Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many of the great international architects, documenting their work and observing how their designs have the capacity to influence the cities in which they sit. I think of new cities like Dubai or ancient cities like Rome with Zaha Hadid’s incredible MAXXI museum, or like right here in New York with the High Line, a city which has been so much influenced by the development of this.
But what I find really fascinating is what happens when architects and planners leave and these places become appropriated by people, like here in Chandigarh, India, the city which has been completely designed by the architect Le Corbusier. Now 60 years later, the city has been taken over by people in very different ways from whatever perhaps intended for, like here, where you have the people sitting in the windows of the assembly hall. But over the course of several years, I’ve been documenting Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building in Beijing and the olympic stadium in the same city by the architects Herzog and de Meuron. At these large-scale construction sites in China, you see a sort of makeshift camp where workers live during the entire building process. As the length of the construction takes years, workers end up forming a rather rough-and-ready informal city, making for quite a juxtaposition against the sophisticated structures that they’re building.
Over the past seven years, I’ve been following my fascination with the built environment, and for those of you who know me, you would say that this obsession has led me to live out of a suitcase 365 days a year. Being constantly on the move means that sometimes I am able to catch life’s most unpredictable moments, like here in New York the day after the Sandy storm hit the city.
Just over three years ago, I was for the first time in Caracas, Venezuela, and while flying over the city, I was just amazed by the extent to which the slums reach into every corner of the city, a place where nearly 70 percent of the population lives in slums, draped literally all over the mountains. During a conversation with local architects Urban-Think Tank, I learned about the Torre David, a 45-story office building which sits right in the center of Caracas. The building was under construction until the collapse of the Venezuelan economy and the death of the developer in the early ’90s. About eight years ago, people started moving into the abandoned tower and began to build their homes right in between every column of this unfinished tower. There’s only one little entrance to the entire building, and the 3,000 residents come in and out through that single door. Together, the inhabitants created public spaces and designed them to feel more like a home and less like an unfinished tower. In the lobby, they painted the walls and planted trees. They also made a basketball court. But when you look up closely, you see massive holes where elevators and services would have run through.
Within the tower, people have come up with all sorts of solutions in response to the various needs which arise from living in an unfinished tower. With no elevators, the tower is like a 45-story walkup. Designed in very specific ways by this group of people who haven’t had any education in architecture or design. And with each inhabitant finding their own unique way of coming by, this tower becomes like a living city, a place which is alive with micro-economies and small businesses. The inventive inhabitants, for instance, find opportunities in the most unexpected cases, like the adjacent parking garage, which has been reclaimed as a taxi route to shuttle the inhabitants up through the ramps in order to shorten the hike up to the apartments.
A walk through the tower reveals how residents have figured out how to create walls, how to make an air flow, how to create transparency, circulation throughout the tower, essentially creating a home that’s completely adapted to the conditions of the site. When a new inhabitant moves into the tower, they already have a roof over their head, so they just typically mark their space with a few curtains or sheets. Slowly, from found materials, walls rise, and people create a space out of any found objects or materials.
It’s remarkable to see the design decisions that they’re making, like when everything is made out of red bricks, some residents will cover that red brick with another layer of red brick-patterned wallpaper just to make it a kind of clean finish.
The inhabitants literally built up these homes with their own hands, and this labor of love instills a great sense of pride in many families living in this tower. They typically make the best out of their conditions, and try to make their spaces look nice and homey, or at least up until as far as they can reach. Throughout the tower, you come across all kinds of services, like the barber, small factories, and every floor has a little grocery store or shop. And you even find a church. And on the 30th floor, there is a gym where all the weights and barbells are made out of the leftover pulleys from the elevators which were never installed. From the outside, behind this always-changing facade, you see how the fixed concrete beams provide a framework for the inhabitants to create their homes in an organic, intuitive way that responds directly to their needs.
Let’s go now to Africa, to Nigeria, to a community called Makoko, a slum where 150,000 people live just meters above the Lagos Lagoon. While it may appear to be a completely chaotic place, when you see it from above, there seems to be a whole grid of waterways and canals connecting each and every home. From the main dock, people board long wooden canoes which carry them out to their various homes and shops located in the expansive area. When out on the water, it’s clear that life has been completely adapted to this very specific way of living. Even the canoes become variety stores where ladies paddle from house to house, selling anything from toothpaste to fresh fruits. Behind every window and door frame, you’ll see a small child peering back at you, and while Makoko seems to be packed with people, what’s more shocking is actually the amount of children pouring out of every building. The population growth in Nigeria, and especially in these areas like Makoko, are painful reminders of how out of control things really are.
In Makoko, very few systems and infrastructures exist. Electricity is rigged and freshest water comes from self-built wells throughout the area. This entire economic model is designed to meet a specific way of living on the water, so fishing and boat-making are common professions. You’ll have a set of entrepreneurs who have set up businesses throughout the area, like barbershops, CD and DVD stores, movie theaters, tailors, everything is there. There is even a photo studio where you see the sort of aspiration to live in a real house or to be associated with a faraway place, like that hotel in Sweden.
On this particular evening, I came across this live band dressed to the T in their coordinating outfits. They were floating through the canals in a large canoe with a fitted-out generator for all of the community to enjoy.
By nightfall, the area becomes almost pitch black, save for a small lightbulb or a fire.
What originally brought me to Makoko was this project from a friend of mine, Kunlé Adeyemi, who recently finished building this three-story floating school for the kids in Makoko. With this entire village existing on the water, public space is very limited, so now that the school is finished, the ground floor is a playground for the kids, but when classes are out, the platform is just like a town square, where the fishermen mend their nets and floating shopkeepers dock their boats.
Another place I’d like to share with you is the Zabbaleen in Cairo. They’re descendants of farmers who began migrating from the upper Egypt in the ’40s, and today they make their living by collecting and recycling waste from homes from all over Cairo. For years, the Zabbaleen would live in makeshift villages where they would move around trying to avoid the local authorities, but in the early 1980s, they settled on the Mokattam rocks just at the eastern edge of the city. Today, they live in this area, approximately 50,000 to 70,000 people, who live in this community of self-built multi-story houses where up to three generations live in one structure. While these apartments that they built for themselves appear to lack any planning or formal grid, each family specializing in a certain form of recycling means that the ground floor of each apartment is reserved for garbage-related activities and the upper floor is dedicated to living space. I find it incredible to see how these piles and piles of garbage are invisible to the people who live there, like this very distinguished man who is posing while all this garbage is sort of streaming out behind him, or like these two young men who are sitting and chatting amongst these tons of garbage. While to most of us, living amongst these piles and piles of garbage may seem totally uninhabitable, to those in the Zabbaleen, this is just a different type of normal. In all these places I’ve talked about today, what I do find fascinating is that there’s really no such thing as normal, and it proves that people are able to adapt to any kind of situation. Throughout the day, it’s quite common to come across a small party taking place in the streets, just like this engagement party. In this tradition, the bride-to-be displays all of their belongings, which they soon bring to their new husband. A gathering like this one offers such a juxtaposition where all the new stuff is displayed and all the garbage is used as props to display all their new home accessories. Like Makoko and the Torre David, throughout the Zabbaleen you’ll find all the same facilities as in any typical neighborhood. There are the retail shops, the cafes and the restaurants, and the community is this community of Coptic Christians, so you’ll also find a church, along with the scores of religious iconographies throughout the area, and also all the everyday services like the electronic repair shops, the barbers, everything.
Visiting the homes of the Zabbaleen is also full of surprises. While from the outside, these homes look like any other informal structure in the city, when you step inside, you are met with all manner of design decisions and interior decoration. Despite having limited access to space and money, the homes in the area are designed with care and detail. Every apartment is unique, and this individuality tells a story about each family’s circumstances and values. Many of these people take their homes and interior spaces very seriously, putting a lot of work and care into the details. The shared spaces are also treated in the same manner, where walls are decorated in faux marble patterns.
But despite this elaborate decor, sometimes these apartments are used in very unexpected ways, like this home which caught my attention while all the mud and the grass was literally seeping out under the front door. When I was let in, it appeared that this fifth-floor apartment was being transformed into a complete animal farm, where six or seven cows stood grazing in what otherwise would be the living room. But then in the apartment across the hall from this cow shed lives a newly married couple in what locals describe as one of the nicest apartments in the area.
The attention to this detail astonished me, and as the owner of the home so proudly led me around this apartment, from floor to ceiling, every part was decorated. But if it weren’t for the strangely familiar stomach-churning odor that constantly passes through the apartment, it would be easy to forget that you are standing next to a cow shed and on top of a landfill. What moved me the most was that despite these seemingly inhospitable conditions, I was welcomed with open arms into a home that was made with love, care, and unreserved passion.
Let’s move across the map to China, to an area called Shanxi, Henan and Gansu. In a region famous for the soft, porous Loess Plateau soil, there lived until recently an estimated 40 million people in these houses underground. These dwellings are called the yaodongs. Through this architecture by subtraction, these yaodongs are built literally inside of the soil. In these villages, you see an entirely altered landscape, and hidden behind these mounds of dirt are these square, rectangular houses which sit seven meters below the ground. When I asked people why they were digging their houses from the ground, they simply replied that they are poor wheat and apple farmers who didn’t have the money to buy materials, and this digging out was their most logical form of living.
From Makoko to Zabbaleen, these communities have approached the tasks of planning, design and management of their communities and neighborhoods in ways that respond specifically to their environment and circumstances. Created by these very people who live, work and play in these particular spaces, these neighborhoods are intuitively designed to make the most of their circumstances. In most of these places, the government is completely absent, leaving inhabitants with no choice but to reappropriate found materials, and while these communities are highly disadvantaged, they do present examples of brilliant forms of ingenuity, and prove that indeed we have the ability to adapt to all manner of circumstances. What makes places like the Torre David particularly remarkable is this sort of skeleton framework where people can have a foundation where they can tap into. Now imagine what these already ingenious communities could create themselves, and how highly particular their solutions would be, if they were given the basic infrastructures that they could tap into.
Today, you see these large residential development projects which offer cookie-cutter housing solutions to massive amounts of people. From China to Brazil, these projects attempt to provide as many houses as possible, but they’re completely generic and simply do not work as an answer to the individual needs of the people.
I would like to end with a quote from a friend of mine and a source of inspiration, Zita Cobb, the founder of the wonderful Shorefast Foundation, based out of Fogo Island, Newfoundland. She says that “there’s this plague of sameness which is killing the human joy,” and I couldn’t agree with her more.