Using the word Slum in a positive way is uncommon to many of us. Generally it is used to refer to dwellings not meeting the most basic standards of hygiene and quality. Slum is considered hopeless, something to be eradicated. The word is used often to disqualify the residents and expel their position from the debate. Developers use the slum-word as a powerful sound to support their case. The slum-word is so loaded that beneficial people prefer to use 'informal settlement' or 'incremental development'.
It is the intention of the author to look for the positive side of 'slum', and to learn form it. Understanding the way of living of people is not a one way journey. The idea that architects from the so-called 'developed countries' might learn a lot from what happens in the 'developing' countries, may require a U-turn in our thinking. And as lady Margareth Thatcher once said (in a different meaning though): if you are in for a U-turn, you turn!
So please, join us to the world of practical architecture, revealing the logics we no longer value in 'modern' architecture.
No architect would ever design a 'slum' and there is no need to. People are designing and building their own home and have no need for an architect. All choices for what is needed, what is practical, what is beautiful, what works, what is feasible and what is really wise, are made like everyone in the world would do: with common sense. Their way of building is definitely the most sensible way of building there.
As all buildings, informal settlements are a reflection of the circumstances under which those houses are made and used. Climate is a clearly recognizable factor and by the form of the roof, we can recognize in what climate a house is located. Tangible circumstances include available space, available building materials, population density, and climate. Then there are the intangible conditions such as economic perspective, formalities, property, and the balance of powers.
We can find all these circumstances in the way of building. If wisely built there is a logical link between construction and conditions. This relationship has a big advantage when we get somewhere we have never been, as we can see the conditions by means of the construction. Reading the environment is a basic instinct. Wherever in the world we are, we will always make a reconstruction of the circumstances, based on what we see.
If we look with Western eyes at a house of which the roof is made watertight with a blue construction tarp, we conclude that no money is spent on an expensive roof. The money is clearly not available so the economic perspective of the residents is not good. The residents suffer poverty of course. The reconstructed condition poverty results from the Western connection that only poor people live under a rickety roof.
However, perhaps the conclusion poverty is totally wrong. Might it be prudent not to make a strong waterproof roof while not suffering poverty? Yes, in a provisional dwelling this is often very wise. The weather in Mumbai is very reliable. During the monsoon, it rains three months on end. Then the other nine months are dry and this cycle runs since immemorial times. Three quarters of the time and in fixed periods, there is certainly no rain. This security is remarkable, especially if we compare it with the certainty of the existence of an informal dwelling. There is a significant risk that the house will be demolished soon. The house is not legal and it is very wise not to make an expensive roof on an illegal house. A blue tarp for a few months per year is a much wiser investment. The conclusion from the Western perspective that the inhabitants of a ramshackle house with a shoddy roof and a blue tarp live in poverty, is not necessarily correct. Many residents have the money indeed for their home improvement and would love to spend it, but let's face it ...
build a house for yourself ... if there is a chance of the bulldozer coming tomorrow?
build a storey to your home ... if there is a chance of the bulldozer coming tomorrow?
together with neighbours, construct a sewer in the street ... if there is a chance of the bulldozer coming tomorrow?
together with neighbours, pave the street ... if there is a chance of the bulldozer coming tomorrow?
The insight of building in a slum being done in a very sensible way and the belief that it is not justified to discard the 'slum' phenomenon as sheer poverty, are the motivations for the exciting project The Perfect Slum.
By letting residents tell about their homes, we will see the circumstances giving rise to surprising priorities in architecture. Based on their story, it is clear that building and living in a hand built shelter is a great achievement.