Last fall, the University of Maryland at College Park (UMD) hosted a symposium featuring a variety of approaches to a globalized urban phenomenon affecting Latin American cities: urban informality. The interest of UMD’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation in these topics is not well known. The research of Dr. Bill Hanna with working-class immigrant communities nationally and internationally, and the study trips of Professor William Bechhoefer through developing countries in the Middle and Far East can be counted among the better-known work of the school. UMD took the initiative to bring the global topic of informality to the center of international aid and development agencies, the Washington, DC, area. The large number of attendees, who shared an association with the field of informal settlements and a background in Latin America, hopefully increased the likely impact of the symposium on international aid and development. This event was organized under the leadership of Dean David Conrath, Professor Luis Diego Quiros, and the support of several program directors of the school.
During the two days of the symposium, three contrasting views and approaches to urban interventions in informal settings emerged from the presentations. The first was represented by the keynote lecture of the Urban Think Tank group consisting in fantastic work presented in photographs and slick architectural graphics highlighting a large typological and geographic range of interventions primarily concerned with providing much-needed facilities and infrastructure to lacking urban communities through splendid pieces of contemporary architecture. These interventions included stark buildings in the foreground of urban slums, impacting transportation infrastructure among makeshift structures, hybrid constructions housing community services, and a 2012 Venice Biennialle award on a controversial installation about an informal occupation of a partially built skyscraper in the center of Caracas.
This lecture was an important reminder of how difficult it is to simultaneously show breadth and depth in topics of such complexity. Later presentations discussed interventions in the squatter settlements of Costa Rica and Mexico, which highlighted the intricate and often mundane realities architects should address while working within an informal setting. Ways in which to build strong links between architecture schools, professional practice, and informal communities were central to these presentations. Finally, work from the institutional sector was presented by the World Bank and the Planning Authority of the city of Medellin in Colombia. The critical perspective of academics from national and international universities also contributed to the symposium. Informal communities, like any human group or community, have a diverse range of needs and concerns that must be addressed by anyone wishing to implement a successful project. Clearly, good buildings can serve and improve the life of low-income inhabitants, which underscores the need to properly understand how to execute these projects. For this reason, the work of architects who take on an “advocacy role” (in the words of Robert Gutman) on behalf of the informal community, such as the work shown by Michael Smith-Masis and Alejandro Vallejo-Rivas, both of Costa Rica (Entrenosatelier), and Juan Alfonso Garduño (g3arquitectos), often has the greatest impact and chances for success. These architects also excel at addressing criteria that are outside of conventional roles, such as maintaining intellectual freedom within political governments’ agendas, encouraging strong community involvement, and, more importantly, ensuring that architects have access to these commissions.
These issues are outside the conventional expertise of architects and planners, which suggests that our professions need to be reformulated, if not totally reinvented, when working with low-income communities. Discussions about how professionals could initiate these dialogues and interactions with the informal sector generated great enthusiasm among the attendees. Architects are trained with abilities and talents to produce fine designs with scarce resources and minimal budgets. But, beyond this, there was a deeper concern for creating a conscience of the architect’s social responsibility and promoting a new generation of critical practitioners interested in working with informal communities. Also important was the development of academic curricula and strong links with local architecture schools as shown in the Atelier de Diseño Colectivo (Atelier of Collective Design) and Taller Entre Comunidad (Workshop among Community) in Costa Rica, and Taller Activo de la Ciudad (City’s Active Workshop) in the Tech of Monterrey at Queretaro, Mexico. These collaborations between professionals and the community have been explored since the early years of architectural education. The notion that the connection between formal and informal can begin early in the education of our future professionals was a tacit yet sound statement behind their unpretentious but meaningful work. This concern for socially conscious architecture was also emphasized by the director of the Administrative Planning Department of the city of Medellin, Colombia, Jorge Perez-Jaramillo, who presented the sustained efforts of local architects and planners during the last twenty plus years to consistently manage the growth and development of Medellin throughout its political ups and downs. The conception of the city as an interconnected system of systems and the overall work developed by the Planning Department has been a world-class example. The involvement of professionals from environmental disciplines in producing quality work sustained over time and the programs devised by the Planning Office (including seventy one-year internships for new professionals) are consolidating that conception. More practitioners are primarily interested in addressing the problems of their communities as they move away from the conventional desire to be a design star.
This encouraging trend is starting to characterize young millennials in Latin America. It is also appearing in the United States as more first-generation college students from minority groups enter college and want to give back to their communities. However only a few U.S. schools have begun to prepare to address this new desire. A stranger in this group was the work by the World Bank in Honduras, a series of interventions in public spaces to increase the safety of the community, certainly a well-intended effort that involved the participation of the local government and the community in addressing their problems. However, much like the work supported by international agencies, the project was extremely complex in its approach and mild in visible outcomes. Perhaps we have gotten used to accepting the heavy load imposed by the dogmatic approaches of the international aid machinery in addressing local problems. We are even more used to seeing how that load takes a toll on clear outcomes, particularly its spatial qualities. It is the kind of work that is usually justified by thinking that any well-intended intervention is, after all, an improvement on the previous conditions of the community. But it is unfortunate how noble intentions assembled in tight agendas of clockwork programs and multidimensional projects turn out aseptic interventions, lacking the warmth and appeal of well-created spaces that can reaffirm the identity and well-being of a community. It would be helpful to know why the type of good ideas presented at the symposium are not supported by the World Bank. Perhaps it is naive to ask ourselves why the power of international aid isn’t used to decidedly back up good design work, but it would be great if it were.
Overall, the symposium showed an encouraging face of the work being done in informal settlements in Latin America: a contemporary aesthetic and the fresh discovery that good architecture can exist and significantly enhance the lives of low-income communities, and more importantly that all this can be integrated into a student’s education.
A sense of déjà vu was present, as much of this work could be interpreted as newer versions of old attempts to address informality by names that were absent from the symposium. Although implicit in some of the academic presentations, there was little reference to the wealth of work of the many professionals who historically contributed to the understanding of what we today call “the informal.” Specifically, early researchers in Latin America’s urban slums, such as William Mangin, John Turner, Jorge Hardoy, David Satterthwaite, Alvaro Ortega, Gustavo Riofrio, Hernando De Soto, and a long et cetera, are virtually unknown to today’s officials, policy makers, planners, and even academics. Revisiting that body of knowledge could help us bypass the cyclical waves that usually trap the work made in informal settlements. The need for a more careful study of how previous experiences can inform the present is more important now, as newer generations of professionals may not be aware of this existing body of work. There is no doubt that these professionals will face a bigger presence of the informal in their future, in both developing and developed countries alike. I would like to see us make sure that they are well aware of the past.