Thanks to Ethel and César, I got to re-read the fantastic book City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City by Greg Girard and Iam Lambot (my own copy is in France!) and it got me wanting to wonder about this question, why do architects dream of a world without them? Few decades after the 1964 exhibition Architecture Without Architects curated by Bernard Rudofsky at New York MoMA, there is a clear interest from many architects – in which I most certainly belong – for architectures that did not necessitated the intervention of the architect as an expert. We can thus see a multitude of projects set-up around the various slums/favelas of the world. Some of them are interesting, some others are incredibly inconsiderate, but this does not explain this sort of professional “death drive” that makes architects fascinated by the production of their absence.
This fascination’s reasons are maybe to be looked for with another one, also specific to this current period of time, that makes us, architects, willing to integrate the appropriation of architecture by its users as part of its protocol of creation. Once again, I am fully including my own work within this influence – one might want to say “trend” – but it is important to interrogate our obsessions. Is the notion of appropriation a way for the architect to dismiss his own responsibility and his power? Is it a philanthropic pulse that allows us to offer generously our work to the collectivity? As always, the answer probably comprises both of this extreme propositions.
In the case of slums, vernacular architectures, and other immanently constructed buildings and towns, the appropriation is total as it is concomitant of the construction of architecture itself. The latter is in continuous evolution and cannot ever be defined as achieved as it does not follow any transcendental plan that would have clearly states what its finish state should correspond to. The modernist dream of architecture thought as a “living machine” which can adapt to any need of its users could not be achieved through the limited understanding for life of an architect. On the contrary, these immanent architectures, freed from the architects and the urban legal framework, can attempt to negotiate such an adaptation. As Peter Popham writes in his introduction for G.Girard and I.Lambot’s book,
what fascinates about the Walled City is that, for all its horrible shortcomings, its builders and residents succeeded in creating what modern architects, with al their resources of money and expertise, have failed to: the city as ‘organic megastructure’, not set rigidly for a lifetime but continually responsive to the changing requirements of its users, fulfilling every need from water supply to religion, yet providing also the warmth and intimacy of a single huge household.
Let us try not to zoomorphize or romanticize too much those architectures and their users/constructors. Similar protocols are, of course, observable “in the wild” (bacterias, ants, termites, beavers and all these other references you now find in many schools of architecture), but these architectures and their complexity are also social and political – Man is a political animal Aristotle wrote. Slums are the production of a pauperized population who organized itself to occupy zones of the urban and legal system to live within a sort of inclusive (urban) exclusion (social). Similarly, the Kowloon Walled City and its 50,000 inhabitants continuously created a zone that, through its practices and means of suppression (or non suppression), applied a different legal and behavioral system than the Hong Kongese one, which was surrounding them. In my previous article about the Walled City, I defined it as a “proletarian fortress;” in fact, most of these immanent architectures have clear borders that territorialize this other legal and behavioral system, and these borders create – voluntarily or involuntarily – a defensive device that protects them from the absorbing outside.
In conclusion, what seems to fascinate us in the architectures without architects, is the degree of intensity in which life unfolds itself at every level. Self-construction provides a complexity of material and spaces in a mix of voluntarism and fortuitousness. The density of population forces people to communicate and negotiate social protocols. The multitudes of needs triggers a local economy based on tinkering and sometimes hijacking processes. The very existence of such architectures provides a strong political stand towards its surrounding. The otherness of the territory allows a different legal and behavioral system to articulate itself. All those elements – and probably much more as well – offer something that no architect is able to think and plan. (S)he can only throw here and there in his design and construction few catalysts, hoping that they will trigger situations in which life could unfold. The fact that it eventually does not depend on her (him) should be considered as a relief rather than a disappointment.
More photographs extracted from the book City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City by Greg Girard and Iam Lambot, Watermark, 1999: