In April, our Development and Communications Associate Akiva Steinmetz-Silber attended part of Housing the Majority, a conference hosted by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. Here is his report:
I really enjoyed Housing the Majority, a conference examining just that—the urban spaces where most of the world’s population is concentrated. From what I can tell, much of the conference focused on debate around the concept of “slums.” According to the official description, the panel discussions moved “beyond traditional and quantifiable definitions of informality [by focusing] on politics, representation, governance, and form as entry points to the difficult humanitarian challenges to ‘housing the majority.'”
While I have no formal background in either architecture or urban planning, I’m intrigued by both, and saw the conference as an opportunity to reflect on how The Laundromat Project works to engage with people in urban spaces (both formal and informal), and how we think about and communicate about what happens in those spaces. I couldn’t commit to attending the entire conference, so I decided to attend the panel on representation, which was organized around this guiding question:
“How does representation of informal places and their constituents affect political voice and agency? How does visibility create opportunities for political change?”
The presenters were Alfredo Brillembourg, founder of Urban Think Tank; Ramin Bahrani, filmmaker (website); Jaílson de Souza e Silva, founder of Favela Observatory; and Gayatri Spivak, professor of comparative literature at Columbia and famed critic and scholar. Here is a brief summary of what stood out to me in each presentation, followed by some overall impressions of the conversation. (Also, just want to note that while I personally dislike the word “slums,” its usage figured centrally in the conversation and so I’ve included it in this post, but placed it in quotations to invite the reader to question the way such urban areas are commonly represented.)
When I arrived, Alfredo Brillembourg had already begun his presentation and was offering some critique of the way popular discourses on “slums” often play out. He pointed out first that what is at the core of such discourses is politics. Such discourses play into expropriation policy (for example, through campaigns to “revitalize” or “improve” urban areas that result in the displacement and marginalization of residents). This point reminded me of the “slum clearance programs” prevalent in 1970s NYC, such as the push to relocate South Bronx residents to Co-Op City and other new developments.
He talked about Torre David (tallest squat in the world) in Caracas—an office building that was never completed, but which people informally began to inhabit and shape their own dwelling spaces in a really interesting way. Urban Think Tank gave a presentation about Torre David at the 2012 Venice Biennale (click here to find out more). The interesting thing about Torre David, Brillembourg pointed out, is that residents did what the government could not, by shaping informal spaces organically.
He concluded by posing the question of what people actually want? He offered the following:
- Process: people want to create / build their own space
- 0% down—people want to own their own spaces without an outlay of capital (which they may not have)
- growing house—building up spaces organically using what is available
As I was ostensibly surrounded by architecture students, I was glad to hear from another “outsider” representing the arts! Bahrani makes films about people who are not visible, and showed clips from some of his work, which he framed as being about contributing other ways of seeing people, including Man Push Cart (2005), about pushcart vendors; Chop Shop (2007), about migrant workers in Willets Point, and 99 Homes (2014), about people being displaced from their homes in Florida.
I really enjoyed the snippets of his work—99 Homes was especially powerful. I did wonder about how Bahrani tackles ethical problems of representation and authorship in his work (which he clearly was attuned to). He did touch on this briefly in reflecting about how he works with non-professional actors, and noted that one of the stars of Chop Shop (a young boy working in an auto repair shop in Willets Point) played a big part in determining how his character would be depicted in the video. I’m eager to watch some of his films in their entirety with an eye toward critically assessing how he portrays those he characterizes as living “on the margins.”
Jaílson de Souza e Silva
A professor and favela resident from Rio, Jailson introduced himself by saying “I became who I am by living in a slum in Rio.” He founded Favela Observatory to counter popular misconceptions about favelas.
He pointed out that favelas are complex, though they are often viewed (by outsiders) through paradigms of need and absence, “defined by the dominant class as what it is not, as the non-city, negation of a city.” He advocated instead looking at favelas through the paradigm of power and complexity—thinking about favelas as a place of invention. Instead of “what do favelas need,” he suggested framing the question: “How can we see favelas through the life of the favela?”
He gave some examples of top-down approaches to “improving” life in the favelas that didn’t take into account the ways of being indigenous to life in the favela, such as a new housing complex that failed to incorporate ceilings (roofs) that could constitute the foundations for new buildings, an architectural feature that is fundamental in favelas. In another example, a government-subsidized program attempted to provide rail access to favela residents, but a more immediate problem for residents was access to clean water—something public officials could have discovered for themselves had they met with favela residents to find out what they most desired.
Jailson again challenged the audience to meet favela residents where they are to see their community through their own eyes, and posed the following question: how to provide services that are needed (and desired by residents), while allowing favelas to preserve their distinctive character?
He concluded his talk by affirming three basic rights of favela residents:
- To live our singularity
- To be treated with human dignity
- To live with other people
He asked the audience to keep these values in mind while working toward the overall goal of making cities more human.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Gayatri Spivak is an professor of comparative literature at Columbia, and a renowned philosopher and critic, best-known for her groundbreaking essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, a classic of postcolonial studies, which examines the problematic nature of attempts to speak for “subaltern” (or marginalized) populations—attempts which can end up reinforcing the very colonialist power relations they seek to dismantle. She also translated Jacques Derrida’s “Beyond Grammatology” into English, a classic work of French post-structuralist theory (and also one notorious for being somewhat incomprehensible).
I was excited to hear what Spivak had to say, but unsurprisingly, found her ideas challenging and a bit difficult to understand. But here goes:
Spivak talked about her work in rural India as an educator, where she has been working with local populations of farmers to educate them about latrines, which are being mass-produced by the government, but haven’t yet been widely adopted. Because much of her talk used heady, theoretical language which I struggled to understand (despite having read a decent amount of critical theory and post-structuralist literature in college), I’ll include the blurb she contributed for her talk at the conference:
“I am not an architect. My idea of “majority” is the largest sector of the electorate in places like continental Africa and India. As such, I am not directly involved with sub-proletarian urban housing, but rather with the landless illiterate rural population of India—and the urban-rural interface in Nigeria. In the Indian context, the subaltern build clay houses, the government provides cheap latrines, not much in demand. My task is to rearrange desires so that a desire to use latrines may be produced rather than uselessly imposed. Is this “housing?” In some ways, it is, because large projects of giving brick habitats to randomly selected villagers seem not to have anything to do with a sense of place. As for the corner of Africa that I “know,” the work by those with whom I am allied is to rearrange desires so that a return to land becomes once more viable. I have accepted this invitation in order to learn how you think this is in your discipline. I will share some pictures of the three houses that have grown up around my work in rural India and an architect’s comment.”
Spivak touched on the notion of “urban informality,” and cautioned against romanticizing such informality. She suggested a mutual interdependence between the urban and the rural, stating that the “urban is determined by the volatility of the rural.” She characterized her work with rural populations in India as working together with them to shift or rearrange their desires (I think this meant not to compel them to use latrines, but to work with them to reconfigure their desires such that they would be self-motivated to make that choice.) Spivak also had several things to say about the “gendered epistemic body,” but I’ll gloss over that since it has been a while and even my initial comprehension of her presentation was spotty at best! (For those who are interested, you can watch a video-recording of the entire conference via a link included at the bottom of this blog post).
I’ll just highlight one thing Spivak said that really struck me. She suggested it was a mistake, or at least misguided, to say of “marginalized” populations that “they know what they need.” Of course they know what they need, she conceded, but what they do not and cannot know, is how that need, or the fulfillment of that need, fits into the larger vision of the world of which they are a part (I think she means that the larger systems, power structures, and discourses in which they are implicated by definition exclude their voices). This underscored for me that Spivak views her position as an educator as also including the role of mediator or cultural translator, a role that architects and planners can also take on, in order to connect populations that are disenfranchised or disconnected from power structures to shape the top-down planning processes that intimately affect them.
Gayatri Spivak with Jailson de Souza e Silva (L) and Alfredo Brillembourg (R)
Panel Discussion and My Reflections
Finally, the presenters reconvened for a panel discussion. I’ll just touch on a few of the themes that emerged during the conversation, and then offer a few of my own reflections:
- Contentiousness of aesthetics—“Favela aesthetic is often not recognized or seen”
- Public policy often only sees “concrete” dimensions of urban space, not subjective dimensions
- Architects live in a place of “pre-critical intentionality,” need to unlearn what they know in order to relearn, engage with other disciplines, collaborate meaningfully
- Necessity of reordering the urban structure architects are trying to shape
- Architecture schools need to produce problem solvers, not solutions
- Architects moderate between local problem solvers and top-down policy
I found all this incredibly interesting, because in some ways, this model of what we might call engaged architecture is not so far off from the way we at The Laundromat Project think about cultural organizing or what some might call artist citizenship. In a recent training I attended on Understanding and Undoing Racism, we discussed the roles we play as gatekeepers. The challenge for architects working with urban populations, I think, is in part to think critically about their role as gatekeepers—who gets to define the parameters of a project, and who gets to hold the architect or planner accountable?
Much like artists and organizers, architects have the unique opportunity to work across sectors, disciplines, and boundaries of race, class, and power—not just to plan and design but to listen, unlearn, think critically, and hopefully, effect a shift in power. There seems to be real promise in moving the practice of architecture beyond the walls of the institutions—universities, public agencies, and design firms—that usually drive the process, so that this practice can be meaningfully shaped and transformed by residents of urban spaces where they are.
After all, the urban “majority”—whether in planned or informal spaces, favelas, squats, urban centers, or their peripheries—already are (or should be) in many ways the true architects of their surroundings. So, the challenge for professional architects and public planners is to act as translators across the divides of institutional power, to broaden access to the processes and discourses of urban planning and design and make sure the “users” they hope to serve can meaningfully shape the processes that ultimately will determine the future of urban spaces.
Housing the Majority (includes video recording of conference)
Torre David (website)
Ramin Bahrani (website)
Join the conversation!
Click here to read The LP Interview with Akiva Steinmetz-Silber. You can also find him on Twitter @djmegatech.