Housing the Remnants of Capitalism.


“The third world is not a reality, but an ideology.”
― Hannah Arendt

A few days ago we found the project let’s talk about garbage through a tweet by @alucidwake and immediately two things catched-up our attention, the renders of such a big slum project and the quote “the land (and people living there) has been put up for sale by the city authorities.” The people has been put for sale?

We have been writing recently about capitalism and his close and deep relationship with architecture, and this project is a clear example of this fact. Dharavi is one of the largest slums in the world, with an estimated population between 600,000 and over 1 million people. This land, according to the architects’ research, is worth over 2.3 billion dollars, because the slum generates profits worth 500 million dollars, supplying the whole of Mumbai with necessary products and goods. In this context, UGO architecture and design has proposed a new facility based on a structure without a prescribed function, with blocks for residential uses to the south and a recycling part to the north, only divided by two corridors, and with the ground floor space serving mainly to supply garbage from the dump.

Assuming that we were moving on arena of speculations, it was not surprising that this project was the start point of a deep and intense open discussion on facebook, with more than fifty comments, including several references in a thought-provoking debate. That’s why we want to keep the debate alive and decided to bring here some of those thoughts, arranging them as a form of collective writing, born from the exchange of ideas between a group of architects and thinkers which engaged the conversation.

Dharavi. Source: iliketowastemytime

Dharavi. Source: iliketowastemytime

Diogo Seixas Lopes pointed that as a provocation, the project “let’s talk about garbage” seems more serious than Pig City by MVRDV, adding that “in order to address social negativity, perhaps it is necessary to provide a reflection of it instead of fake philanthropy and naive do-gooders.” This is an interesting point, because there is a need to confront the limits of what we call a ‘provocation’ with the limits of banalizing a real and deep problem. This profound banalization has been increased in recent years with the aestheticization of favelas and slums. We think this fact can be dangerous inasmuch as it drives the debate out of the social, economic and political implication of architecture. Reached this point, Joana Sá Lima made a call for attention pointing that this is a deadly serious issue, therefore can’t be taken this lightly. On this subject, Sasha Cisar wrote:

Irony can be a critical tool, but this totally fails to meet any representation of irony —if I were at least try to find a ‘positive aspect’ here, which I just can’t […] I understand ones attempt of maintaining the social proximity which one can experience in slums, but what I fundamentally cannot believe is the attempt at recreating and redesigning a slum […] nobody chooses to live in a slum but is rather forced to do so by conditions imposed upon you (a state of heteronomy so to speak). So to above design proposal rather represents a dystopia than anything else and is utterly uncritical of the conditions on the ground.

There is also a need to discuss the project beyond the problem of aestheticization redesigning a slum. The political, social and economical implications of architecture emerge immediately when Diogo wrote:

Unfortunately, slums will carry on thriving for quite a while under the current conditions of capitalist exploitation. So, simply forget about architecture and try to tackle the politics of this problem. This has not been easy for the last 150 years of resistance against the pace of capitalism […] if there is a problem, it is firstly political.

Let’s talk about garbage… from Archiprix International on Vimeo.

On the project’s video, there is an emphasis to communicate how the economically constructed housing block allows its inhabitants to shape and modify the spaces themselves, based on the well known Dom-ino —the physical platform for the mass production of housing designed by Le Corbusier—. With such reference, we can add a reflection from Pier Vittorio Aureli’s From Dom-ino to Polykatoikia, where he states that in the Dom-ino model, flexibility is not only a positive quality, but also a fundamental apparatus of social engineering that controls the economic development of supposedly spontaneous settlements from the Brazilian favelas to the Turkish gecekondu. In this context, Ross Wolfe remarks:

As a provocation I think I could actually appreciate its knowing perversity. It incorporates standard populist [“the economically constructed housing block allows its inhabitants to shape and modify the functions within”] and cultural relativist [“the replacement flats are based on westernized models of housing and ignore the cultural and social needs of the people”] critiques of modernism while proposing a structure of truly stupefying concrete proportions.

If the city no longer represents the system but becomes the system itself, as Archizoom proposed more than fifty years ago, how can we avoid to get lost in representation and start understanding the systemic fails we’re living to react in a proper way?

supersurface dom-ino2
Supersurface Dom-ino. Proposal by Nick Axel

Dom-ino system to build a slum. By UGO architecture and design

Maybe the only way to react is to start taking action. Joana Sá Lima is very clear on this issue, when she says that “Marxist quotes are not operational design tools.” and Nick Axel adds “We cannot overcome capitalism if we do not work in the reality of the present.” The implicit call for action of these comments drives us again to our main concern in the current times: going beyond technical patches and challenging the whole picture, and thus perceiving Capitalism as a failed system.

Giorgio Talocci also wrote about this problem, “Global capital [in the 19th century] was another word that did not exist, the scale of investment (and then of quickness and fierceness of possible evictions) have quite improved…” and Fosco Lucarelli also pointed:

Capitalism is always the same [old] in its socio-hystorical assumptions [the social relation of domination and exploitation of Capital-Labor] and always new in its social dynamics. Furthermore the dimension of the capital is inherently social and global since its historical genesis, as Marx kept on writing lots of times.

Maybe the best way to summarize the debate is to take Ana María León words: “It might seem the choice is then between looking for change at structural levels and rebooting the system, or looking for patches/temporary solutions within the system to solve more immediate needs. I think the challenge for architecture is the possibility of finding a third way out, a way to enact structural levels and change the conditions in which it is produced.”

But which are this kind of projects?

Ana María took the Metrocable in Medellin as a good example and Talocci pointed to the work of Teddy Cruz as the only well known architect that truly understood the problem and keeps working humbly on it. Which others would you add?

We would like to add that the world is neither black nor white, there are a lot of possibilities in the middle to address architecture as a catalyst for change. Maybe architecture is not politics, but it has a deep political implication inasmuch as being a practice related with the space we live in. In that sense, architecture language and its project narratives can be used as provocations, as ironic manoeuvres to put on the table the nooks that overaccumulation leaves behind. Projects for provocation, a sort of denouncing apparatus to help us to decolonize our mind processes from the distorted idea of perpetual material progress, which is nothing more that the modern tale of capitalism.


“Think about the strangeness of today’s situation. Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”
—Slavoj Žižek


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