Cluster 5: Conceptual Crisis: Architectural alienation in the South

by ivettearroyo

Skyscrapers-slums-caracas 1

Wallenstein (2010) text highlights that “modern capatalism works by creating a consent through images, sound bites, brands, and various visual technologies that impact directly on our brain, bypassing the censorships and reflective mechanisms of consciousness”; and this alienation includes architecture in developing countries. The skyscraper is associated with ideas of modernity or development even in contexts with high levels of poverty, segregation and inequality. Conversely, Wallenstein argues the capacity of architecture to open a space of freedom to question formal contradictions of society. In developing countries, the duality of the city –coexistence of skyscrapers and slums – are part of these contradictions of contemporary society. This duality is the physical expression of modern capitalist inequality. Architecture has surrendered to the forces of the market instead of activating our reflective mechanisms of consciousness. How can architecture move away from the current mode of production of the built environment as material good and address the housing needs of around 1 bilion people worldwide? What can be the role of architectural critique in developing countries today?

Latour (2004) argues the need of “the cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude dealing with matters of concern, not matters of fact”. Slums should be considered a matter of concern – a thing, an issue, a ‘gathering’ – that has humans and nonhumans ‘participants’ which make this ‘thing’ robust, urgent to address in the South. As Latour pointed out, “it is entirely wrong to divide the collective…into the study matters of fact, on the one hand, and the dispensable crowds, on the other”. This means that we should avoid to break slums in different matters of fact such as infrastructure or public space, on one hand, and the community living in it, on the other. Thus, the importance of understanding the ‘thingness of slums’ to search for ways of doing architecture –slum upgrading – that go beyond contemporary capitalist alieniation. If we look deeper into the ‘thingness of slums’ we will understand rich and sturdy social relationships among slum dwellers and how peple relate to their spaces. Organized self-help housing (OSHH) is among other ways of doing architecture that moves away from the object-building paradigm promoted by the market. OSHH is concerned with the shared process of production of ‘the spatial’[1] by the people themselves with technical assistance of local institutions. The OSHH does not divide ‘the collective’ or ‘the gathering’, but builds up from the capabilies of the community to improve its physical components. In the OSHH process, ‘agency’ is multiple; first, we can refer to the agency of architects that is transferred to the community; but we also can refer to the relevance of ‘dweller-control’– understood  as agency, which means the ability of the individual family to act independently of the market alieniation to address their shelter needs. For the organized self-help housing process ‘collective agency’[2] and ‘collective efficacy’[3] of the community are key issues among the ‘thingness of the thing’.


Awan, N. & Schneider, T. a. T. J., 2011. Introduction. In: N. Awan & T. a. T. J. Schneider, eds. Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture. London: Routledge, pp. 26-34.

Bandura, A., 1998. Personal and collective efficacy in human adaptation and change. Advances in phsychological science, Volume 1, pp. 51-71.

Latour, B., 2004. Why has critique run out of steam?. Critical Inquiry, Issue 30, pp. 225-248.

Turner, J. a. F. R., 1972. Freedom to build. First Edition ed. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Turner, J. F., 1976. Housing by People. Towards autonomy in building environments. First ed. London: Marion Byers.

Wallenstein, S.-O., 2010. Noopolitics, Life and Architecture. In: D. Hauptman, ed. Cognitive Architecture. From Biopolitics to Noopolitics. Architecture & Mind in the Age of Communication and Information. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, pp. 47-60.

[1] Here I refer to ‘the spatial’ following Awan & Schneider (2011) explanation regarding why the moved from the limits of the term ‘architectural’ to the more open possibilities of the ‘spatial’: “Clues as to these other ways…[ ]…prioritise values outside the normal terms of reference of the economic market, namely those of the social, environmental and ethical justice….[ ] … these issues that are best addressed within the dynamic context of social space, rather than within the static context of architecture as building.

[2] Bandura (1998) argues that “social cognitive theory extends the analysis of mechanisms of human agency to collective agency.

[3] Collective efficacy refers to people’s belief in their collective power to produce a desired outcome (Bandura, 1998).