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Design for the Other 90%

Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s show Design with the Other 90%: Cities, showing how artists and architects are bringing their visions to cities of the Global South

In countries such as Peru and South Africa, cities appear overnight. They are not precluded by a plan, a vision or a utopian ideal, and they don’t involve an architect; they simply exist. These informal settlements have become hotbeds for some of the most innovative design solutions to inherent problems related to poverty: issues of sanitation, adequate space, infrastructure and comfort.

How the estimated 1 billion people (projected to triple by 2050) living in these settlements adapt to suit their needs and improve their urban environment is the premise for the Cooper-Hewitt’s latest exhibition, Design With the Other 90% : Cities.

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The show’s curator, Cynthia Smith, has visited 15 cities around the world including Dakar in Senegal, Dhaka in Bangladesh and Sao Paulo in Brazil, gathering information about local and global initiatives empowering poverty-stricken urban-dwellers. The exhibition is the second in a series that began with Design for the Other 90% in 2007, which highlighted solutions for the 90 per cent of the world’s population who don’t benefit from designers working on products and services to improve their standard of living (the catalogue has even been used as a textbook by various academics).

In contrast to well-known approaches to humanitarian aid and construction projects that often rely on imported materials and unsustainable interventions, what Smith reveals here is the success of hybrid solutions, whereby informal settlements are working with formal settlements.

‘Different people said to me: “to build a house is easy, but it’s hard to build a community,”’ says Smith. When the hard shrift has been done already, designers and architects are weaving their work into existing currents of change. ‘What is interesting with so many of these projects is that there is real application to what is currently happening around the world,’ she explains.

The 60 projects in the exhibition (narrowed down from about 300) are success stories; schemes that have had a positive impact, which are scalable and transferable. The Venezuelan-based Vertical Gym by Urban Think-Tank, for example, is intended to mark out a safe public space in a dense urban location.

The gym has been designed as a kit of parts so that an architect can programme and adapt it to a given site, and has been proposed for areas in countries as diverse as the Netherlands and Jordan, as well as for New York City.

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The urban landscape is used as a canvas in other projects. In 28 Millimetres: Women are Heroes, artist JR plastered large-scale images of female community members onto slum houses. This is a simple gesture, articulating the power of collective action. In the case of Dutch duo Haas & Hahn’s Favela Painting, the action was used to draw attention to much-needed improvements to public spaces in Rio de Janeiro. Visibility was further directed at a local level in Lima, Peru.

Here informal settlements can’t rely on governments to map their territories, so designer Jeff Warren assigned the task to a digital camera attached to inflated bin-liners. The resulting images, owned by residents, can support land-title claims as well as give inhabitants an idea of their own relationship to the city.

There has been a common misgiving in the West that aid is about patronage. We have grown accustomed to images of shantytowns; people living cheek-by-jowl in shacks piled on top of each other, but the role designers play in tackling this shortage of adequate housing in developing countries has been less explored.

The Cooper-Hewitt exhibition includes low-tech, high-impact innovations such as interlocking sand bricks and flexible plastic formwork. These provide design solutions that are more relevant in the 21st century than ever before, as the most densely populated areas in the world have been affected by some of the worst natural disasters in living memory.

‘The only way to make a big transformation is through education… so [people] can appropriate this knowledge and use it in the way they want,’ says architect Arturo Ortiz of Taller Territorial, Mexico. His project, Make the House Intelligent proved to be the simplest, fastest and safest way to build shelter for the informal communities in Mexico’s slums, but called for the engagement of users to understand how it could work.

The effect of such simple ideas is infectious, like the many of the projects in the exhibition. Recently, Ortiz gave his plans to a builder who wanted to use the construction model in the Chicoloapan Municipality and has presented a modified system to the government in Tabasco, Mexico, where people suffer from chronic flooding.

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As the exhibition’s breadth makes clear, not all urban planning is design-led. For Smith, the value of collaboration and communication cannot be understated: ‘The most important audience is the people working and living in these areas,’ she says. ‘So how do you broaden the exchange?’ Grassroots movements such as Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), a transnational organisation of slum-dwellers, has been working on a horizontal exchange, identifying and sharing design tools to solve global issues on a local scale.

The significance of such an organisation points to a shift towards a bottom-up organisational structure, in terms of who is determining the development and integration of peri-urban settlements, when their growth is so rapid that municipalities and local governments can’t keep up.

Population growth and urbanisation is not a new topic, but as rural communities continue to be less economically sustainable, questions of urbanism have resurfaced. Last year, Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York investigated the transformative potential of public art on the complex fabric of a metropolis in Painting Urbanism – Learning from Rio, while Massachusetts Institute of Technology explored initiatives in conflict zones in a lecture series entitled Zones of Emergency: Artistic Interventions – Creative Responses to Conflict & Crisis. And BBC Radio Four aired Slums 101, in which Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason raised a debate about planning one of the most populous cities at risk of natural disasters on Earth: Manila.

The impact of urban planning and architecture on the social fabric of a place is implicit in most design: the colossal task for designers today is how to apply their expertise to turning impromptu cities into legitimate and vibrant settlements where urbanites might prosper in the future.

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