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The Reflective Architect


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95% of urban growth in the world is taking place in the form of slums. There is a massive need of professionals, including architects and planners, to help city authorities and slum dwellers sort out this crisis. The question is: can we, architects, apply what we have been taught at architecture schools?

We, architects, in almost every part of the world, are trained at universities to translate our interpretation of clients’ needs into sophisticated abstract spatial compositions. We are also trained to convert ugly, messy environments into genius beautiful pieces of modern art. We are trained to communicate our spatial ideas and technical solutions through a sophisticated urban graphic design language. We are trained to believe that our designs have the potential to enhance our client’s social status in the built and social environment where our masterpieces stand. We are trained to believe that by making our client stand out, we will also stand out, become a reference, admired by our competing colleagues. This is the power residing in our work. This is what the great majority of architects aspire to: to create artistically advanced projects for powerful clients with whom we can climb the social status ladder.

The reality that architects live seems to be blind to the fact that today one third of people living in cities worldwide live in slums. That is, they live on informally occupied land, in hazardous environments, without rights, basic services or security of tenure. Moreover, according to UNHABITAT, 95% of urban growth in the world is taking place in the form of slums. There is a massive need of professionals, including architects and planners, to help city authorities and slum dwellers sort out this crisis. The question is: can we, architects, apply what we have been taught at architecture schools? If so, let’s find out what may be the result of applying it.

This paper has been the result of research undertaken by the author in Pune, which includes research of literature on urban development and slums in India, numerous site visits, informal talks with community members and leaders, NGO members, architects involved in this and other projects in Pune, and interviews with Pune Municipal Corporation’s Cheif Engineer, Yerwada’s Ward Corporator, and PMC urban development consultant Sandeep Mahajan.

I am particularly thankful to Savita, leader of Mahila Milan in Pune and her team of incredible women, who helped me understand the on-the-ground struggle of slum dwellers; to John Rainbow, SPARC’s project manager in Pune; to Sarah Göransson, Filipe Balestra and Martinho Pita and Carolina, the architects that worked out the housing strategy; to the senior architect and professor Desanna Prasai; to the engineer Dhananjay, to the architect-planners Sneha and Roohma, to Katia Savchuk from SPARC for her help and valuable comments on an earlier version of this paper; and Sheela Patel, SPARC’s Director, for her priceless support in the initiative.

Links:

SPARC: http://www.sparcindia.org/
Architect Team: http://urbanouveau.com/
JNNURM: https://jnnurmmis.nic.in/jnnurm_hupa/index.html