The “Barefoot” Architect

The Global View

In the last century massive social, political and demographic changes have taken place in the Third World due to colonial occupation, the industrial revolution and its global repercussions, and the nature and aspirations of the post-World War two liberation movements and their geo-political alignments. These changes had a two-fold effect on the built environment in developing countries. In rural areas they destroyed the traditional structure of society and along with it the hereditary artisanal tradition and the services sector which built and managed the rural, and in many cases the urban built environment as well. In addition, they led to the commercial exploitation of community lands and resources, the main source for traditional building materials and land for the expansion of settlements.

These repercussions in turn, have led to the non-availability of traditional building materials and affordable skills, and hence a major decline in the quality of the built environment has taken place. More often than not they have also led to homelessness and marginalisation of entire communities.

On the other hand the changes of the last century have led to large scale urbanization, mainly due to rural-urban migration of poor and destitute families, in search of a better future. This process of urbanization is a powerful Third World phenomenon of which Pakistan is very much a part. Urban growth in most major cities of the Third World in the sixties and seventies has been anything from 4 to 7.5 percent per year. Furthermore, it is estimated that whereas, between 1980 and 2000, the number of poor rural households in Third World countries will decline from 70 to 58 million, the number of poor urban households will increase from 40 to 74 million.

Third World governments and professionals have not been able to respond to the problems posed by the pace and scale of this urbanization, and nor to the problems generated in the rural areas. This is because most of these countries have a poor resource base, low incomes per capita and high population growth rates. As such, the vast majority of their populations cannot afford the cost of formal conventional development. In addition, the state often does not have the financial, managerial or technical resources to effectively plan and subsidise this development, or to subsequently operate and maintain it properly. This problem is further compounded by the adoption by Third World countries of inappropriate First and Second World institutional and development models, that are capital intensive; do not make use of the immense human and entrepreneurial resources that Third World communities posses; and are incompatible with the sociology and economics of low income groups whose problems and settlements dominate the urban scene.

The failure of the state and the formal sector to effectively address the physical and social requirements that the changes of the last century have created has led to massive degradation of the built environment. In the absence of planned expansion for the increasing economic activities in the city, old city centres have been turned into wholesale markets, warehousing and sweat shops, and in the process their architectural and cultural heritage has either been destroyed and replaced by substandard utilitarian buildings, or is in a state of advanced decay. Densification has finished off parks, open spaces and formal recreational areas, over-taxed the existing infrastructure and created ad-hoc additions to the houses in the old residential districts, destroying both their physical and social fabric. Many historic cities of the Third World are increasingly dominated by an unregulated transport sector that serves the new functions that have evolved in them, and have ceased to cater to human beings.

The failure to provide affordable housing to the urban poor has led to the development of informal settlements in almost all major cities of the Third World. Most of these are squatter settlements on government land; many are in ecologically unsafe areas prone to seasonal flooding, along railway tracks or in old quarries; others are unplanned, often illegal, subdivisions of valuable agricultural land; and yet others are rentals on private land, managed by powerful mafias and toughs. In almost all cases these settlements have little or no physical infrastructure or social amenities, and their residents have no de-jure security of tenure.

The response of all Third World governments and professionals to these major problems was based, in the sixties and seventies, primarily on First and Second World models (it still is in the vast majority of cases). At state expense restoration of historic monuments in the old city centres was undertaken, but little could be done, due to a lack of resources, to rehabilitate the degraded neighbourhoods and districts around them. Later, attempts at conservation were made, but in the absence of community involvement and due to financial constraints, they remained small islands in a stormy sea of uncontrolled development, and refused to grow.

The state also undertook to provide housing and social facilities for the increasing urban populations. High-rise flats, community buildings, schools and clinics in the international style cropped up in major cities of the developing world. Most of these buildings were climatically and culturally unsuitable and socially unacceptable to the users. In addition, due to their high costs, the users could not pay for them, and the state could not produce them on a sufficiently large scale to overcome even a small fraction of the problems of large scale rapid urbanization. By the mid-seventies it was obvious that the “solution” of the state as a “provider” has failed.

In this period the state was so obsessed by building new townships complete with all social amenities that it failed to cater to the social and recreational needs of the other parts of the city where the social fabric was being destroyed by unregulated land use changes and densification. The worst effected section of the population in this regard were children and the youth who were forced to grow up in the congested and polluted streets.

By the early seventies a few Third World architects and planners had rejected the conventional model of development and the architecture it produced. They insisted that the state could not deliver if its role continued to be that a “provider”. They insisted that architecture and planning should be compatible with the culture and sociology of the people it was meant for, and that it was not the job of the architect to create a new “life styles that reflected, what was unilaterally conceived by him, as the “spirit of the age”. They insisted that only low cost and economic solutions could tackle the scale of urban growth and rural decay in the Third World and that in searching for these solutions, the role of technology would have to be subservient to social conditions and development processes and procedures. They challenged conventional standards and supported the idea of incremental development. To support their contentions and proposals they pointed to the role of communities and the informal sector in providing land, social amenities, housing and jobs to low income groups and the vitality and skills available in the informal settlements. They pointed out that in terms of both scale and financial investment, the contribution of the state to physical and economic development of Third World urban centres was just a small fraction of what the poor and the informal sector had contributed, and that these two forms of development must complement each other. In addition, they pointed out that the architecture of informal settlements, though substandard both in design and technology, was human in scale, conducive to the development of social interaction, and compatible with the culture of its residents.

Out of these contentions were born a number of principles which have slowly come to dominate the thinking of an increasing number of architects and planners in the Third World although they are still a tiny minority. Within this group it is felt that solutions on a large enough scale to be effective can only be achieved if the state and professionals can support the communities and the informal sector in tackling their own problems by raising their awareness levels, mobilising their resources, providing them with technical support, and making them partners in planning and development. Out of this was born the concept of the professional or state as a “facilitator” rather than a provider. In addition, it was felt that the maximum benefit for the largest number should be achieved through the minimum of financial investment, and that costs and processes of management and maintenance should be sustainable.

In concrete terms these concepts led to the development of a number of new approaches though they have been rarely applied. Restoration and state promoted conservation projects were replaced by ones in which people participated and the restored and renovated areas became places of recreation and cultural activity for the city, rather than museums and monuments. In addition, their conservation, management and maintenance became the responsibility of local governments and communities rather than that of the departments of antiquity or archaeology.

Public housing, often on land vacated by bulldozed squatter settlements, was replaced by projects aimed at regularising and upgrading informal settlements. To facilitate this process a variety of innovative credit, design and technical support systems were created. Upgrading of settlements also led to the creation of open spaces and the attention of planners moved to the recreational needs of low income groups. However, few if any of these projects have been successful.

Initially these new concepts were not acceptable to state institutions and to the architectural and planning establishments in most developing societies, and most of the projects based on them were carried out by a handful of professionals for non-government social welfare organizations. It was only in the later part of the seventies that some governments accepted to play the role of a “facilitator’ through small pilot projects and the professional and academic establishments began to discuss the repercussions of this new approach on architecture and professional education. This discussion still continues and has certainly not led to universalizing these concepts at any level.

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