Architecture and, to a lesser extent, design are arguably a rich person’s game.
The attention-stealing design statement is almost invariably produced by a client with a large budget: an individual out to transcend the mundane origins of his wealth or an institution set on making a name for itself. For all their seemingly daring innovation, for example, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s state-sponsored CCTV Headquarters in China were achievable only at great expense.
Against this backdrop, consider the devastating poverty that dominates much of the planet. The unthinkable slums of the emerging urban world are almost beyond the imagination of those in the first-world consumer nirvana that characterizes life for many in U.S. cities.
It has engendered vast slums with ramshackle housing, constructed to no building code — often not even indicated on city maps — and lacking even the most basic services, such as water or sewer systems. These neighborhoods are subject to catastrophic disaster during storms or earthquakes that in the first world would be considered minor events. More than half the world’s population now lives in cities, and that is projected to rise over 75 percent by the middle of this century. This unprecedented migration in search of the things that cities can provide — jobs and opportunity — follows a pattern similar to the settlement of American cities in the late 19th century, but on a scale that is staggering in both its magnitude and its challenges.
“Design With the Other 90%: Cities,” at the Centers for Disease Control’s David J. Sencer Museum through May 24, explores the efforts of creative designers and architects to improve these impoverished ad hoc communities, where business-as-usual patterns of commercial development fail to meet residents’ needs. Organized by Cynthia Smith of the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, the exhibition is planned around individual projects now under way in cities across the globe. It includes drawings, photographs, models and, often, real working devices from the field.
The projects address many of the myriad problems facing these emerging urban places: housing, planning, jobs, micro-financing, urban farming, medical delivery, water delivery, sewerage and transportation.
Unlike the wholesale remaking of the 20th-century modernist project, these schemes work by and large within existing contexts, often providing inexpensive strategies for infill housing. One example is the sandbag houses in the Freedom Park settlement in Capetown, South Africa. These buildings, by Design Space Africa, use readily available and inexpensive materials — timber beams, chicken wire and sandbags — to replace the corrugated scrap houses that currently dominate the area. Each house costs $7,000 to construct and provides a new, safe and hygienic home.
Solutions come in all scales. At the small end of the spectrum are apparatuses for providing clean drinking water and hygienic toilets in places without sewer systems, or computer and Internet access in places with no consistent power or data infrastructure. These can be ingenious and startling in their simplicity. A telephone charger, for example, is powered by a bicycle, or an oil barrel is converted into durable housing for a computer station in a harsh environment (above).
Larger-scale solutions address building in areas with little money or defined building infrastructure. Working with indigenous and readily available components, architects provide housing and other community structures lacking in these quickly built and unplanned urban amalgamations.
One particularly striking example is the “vertical gym” by architects Alfredo Brillembourg and Herbert Klumpter of the Zurich-based firm Urban Think Tank. These prototype structures are essentially a flexible kit of parts that can be assembled in any location. Designed primarily around local needs for recreation, they also address requirements for education, transportation or commerce as needed. Inventive in concept, they are also formally interesting dynamic open structures.
The effect on surrounding areas can be remarkable, reducing crime (in one case by more than 30 percent) and providing a new sense of belonging to settlements that lack a cohesive identity or civic spaces.
Projects such as those in this exhibit, which have meaning beyond the purely aesthetic or the functional needs of capitalism, are an inspiration. They deserve attention in our contemporary world of constant and often inconsequential distraction.
The Sencer Museum, overseen by CDC gallery Director Louise Shaw, is excellent and one of Atlanta’s best-kept secrets. An adjacent exhibit outlining the history and mission of the CDC is also worth a visit. It is open to the public, but expect to have your car searched before gaining access to the parking deck and Visitors Center.
David Hamilton is a principal at Praxis3, an Atlanta architectural and design firm, and past chairman of the Metropolitan Public Art Coalition, a public art and design advocacy group.