On Permanence | Impermanence: Transient architecture for housing relief in informal settlements?

On matters of permanence and impermanence, many sub topics come to mind. The permanence of the overpowering dictation of modern thinking in its objective to build structures that aim to remain for as long as possible (which then gets us thinking about the vanity of the “Architect” and immortality through remembrance). Then there is the impermanence of sites that rely on regular renewal such as the mud city of Djenné in Mali (which gets us thinking about the spirit of place, and the renewal of collective memory as a state of impermanence). And then we get to today’s topic focused on the tendency to permanence being a condition of dignity, and how impermanence, which many live in, has potential to become a process of dignification. Disaster relief design is often merited with more attention due to the immediacy of urgency needed to shelter people and by doing so better retains rights of survival. However, the impernanece of informality is equally as pressing, due to the prolonged undignified state of living that many and majority of citizens in third world countries go through. These conditions are often with little to no infrastructure, water sanitation and electricity.

Can an ephemeral approach to design act as relief in informal settlements where instant permanence is not financially viable and often poorly coordinated by governments?

Buildings and homes are required to comply with the building standards provided by most governments in order to maintain a structured environment with buildings that are technically sound to house people. Whilst the intention behind this approach supports the dignity of citizens, in the case that the government and various other stakeholders are unable to role-out sufficient housing that meets these regulations, the result ends up in rapid informal sprawl. This case is the common case. For example, Khayelitsha in Cape Town, South Africa, where citizens in informal settlements continue to wait for RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) housing for the length of their lives, whilst living in self-built structures. These structures, often made of tin and timber debris, as one might term “shacks” are miles below the standard that government insist people live in. The paradox in this is deep.

Following the August 2017 flash fires in Cape Town township Imizamo Yethu, adjacent upper class neighbourhood Hout Bay, the City of Cape Town provided temporary housing structures (shipping containers) to accommodate residents whose homes (inadequate homes to mention) were destroyed by the fire. Following this came heated turmoil and conflict amongst residents living in the temporary housing focused on living conditions, safety and little clarity on what living conditions would follow. Questions on temporality are key when dealing with disaster relief and informality. Understanding how long situations of discomfort are going to truly last is a great source of security and is a right in itself that citizens and victims ought to have.

The Hex House designed by Architects for Society is a fine example of designing with this question at the top of the list of determinants. The Hex House is a set of housing units that can be flat-packed into a truck and delivered to sites that have experienced disaster, as a form of housing relief. The design is far from rudimentary, in that the structures can be occupied for up to 20 years (McKnight, 2014). Be it speculative, the meticulous attention paid to the viability of the design would make this a realizable solution for real life impact. In addition, using modularity – the ability to assemble structures in many different ways – gives space for the adaptability that such a project can have for its environment. At the same time, observing the response from communities to this project would prove to be interesting in prototyping effective elements of the design that should stay and those that are not suitable at all. Here we see concomitant processes occurring in that the government, who is mandated to amending societal crises, would be able to open new ideas outside of the assumed dignified RDP house. Here lies the synergy between designers and the government, which is a point with a lack thereof as it stands. The production of the RDP design being proof in itself, even though it has been rebranded as the BNG (Breaking New Ground) since 2004.

Architecture in countries with such conditions, is undeniably and unavoidably a political act. By ignoring the political agency that could bring about positive societal change, as architects, would be a great pity and disservice to the mutual belief in humanity we all (hope) to have. Keeping in mind, The Hex House as housing for 20 years in Khayelitsha may not be THE solution, because contexts differ and so a need for contextual expertise is imperative in the design process. Urban-Think Tank speaks volumes to effective and realizable dignified housing through proto-typing in their on-going project Empower in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. The proof is in the practice.

Before After (ETHZ UTT/ Daniel Schwartz)

Then the common question comes into play: how?

Competitions? Well that seems to be happening already, but with evident unfair assessment culture brewing between competitors and adjudicators in the mix this doesn’t seem to be the most promising route of appropriate design sourcing.  The Foreshore proposal project in Cape Town is a fine example of the misconduct of competitions when fiscal agendas remain prevalent and; without sound regulation, this process may simply end up giving developers without social imperatives greater room to play at the increased disadvantage of those living in informality.

A potential approach lies in honing in on human resources in educational sites. The well researched, designed and contextually relevant work that students in local universities are producing have potential to make real life impact in contexts, such as Khayelitsha, that need it. There is no doubt that concurrent processes occur in the developing world, with various NGO initiatives, government programmes and architecture interventions happening at the same time in the same sites. However, in education lies the intersection between government (being public institutions and subsidizers) and private/NGO sectors (being students who are constantly entering the industry after qualification). Here lies the core competency of the synergy between government and design, and the starting point for emphasizing architecture as an act of political and societal agency. Take for example UCT graduate Lawden Holmes, who designed a sustainable approach to RDP living as one of Better Living Challenge’s 23 finalists in 2014. In additional, one of the cirtical teeth in the key to this synergy is as little mediators as possible in order to break the culture of broken telephone between specualtive design and implementation. The government needs to make a step to ensuring that effective ideas that are produced in universities are developed and used in contexts that require attention.

And so we revisit the question of this piece: if we are to prioticez the dignity of inhabitants, an ephemeral approach to design through protoyping is a (and not the only) solution partularly in sites where governmental processes remain slow.

Read up on:

The Hex House: http://www.architectsforsociety.org/our-work/hex-house-a-rapidly-deployable-dignified-home/

Empower: http://u-tt.com/project/empower-shack/


McKnight, J. (2014, April 14). Architects for Society designs low-cost hexagonal shelters for refugees. Retrieved March 17, 2018, from Dezeen: https://www.dezeen.com/2016/04/14/architects-for-society-low-cost-hexagonal-shelter-housing-refugees-crisis-humanitarian-architecture/

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