Architecture and the transformational agenda

This Blog has focussed the need to move beyond mainstream logistics and supply chain thinking relevant to the developed world and respond to a quite different context in emerging, developing and devastated markets – Transformational Logistics. Increasingly, we see this agenda as having wider scope; that a Transformational agenda is highly relevant to other spheres where local context needs to be respected with a triple bottom line of planet and people as well as profits to be considered.

Vertical means developed world architecture

A while back, I went to the Whitechapel Gallery in London and saw Twins, a piece by the Indian photographer Rashid Rana. From a distance, the two prints (171 x 228 cm) are streaked with light. Close up, each canvas is made up of tiny photographs of dwellings characteristic of the Majority World. It reminds me of the view from a plane on a landing approach anywhere from Jakarta to Soweto; Luanda to Rio; Dharavi in Mumbai and the adjacent Financial District. The symbolism of a vertical developed world architecture contrasting the horizontally humble dwellings of the developing world reveals itself and, the reference to the Twin Towers makes it all the more poignant. Twins triggered a thought – the need to develop a more inclusive architecture that responds to and does not seek to divide a city into the haves and have-nots; gated communities for some and slums for the rest. This is the inclusive agenda and affordable housing.

In his treatise on urban architecture, Urbanisme (1925), Le Corbusier argued that the zig zag tracks of donkeys are behind the shape of all cities of the continent. He argues for sanity; he insists that the random and chaotic trajectory of donkeys has to give way to rational and logical lines. Fast forward to now and, this is the inspiration behind plans to redevelop Dharavi in Mumbai and re-settle a whole community in purpose built tower blocks elsewhere. Notions of living and working in the same space are rejected, yet again, to replicate the soulless projects typified in 1960s European architecture or, the Soviet experiments such as Nova Huta near Cracow , Poland. There is no scope for the zig zag of individuality let alone that of donkeys and scant attention is given to the affordability of housing amidst grand Municipal designs or abandoned renaissance projects throughout the contemporary developed world.

Demographic studies make clear that the global population burst from 6 to 9 billion in 2050 will explode in the cities where 75 per cent of the total will live. At current levels an estimated 1.3 million people move to cities every week and, 2 billion people or 1 in 4 will live in slums within these cities by 2030; 3 billion by 2050.An estimated 50 city regions generating more than 60% of globalGDP. These facts demand the re-thinking of urban spaces and the building of inclusive environments that acknowledge the existence of informal communities and, drive necessary transformations.

The work of Chilean architect Alejandro Araveno and his aptly named “do tank”Elemental, is an innovative response to the challenges these demographic trends generate. With a combination of idealism and pragmatism, Alejandro champions urban density seeing this as a cornerstone of affordability. Pointing out that location is a major constraint relegating people to the margins of the cities they work in or, in squatter settlements that do not gain in value – not that this matters when you have no legal title in the first place.

First the structure; then customisation

Elemental want to design and build better neighbourhoods but this does not mean the gentrification of slums first highlighted by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) nor the prescriptive rigidities of other “social housing projects”. Elemental want their housing to be an investment and not just an expense but they aim to do so within existing economic and political constraints. Given the current global economic climate this is worth listening to.

Araveno and Elemental are best known for their “half a house concept”. This is the problem – slum areas are restricted in size; there is not much space. So, conventional architecture could do one of three things:

  • Few medium size houses – and then most people have to leave, as there are no houses for them.
  • Loads of small houses – but still not enough, too small, and these houses would be difficult to “expand” as families needs grew.
  • Highrise buildings – these have been tried and failed the world over.

The Elemental project’s solution was this.  The project would plan for the “medium” size houses, but build only half the house.  They would plan (and build) in such a way that more units could fit in, and that the families could easily expand into the “missing” half when they were able to do so – affordability.

The economics are revealing. Phase 1 – the foundations and load bearing walls that offer a safe structure costs $100 per square metre; Phase 2 – is left open to the individual family with an average cost of no more than $20 per square metre. Phase 1 is based on prefabricated modular designs which offer simplicity, standardisation and speed. This approach learns from what happens in the favelhas and townships where homes are built – and customised – room by room but, answers the need to improve safety and create sustainable solutions.

Alejandro Araveno and Elemental open up an innovative architectural dimension that triggers a number of other transformational ideas in infrastructure:

  • Multi purpose locations. Commuting in mega cities is an issue. Neighbourhoods need to return to historical notions of mixing living space within a working environment with clusters of craftsmen and women sticking together. More needs to be done to factor in digital technology as a means to weld communities together allowing towns to evolve along the trunk roads and not just at both ends. These roadside communities that are a feature of African countries can be the root of something more expansive.
  • Hard infrastructure. A whole range of affordable solutions for road surfaces to using barges and coastal transhipment.
  • Soft infrastructure. The need for affordable connectivity rather than fully fledged ERP. Wireless and mobile phones to aggregate information on production capacity and demand – this challenges rapacious agents and helps build inclusive value networks instead of supply chains.
  • Intermediate. The nature of warehousing and materials handling equipment; manual handling as well as state-of-the art machinery. What about bonded warehouses in “hub” villages? Then, there are trucks – a major issue in all developing economies. This opens up the need for better cash flows and ideas beyond micro finance.
  • Green and sustainability agenda. This needs to embrace process as well as facilities and energy options are opening up all of the time. Are we trapped in developed world legacy systems (that they need to sell) or, ready to develop and build according to local needs.
  • Capital finance. The Majority World is under-capitalised; under-banked and these are critical factors in excluding the majority from the housing market. This is where modular design can open up the possibility of building the home over time – room by room as needs and finance emerge. For example, land values climb through various stages from acquisition through to planning permission and then, when the site is developed. The same could apply to the house.

The transformational agenda is wider than logistics and supply chain thinking and practice. As this example from Alejandro Araveno and Elemental; inclusivity, adaptability, affordability and accessibility are all factors relevant to architecture just as much as an end-to-end supply chain. Then, there is the dignity of having a place within society and not being consigned to the margins. This is a major part of what Professor Michael Porter, amongst others, are calling “creating shared value” – the idea that corporate activity which advances society will contribute to a positive cycle that allows everyone to grow faster.    

Rashid Rana’s Twin was exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery during the Where Three Dreams Cross exhibition (January to April 2010)

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2 Responses to Architecture and the transformational agenda

  1. Giles DeLatour says:

    what an image! what a set of ideas! I went to the link with Elemental – this IS innovation! Again, well spotted.

  2. Hugh Marcy says:

    Well thought out approach! Innovation with building materials including reused/ remanufactured from what would formerly have been landfilled, innovation for waste treatment systems, energy innovation. It will all happen because it must! Reinvent, reinvent, reinvent….

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