Urban planning or self-organization – learning from the slums

Four people sit on mattresses on the floor in a shell and watch television

The Torre David skyscraper in Caracas stood empty for ten years – then it was occupied by 3,500 people. The building is now destroyed. (Iwan Baan)

“The name is always different, the expression of the settlement is also different. It refers to the cheapest building material. But what we actually have in common is the initiative, the activism, that people who live in such a lifestyle situation, actually taking their destiny into their own hands. “

According to Hubert Klumpner, professor of architecture and urban design at ETH Zurich, who together with colleague Alfred Brilembourg researches these so-called informal settlements. Informally, because no planning preceded this development, huts or houses are rarely built on purchased land and often have no official water or electricity connection.

Cost savings through informal construction

An example of an informal building is shown in an exhibition at the Boisserée gallery in Cologne. Colombian Mauricio Salcedo will present his sculptures here from next week until May 4. I visited him in his studio in Cologne with the Chilean-born mathematician Eloise Castanon, who helped with the translation. The artist stands in front of one of his sculptures, an architectural model that looks like a honeycomb, as if several miniature spaces were simply nested on top of each other and next to each other.

Mauricio Salcedo and Eloisa Castanon in front of the sculpture

Mauricio Salcedo and Eloisa Castanon in front of the sculpture (Barbara Weber)

The house he grew up in looks something like this. He says his grandfather was a farmer when he moved to the Bogotá suburbs more than 50 years ago. Although he had no school qualifications, he could then become a policeman:

“Like most families who come to the city from the countryside, at first he just built a room where his grandfather lived with his grandmother and Mauricio’s father.

Translations by Eloisa Castanon:

“After that, construction continued. It’s not a project that’s safe, it doesn’t say anywhere, this is what it will look like in the end. We’re always looking at how to continue – so if necessary, it’s built.”

“That’s right.”

Mauricio Salcedo says:

“Depending on how many people live there, when the family gets bigger, even bigger things are built, and it’s not unusual for several families to live in a house like this.”

He adds:

“The first is a brick construction, because you can find them everywhere in Colombia. The second is: you build something on the property, and then usually what’s on top sticks out a little to two meters towards the street, which means they take up a little bit of space that doesn’t necessarily belong to you. But the bricks are very typical, that’s how people actually build in Bogotá, and that’s how it looks, the facades of the houses.”

So the principle is: you buy a small plot, put a room on it, and if you need to build the first floor, which is then a little bigger and protrudes over the first room, then comes the second floor, which sticks out again. crossed the first floor. Yes, and at some point it all comes crashing down – or what?

“Yes, it can really happen, because you want to optimize these rooms in such a way, and it can happen that everything collapses.

Is it built only by the middle class or by the poor as well?


Does Eloisa Castanon summarize the answer:

“This is also done so that people who have less money could build like this.”

Mauricio Salcedo points out that his family belongs to the middle class. After all, his father studied business administration, then worked as a taxi driver, ran a billiards bar in the neighboring neighborhood and a small tailor’s shop for jerseys – which went bankrupt due to Chinese competition and now he is driving a taxi again. He always finds something to earn. Prof. Hubert Klumpner also uses the principle of developing huts or small houses from cheap local raw materials: simple, two-story houses for cities in South Africa are made of wood, plastic, concrete blocks and corrugated iron. These “empties”, as he calls them, have a toilet and water connection and cost between 5,000 and 9,300 euros. The highlight is the second floor, which allows tenants to run a small shop on the ground floor or to rent out the upper room.

Torre David – until 2014, the biggest squat in the world

A research project conducted by Hubert Klumpner together with his colleague Alfred Brilembourg shows how inventively people have coped with the housing shortage in the megacity of Caracas, Venezuela:

“Torre David is actually a squat. It’s not a slum now, it’s what we called the biggest squat in the world. It’s a tower that was planned as a bank headquarters. Then there was an economic crisis, the bank went bankrupt and the half-built tower fell to the government, then empty for ten years until it was occupied by 3,500 people, then a skyscraper like somewhere in Frankfurt in the banking center, where there is an unfinished tower, which was suddenly occupied, and this occupation meant that on the one hand this tower was of course perceived as a special case, but on the other hand, it has also become a laboratory for how a building that has no infrastructure can function, it has a facade, an elevator, air conditioning, electricity and water. This tower does not have all these, and all these infrastructure tasks are a place full of people.”

A person is sitting on the wall in front of Torre David and talking on the phone

Life in Torre David: an example of self-organized informal living (Iwan Baan)

What specifically did you do in Torre David, which in the meantime was also destroyed by the earthquake, the population had already been relocated earlier, it almost has to be said, fortunately, otherwise there would probably be dead, but what exactly was your job on the spot?

“For a year and a half, we’ve been looking at how people actually feel at home there, how they take care of themselves, how they include the entire space around this tower in this supply concept, how they structurally change the tower and what can actually be derived from that and how you can also draw our conclusions from this and make our insights transferable in some way to other objects that we actually think can be completed or are clearly not usable, and that’s what we discovered and documented in this lab there.”

Urban planning versus self-organization

And working on informal settlements like Torre David brought something else: an insight into what “formal urbanism”, i.e. targeted urban planning, can learn from informal settlements:

“You have to imagine that we actually always start informally. Our formal set of rules is actually a translation of informal practices. If we look at life in cities, then what we can meet in Manhattan in Soho as a gallery district is what was actually a violation of the rules.

Crossroads in New York's Soho district

Crossroads in the Soho district of New York (dpa / photo alliance / Maximilian Schönherr)

Soho used to be a warehouse area where someone started putting up exhibitions and it was later legalized and formalized. And this means that the urban planners did not say that we will create an artistic district there, but art changed the city, not the city art. And I think this should be kept in mind: our restrictive urban planning towards what actually constitutes urban culture has to be constantly renegotiated, and this also requires a great deal of sensitivity and ideally creates neighborhoods that in a certain way As it goes without saying, not only use but their inhabitants also come alive, and if that works, then you have successful cities. It’s very atmospheric. It also has to do with the imaginary that is immediately translated into reality, into built reality, and this self-determined city life produces urban culture. And that is just as true in Rio de Janeiro as it is in Berlin, Frankfurt or Cologne.”

To what extent do you see innovation for our cityscape coming directly from the slums? does it exist

“Well, of course you can’t translate that, the neighborhoods that we’re looking at, in South America for example, that’s growth on an order of magnitude and on a scale that’s probably unprecedented. If you look historically, all the cities, that we know now, that are 500 and more years, they somehow evolved from “informal settlements”. That’s why we also say: informal formalize and formal informal. So we should be a little more relaxed about our built environment and actually don’t let our self-made sets of rules stop us from doing what we it seems interesting and right to us. We actually need more freedom in this interpretation, and this is exactly what intelligent developers, architects, urban planners, politicians always do to reuse, and I believe that we need to become much more intelligent and understand We need to find out what are actually ingredients for building successful cities, because in the last few generations we are actually building a huge problem, a big mortgage for our cities, which are the fourth and are becoming less and less interesting compared to historical cities. And there is great danger. Today, we must use our knowledge to produce living spaces that will still be able to survive in ten, twenty or a hundred years and retain their quality.”

Why is it so important for us to rethink town and city planning, the key word being democracy?

“Okay, the city and urban planning are a mirror of our society. Goethe once said: Architecture is frozen music. I like to say: The city, urban planning is frozen politics and, just like our democracies, it is constantly being negotiated every day. city it must be the same. Otherwise, they will live in museums, that would be one case, there is that, and that is not good either, we noticed, or we live in a built environment that serves a purpose, with which we no longer identify. And for that, greater participation is needed, the city is the production of value, not the consumption of value, and unfortunately we often confuse that today.”

So much for Hubert Klumpner, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at ETH Zurich and together with Alfred Brilembourg, editor of the 5th edition of the book published in 2018: “Torre David – Informal Vertical Communities”, published by Lars Müller Verlag, Zurich

Mauricio Salcedo’s sculptures can be seen at the “District Periphery” exhibition at the Galerie Boisserée in Cologne from March 27th to May 4th.

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