During the masters course, we constantly learn about issues concerning foreign aid workers in third world countries imposing “western” ideals on different cultures and how architects have this inherent desire to formalize the informal. I have been consciously trying to stay objective and neutral in projects involving foreign contexts, as I am just as eager to learn the about local customs and architectural vernacular as to participate in international projects. However my interest in informal settlements certainly derives from an urge to understand the spatial logic, digest it and redesign it as ordered part of the city. I have found myself guilty of attempting to formalize the informal in every aspect.
I have also come to realize that this is an underlying theme of my chosen thesis topic – materiality. By analyzing the current uses and efficiency of construction materials in slums, somehow I am trying to standardize individual products to create a more controlled and linear process of physical improvements.
Is this a valid purpose? Who am I to tell people what to build their homes out of? From my research I should be able to advise which materials are better suited for certain functions while considering safety, economics and climatic conditions but the residents probably already know this, they just aren’t capable of achieving it. What can architects offer of value to slum dwellers? If it is the spatial dynamics of slums we are interested in, they actually rank the physical condition of their environment quite low on their list of priorities. Financing, education and sanitation are far more effective for improving their impoverished situation, of which they can then upgrade their homes as they see fit, not as I do.
I am still not sure how my research benefits those that I want it to, but the organization I am currently working for sees value in it. SPARC works directly with the affected communities and by listening to their immediate needs, they somehow believe that by just formalizing this common information and making it readily available for people building their own homes in slums, it will improve the state of construction and hopefully be reflected in their living conditions. I am not sure if I believe this will have real effects yet, and sometimes think that maybe my role in the world of development could be more useful on the grander scale of urban planning, but considering SPARC’s successful history in poverty alleviation, I suppose I might just have to trust them and hope that my research is worthwhile and believe it can have a positive affect for future slum conditions.