According to the UN Urban Observatory, by 2020, up to 50% of the total population living in cities across the world will be housed in informal settlements - self-built cities of breeze-blocks, crude brick, straw, mud, recycled plastic, and scrap wood. The overwhelming majority of these shanty cities will be in the developing Global South; yet, as already demonstrated in a squatter camp that has recently sprung up in the 18th arrondissement in Paris, informal settlements are also being built in fully Westernised cities, as migrants are increasingly marginalised. Even as they reveal the inadequacies of state provision in the age of neoliberal capitalism, self-built communities directly challenge the idea that cities should be built according to rules and regulations stipulated by planners and architects; instead they show how cities can be constructed from the bottom up - an architecture without architects: an anarchitecture.
This research explores how urban design might be enriched through an engagement with a wide variety of self-built structures in both speculative visions and real-life practices. It will explore and document these structures, organising them into five principal themes - speculation, self-expression, necessity, liberty, and politics - building an online visual database of projects which will lead to a related book and exhibition. Respective examples from each theme will include: the floating architectures imagined in China Miéville’s novel The Scar and Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash (speculation); the Palais Ideal near Lyon, built by Ferdinand Cheval, and Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles (expression); informal settlements such as Dharavi in Mumbai and the former Jungle refugee camp near Calais (necessity); the temporary structures built for the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada and small-scale structures such as treehouses and sheds (liberty); and radical practices of urban occupation, such as anarchist communities in Berlin and Athens, and the art of the Anarchitecture Group and Theaster Gates (politics). Together, these five themes will greatly expand what is currently defined as informal architecture, broadening its remit and enhancing its diversity.
The research asks how informal architecture, broadly conceived in these ways as anarchitecture, might be brought to bear on current modes of planning and building incities, ones that are, at least in the West, top-down practices dominated by a panoply of constrictions.
In a world dominated by ever-dire threats to urban life, whether climate change, overpopulation, environmental degradation or increasing social division, anarchitecture can promote more sustainable ways of making, more meaningful and direct forms of participation, and more socially-just ways of living in cities. Anarchitecture also shifts responsibility for building to those that live in cities, rather than a small professional elite. In short, it invites a much broader participation in architecture, a move that can only be enriching for our buildings and cities of the future.
The research has many links with current practices that will key into its evolution. Architects such as Teddy Cruz in California, Alejandro Aravena in Chile, and Urban Think Tank in Caracas, are already working in informal settlements in the Americas, devising ways of melding formal and informal approaches to design and urban planning. In the UK, architect David Adjaye has used informal architecture in Lagos as an inspiration for his practice, while groups like the Urban Projects Bureau, the Architecture Foundation, UCL Urban Laboratory, the ‘Incomplete City’ project held at the Bartlett School of Architecture in 2016, and Spatial Agency are exploring bottom-up ways of doing architecture and urban planning. This research and the planned workshops, symposium, website and book will key into these existing projects by conducting interviews with and inviting contributions from participants already working in this field, including David Adjaye, Jeremy Till, Ben Campkin, Matthew Gandy, Tatjana Schneider, and Kim Dovey.
It’ll also be important for the research and writing to grow out of an awareness of bottom-up practices. I’d expect to be involved in organising workshops where architectural makers of many different kinds can provide hands-on experience for participants, with follow-up events focused on making and participation (perhaps related to the annual Antepavilion competitions).
In a different vein, the journal Raw Vision provides a platform for analysis of ‘outsider’ art and architecture and would be an important source for disseminating some of the research findings, particularly on work that normally falls outside definitions of informal architecture. I would also expect the work to be of interest to publications such as The Architect’s Journal, Places Journal, Architecture Today and Metropolis.