the time has come for us to return to our long-lost identities as builders. There is no other way, for whatever outposts of social responsibility that remain within ar- chitectural practice have proven ineffectual, and the profession has remained numbtorespondinginappropriatedimensionsandrapiditytothecrisis.Theeraof well-intentioned yet small-scale interventions must end, for their seductively re- assuring, photo-op nature has lulled our profession into complacency. The comparison between professions – medicine and architecture – is deli- berate, not only due to their similarities in terms of educational and licensing re- quirements, but because the Urquellen of both arose from the most basic notions of human survival: providing shelter and treating disease. Moreover, as the United Nations’ five indicators of slum housing illustrate, the two professions are intertwi- ned in a contemporary manner, for deplorable housing conditions and diseases of epidemic proportions are linked. Epidemiologists, sanitation experts, urban plan- ners, and sociologists all have been involved in various slum upgrading projects in the developing world, but with rare exceptions, architects have been absent. What is needed, therefore, is not a feel-good, add-on studio or two of parti- cipatory design, but rather an entirely new pedagogy parallel to the existing one that will train experts – not “designers” – to respond to this crisis. In the few instan- ces where architects have produced viable housing for developing-world slums, the design process has been intensely participatory, involving the slum residents in every stage. This new type of pedagogy and practice would place top priority on a design ethos that no longer values novelty or idiosyncrasy, and would establish a new paradigm focused upon resolving the slum housing crisis on a scale and pace that are commensurate with the magnitude and exponential growth of the prob- lem.
  • 3. BecomingBuildersagain80 Over the past 150 years, the pedagogy and practice of architecture has em- barked upon a journey of separating and isolating itself from the simple practice of building. In his study Reconstructing Architecture for the Twenty-First Century, Anthony Jackson pinpointed the bête noir of modern pedagogy and practice: the fact that even when it was disguised within the supposed functionalism of Moder- nism, aesthetics was still what distinguished architecture from mere building. He writes: «Possibly the advocates of a university-type education thought that it would raise architecture to the level of an intellectual discipline. On the contrary, the theory and practice that resulted confirmed that architecture was still to be pursued in terms of styles that did not encourage rational discourse. The replacement of the École des Beaux-Arts by the Bauhaus as an international model in the midtwentieth century had significant pedagogic and stylistic consequences, but only accentuated the underlying contradictions of an ar- chitectural training…The search for principles through research appeared to do away with outdated prescriptions. In practice, however, it only replaced one dogma with another, because the method was tied to stylistic preferen- ces.»2 Moreover, something occurred within architectural pedagogy – and there- fore architectural practice – that has profoundly isolated the profession from the rest of the world over the past eighty years. Once again, Anthony Jackson is worth quoting at some length: «Aesthetic biases that had been largely explicit under the Beaux-Arts sys- tem now became concealed and implicit. Instead of being told that the Mo- dern style represented the correct image of mid-twentiethcentury architec- ture, and having its principles and forms explained to them, students had to acquire this understanding through a series of exercises whose goals were largely prejudged but unstated….The fall of the Modern style changed the outward result but left the method intact. Students are still required to find theirwaythroughaseriesofexercisesthatinviterationalthoughtwhilesub- verting it by the stylistic demands of the day. This result is achieved through a sort of Socratic dialectic reinforced by a system of punishments and rewards.»3 Jackson has identified what makes our current pedagogy so supremely ill- suited to train individuals to respond to the global housing crisis: it strives to intel- lectualize the profession through a deliberately inscrutable form of instruction that masquerades as rational thought while often being little more than a smoke- screen for instructors restricting students to delivering results that satisfy their preset aesthetic criteria. The true value of this quixotic method needs to be chal- lenged, for this manner of education often is needlessly frustrating to a student. It seems as though we are afraid of clarity in studio instruction, for that somehow might detract from the intellectual aura and pretensions of our profession, and we dare not question this method to any deep extent. The result is that we have be- come a profession that is stunningly irrelevant to the vast majority of humanity, in- volved in “designing” only approximately two percent of what is constructed on earth. This profound disconnect, which began in the nineteenth century, was sealed when a Modernist agenda replaced a Beaux-Arts education. Adrian Forty pinpointed this seismic shift in his study, Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture. He wrote: 2 Anthony Jackson, Reconstructing Architecture for the Twenty-First Century: An Inquiry into the Architect’s World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), 150. 3 Ibid., 151.
  • 4. DouglasKlahr81 «In architecture, its effect was that what architects learnt in their training ceased to be ‘practice’, and became ‘principles’, in other words a wholly de- materialized and cerebral version of the art; and what students ‘produced’ from their training was not ‘architecture’ but drawings – commonly referred to as ‘designs’. The separation between architecture as a mental product – which was taught – and architecture as a practice engaged with the material world, now emerged for the first time as a visible fact of life…Now, with the separation of education from practice, ‘design’, rather than being a conveni- ent way of conceptualizing a particular feature of architecture, came to be seen as a pure and self-contained activity within itself.»4 This matter of pedagogy and identity is a central reason why architecture has yet to respond in appropriate magnitude to the global slum housing crisis, which surpasses any other matter concerning what our profession loves to label the “built environment”. This no longer is sustainable, not in the obvious sense of building practices, but in a far deeper and more expansive reality: we no longer can avert our eyes from the one billion people living in global slums. Their collective impact on this planet will determine our future much more than any fussed-over, seductively-photographed LEED building that graces the self-congratulatory, glossy periodicals that unfortunately define our profession. It is time to put past us the trauma of Modernism’s spectacular, hubris-driven failure regarding mass housing, for a full generation has passed since the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis. Understandably, we retreated from tackling low-income housing into our inward world of design, but now it is time to venture forward again, not as “desig- ners”, but rather as participatory housing practitioners. So what would a pedagogy and practice based upon such an ethos look like? Simply put, it would be an approach based upon participatory design in which stu- dents from the first day of class would begin constructing their identities not as ar- chitects but as members of a team of epidemiologists, sanitation experts, urban pl- anners, sociologists, and most importantly, a building’s users. The crucial point around which pivots the entire notion of a Participatory Housing Practice is the fact that because slum residents become an integral and vocal part of the design process, any notion of standardization becomes null and void. What many policymakers and architects fail to realize is that akin to a con- glomeration of microclimates, slums in the developing world are conglomerations of different social groups, each having specific housing needs and preferences that often differ from those of an adjacent group housed within the same sprawling slum. We have not trained architects to recognize the nuances and permutations that characterize what our profession has labeled “informal settlements”. For the dwellers of slums, however, these gradations and differentiations are as evident and important as those that exist for the dwellers within the “formal” built envi- ronment of a city. How is it we remain unable to perceptively “read” and understand the ur- banenvironmentsofone-sixthof humanity?Our treatises maybreathlesslyexpos- tulate upon new urban forms of informal settlements and aestheticize the reader’s vicarious experience via edgy photography. However, as usual, we remain deta- ched from actually doing anything other than small, overly-celebrated interven- tions within the developing world’s slums. We are akin to doctors who cannot dia- gnose – much less treat – the most basic conditions encountered in human life, content to direct our discerning gaze at the image of a lesion from a safe distance away. Acriticalquestionhoweverarisesonaccountofthevarietyofhousingneeds and preferences. If standardization and therefore mass production is antithetical to a true Participatory Housing Practice, how does one propose to tackle the global slum housing crisis? The answer is not in mass production, but rather in massive 4 Adrian Forty, Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000), 138.
  • 5. BecomingBuildersagain82 amounts of small, nimble, transdisciplinary teams being assembled and deployed in slum areas.5 In an article titled “Deep Democracy: Urban Governmentality and the Ho- rizon of Politics”, Arjun Appadurai documents how alliances between civic organi- zations are changing the way in which slum housing needs in Mumbai are being addressed. His observations about alliances formed in Mumbai provide clues about how transdisciplinary teams might work. He notes from the outset how the nature of such alliances differs not only from governmental and professional groups, but also from most NGOs: «The coalition cultivates a highly transparent, non-hierarchical, antibu- reaucratic and anti-technocratic organizational style. A small clerical staff conscientiously serves the needs of the activists, and not vice-versa….Be- cause everyday organizational life is filled with meetings with contractors, lawyers, state officials, politicians and between Alliance members, spatial fixity is not valued and the organization functions in and through mobility… The general impression is of a fast game of ice hockey, with players cons- tantly tumbling in and out of the most active roles in response to shifting needs and game plans.»6 Appadurai’s words provide a glimpse of what a truly Participatory Housing Practice would be like: one in which the housing expert merely practices as part of a team, responding to the changing needs of the team with true mobility. The mo- bilityofwhichAppadurai andI speakis truenimbleness of mind,not asimulacrum achieved through legions of computer programs and functionaries within a hot- house studio environment. The mental nimbleness of which I speak entails com- municating not with your fellow architects, but rather with slum residents, using perhaps only pencils, pen and paper to offer them the one ability that your trans- disciplinary teammates do not possess: translating needs and requirements into imagery. The mental nimbleness of which I speak revels in using the most basic and inexpensive materials, instead of following the siren song that murmurs “be advanced” by using cutting-edge technology and materials. Indeed, we need to deeply challenge our profession’s notion of “innovati- on”,forthiscatch-alltermseemstodictatewhatwecelebrate–andthereforestrive to imitate – in our buildings. It seems as though we are relentlessly seeking yet the next breakthrough in exotic building materials, the next permutation of a “skin”, the next display of tectonic bravado, and the next needlessly complex computer program with which to design shapes and facades that will dazzle and seduce the laughingly miniscule slice of humanity that pays attention to us. Wouldn’t a less superficial notion of innovation entail turning our backs on the industrial and me- dia venues that are part of this charade and actually using our elemental drafting and spatial skills to begin making a substantial impact in solving the slum housing crisis? We have our journals, our role-playing academic juries, our graphically en- ticing competitions, our deluge of coffee table books, and our prizes. Yet imagine if a substantial percentage of that effort and attention were redirected toward achie- ving a different sort of innovation. Imagine if our pedagogy and practice offered another route for students, faculty and practitioners who somehow mysteriously comprehend what I am saying, who understand that meeting the twin criteria of urgency and magnitude with which I commenced this essay demands an entire new mindset and approach. That is why I have not termed this approach a Participatory Architecture Practice,foremphasizinghousingasopposedtoarchitectureservesseveralpurpo- ses. First, it stubbornly refutes the notion of the rarified designer and returns the practitioner to the act of building the most basic and needed of structures: the 5 I am making a deliberate distinction between interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary endeavors. In typical interdisciplinary efforts, each discipline works on its own component, with team members coming together at a later state in the endeavor to synthesize a result. In a transdisciplinary effort, members work from the start in a team, constantly interacting so that neither a chrono- logical nor hierarchical sequence is detectable in the result. 6 Arjun Appadurai, “Deep Democracy: Urban Governmentality and the Horizon of Politics”, Environment and Urbanization 13, No. 2 (October 2001), 31.
  • 6. DouglasKlahr83 dwelling. Second, it reflects the long-overdue demotion in status of the architect that is needed in order to jolt our profession out of its designer mentality that is so disastrously tangential and irrelevant to the world around us. If anything, given the life-threatening lack of toilets that afflicts slum dwellers, sanitation experts de- serve far more respect than architects in this endeavor. Indeed, it is time for architects to forthrightly wade into the “politi
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