Our housing policies are outdated

What is your background, and what exactly is Urban- Think Tank? 

I am an American/Venezuelan architect, currently based in Zurich, Switzerland. Together with co-founder Hubert Klumpner, I started multidisciplinary design practice Urban Think Tank in 1998 in Caracas, Venezuela. Our firm is working on a variety of projects, most of them in developing countries.

Typical for our work is that we think before we build. We base our work on intensive research, involve many stakeholders, organize a financial framework and, after all this, we finally work on our physical project. People might know us from our projects in Caracas, like the cable car project or the vertical gym. Our current work includes a slum upgrading project in Cape Town, South Africa.

Hubert and I hold a joint Chair of Architecture and Urban Design at ETH Zürich, where we conduct research on urban regeneration.

On your website you call your organization ‘an interdisciplinary design practice dedicated to projects that focus on social architecture and informal development.’ Can you describe what makes design social, and why do you emphasize this aspect of your work?

We really think that we should first bring everyone to one table before we start building. And with everyone I mean not just planners, developers, builders, but in particular the people in the street, the future users, the citizens. By doing so we believe we really create social designs that have an impact.

And moreover, in our projects we try to be critical. Our project in South Africa, for example, is a critique on the unfulfilled promise of the government to provide housing for low income groups. Currently about 2 million people are waiting for a home, the waiting list is approximately 20 to 30 years long. The only alternative for these people is a self-built shack.

So we developed shack’a comprehensive upgrading methodology for such informal settlements, as part of a project called .‘empower shack’. We are working with a community in an informal neighborhood the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha, and the project includes a microfinance scheme and a new housing prototype based on the typology of the row house (with which I expect you are familiar in the Netherlands). The design is based on the idea of being ‘incremental to compliance’. In order to keep the project affordable, we provide only the two side walls, the ground floor plane and a core with all facilities, and the residents can then incrementally upgrade their houses over time, with the promise of eventually reaching code compliance and entering the formal housing system. Our project consists of 68 units. We finally got the building permit and will start building next week.

One of the initial goals of the ISHF is sharing knowledge internationally, as we understand that the biggest challenge regarding housing is in the Global South. Do you think that the West contributes enough?

If you are not thinking globally you are not thinking at all. In 50 years the world will be changed totally. The world population is growing exponentially, particularly in slums in developing countries. Europe cannot isolate itself any longer. We have experienced an influx of migrants to Europe in the past 5 years, and many more will come. If Europe does not invest in the South the South will come to the North. And I think Europe is morally obliged to invest. The continent has benefitted enough from its Southern neighbors, it’s time to pay back.

In the West cities are organized to the smallest detail and housing professionals work in a tight framework of planning and regulations— a totally different situation from cities in the Global South. Can you tell us how different working in cities in the Global South is, and in what way professionals from the West could help?

When we started working in Caracas we were very involved in local life, as I am Venezuelan myself. So when we started a project in South Africa I expected that things would be totally different, but it turns out that working in the Global South is the same as everywhere else.

To name one striking aspect that is really similar everywhere, even in cities in the West, is the tension between the over-organized Modernist residential blocks, built as a result of Welfare state policies, and the informal settlements in between them. It turns out that the favelas, shantytowns, slums, barrios, have the same function everywhere. They are the glue that hold the formal structures together, as the Modernist architects forgot to include shops, places to work, places for urban life in general.

This sort of hybrid modernism can be found anywhere where the welfare state failed. I think that we should embrace this. I believe that all future development will take place where the formal and the informal meet. In general I think that power should be transferred to the people. But they can’t do it alone. We need systems, infrastructures, that can be finished off.

The biggest problem of developing countries are the weak democracies. And currently, as democracies in Europe, the UK and the US are struggling, they don’t give the right example. But one thing we can help with is working on cities. For example the structure of the vertical gym that we built in a slum in Caracas, is actually based on a New York community building. We should share our systems, practices, products with the South, but apply it in a totally different manner.

You’re going to give a keynote at the ISHF Opening Event, for an audience of social housing professionals from all over the world. What can we expect? 

I am going to say that to really make a difference we need to rethink what we are doing. Our policies are outdated, resulting in the exclusion of people from cities, because many people simply cannot afford to live there. This happens everywhere in the world. Also in Amsterdam, where there is a waiting list of more than 10 years before people can rent an affordable house.

I strongly believe in cities, as these are places of development, innovation, civilization. And I believe that everyone has a right to the city, to be part of all the good that urban life brings. So to enable people to live in cities, we need to bring down the price of housing. To do so we need to update the banking system, the regulations, empower collaborative housing better, focus more on the individual needs and give space to new ideas, like houses that anticipate incremental development.

What do you expect of the International Social Housing Festival? 

I think it’s a great initiative and I am honored to be part of it. And I hope it will be more than a bunch of meetings, but that you really manage to pair up housing providers and citizens, to have intense discussions and finally to integrate them all. I hope that everyone sees the importance of our task and that we should turn words into actions. Finally I would like to encourage municipalities to dedicate areas to experimental housing, places for new ideas.

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