SLUMS: One idea

Morphing capsuleKit of parts capsule
Argentine slum, with first effects of inserted capsules

Architects, as I said in a recent post, are idea people. We have concepts and make designs that embody or implement them. We present them as clearly and openly as possible, and can only hope that others will find them useful to their ends, and build them. When it comes to the reformation of slums, we are a long way from having designs and are very much at the beginning of the having ideas stage. It is in that spirit that I make this post. I count on the tough criticism of colleagues.

If we brainstorm a little, we can imagine, as one solution, a capsule–a material package–that can be inserted into a slum and immediately, with its use by a person living there, begins to transform that person’s living conditions. What it does first of all is establish a demarcated space that is secure from without, clean and radiant with natural and artificial light within. The sheltered space provides distinct areas for sleeping, gathering, hygiene and sanitation. It provides space for cooking, with adequate ventilation, and for work—whatever type of work the person and his family or friends do for their own benefit, economic or otherwise. The capsule is capable of configuring itself, or being configured, according to different patterns of work and living. It does not produce a module, or standardized unit. If we think of it more like a nutrient, rather than a product, we understand that the results it creates are adapted in unique ways to particular persons or families, because it nurtures whatever is strong in a given situation, rather than imposing a uniform result based on a pre-conceived judgment of what is best. In this sense (letting our imaginations play freely), we can conceive of the capsule as something that organically enhances the living and working conditions of people who use it, beginning as something standardized—like a pill we take when sick—that morphs into a restorative source of energy, metabolizing into material form, enabling health, enhancing the capabilities of those who use it, whatever they may be.

If such a capsule could be designed by leading thinkers, engineers, architects; if it could be produced by the best technicians using advanced technological facilities; if it could be financed by institutions in the private and public sectors with vision of the vast benefits for everyone it would create; then it would seem that such a project could actually be accomplished. If a large number of these capsules were to be inserted into a slum, the result over time would be growth of a healthier living environment, from within. Because the transformation would be incremental, both in time and scale, it is conceivable that an organic form of community could literally grow from the exchange and cooperation of people now inhabiting slums as they reform their living environments.

It is easy to imagine objections to such a ‘magic bullet,’ as the cure for syphilis was called in the 19th century. From the side of the slum dwellers, it might seem an unwelcome intrusion from outside, just another quick fix imposed by the economically advantaged on the desperately poor, serving the interests of the rich by transforming the slum according to their well-intentioned but—to the slum dweller–necessarily opposed values. It is especially important, then, that the transformative capsule enables the slum-dwellers to achieve their goals, serving their values, and does not reduce them to subjects of its designers’ and makers’ will. Inevitably, the values, prejudices, perspectives and aspirations of the designers and makers will be imbedded in the capsule and what it does. Therefore the slum-dwellers should, in the first place, have the right of refusal. Also, they must have the right to modify the capsule and its effects as they see fit. It cannot be a locked system, capable of producing only a predetermined outcome. The implication of these freedoms is that the capsule, whatever its capabilities, could be used to work against the intentions of its designers and makers. Because the effects of the capsule would be powerfully transformative, its possession would involve risk for all the groups, and individuals, involved. Because the sponsoring institutions in the economically enabled sector have the most to lose, it is more likely that resistance to the creation of such a capsule would come not from slum dwellers, but from these sectors. For those who believe in such a project, it is imperative that leaders in the economically powerful sectors be convinced that creation of the capsule is a risk worth taking.

Even without institutional support and sanction, the conceptualization and design of the capsule can and should begin immediately. There is nothing to lose by moving in this direction. And moving independently is probably the only effective way to proceed, because issues of politics and economics, from institutional viewpoints, will slow down or frustrate the process of having ideas and developing them, as it often does in much less complex projects. What is needed now is free thinking by the most creative minds, in order to innovate on the level required by the ‘unsolvable’ problem of transforming slums on a local, let alone global, scale. Because the problem is urgently in need of solution, the effort should be thought of in the same way as that to find a cure—or at least a treatment—for a virulent disease that is already affecting millions and spreading rapidly.

There is really no time to waste.


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