In Search of a Match

All neighbourhoods which were designed during the last decennia suffered from it: human needs, with the sole exception of shelter, can only be satisfied after a long walk or a short drive. Running out of matches means a trip to a shopping centre, with the invariable result that one returns with not only  a box of matches, but some magazines, a bottle of hair lotion and a new shirt as well. The system works well, but not for the person living in a planned neighbourhood.

One does not have to go too far back into history, or for that matter, travel to a developed region – in contrast to an over-developed region – to see that shelter and work were closely intermingled. Take for example, a farmhouse. By its very nature it is, besides shelter for man and animal also a storage area, workshop to repair implements, food production such as sausages and butter and frequently served as a recreation centre as well (one has only to look at some of Breughel’s paintings to become aware of all activities around the farm-house).

What happens is that for people who are not part of the modern market economy, their house serves many more purposes than just being a shelter. It acts more as a vehicle for improving their living conditions. It can be seen in all squatter developments – and not there alone – that although these people are statistically unemployed, most of them are engaged in some activity or another (otherwise they would starve). One house serves as a bicycle repair shop – with people living in the back or above, while the neighbour uses his area to raise songbirds, with the next one a class room for aspiring seamstresses. Even the washerwoman needs a space where she can secure the laundry of her clients. Without a shelter, it becomes, under these economical and social conditions, very difficult to make a living and survive.

When these people are moved into planned housing developments, their possibilities of independently making an income are reduced drastically. How can a shoemaker advertise his trade when he is located in the fourth floor of an apartment block? Not to mention is one is allowed even by the housing agency to carry out an activity, which is any other besides eating and sleeping.

The time has come to establish a new approach to the design of these communities, comprised largely of low-cost housing, either self-built or by government support.

Before houses are built, they have to be designed to fit the aspirations of the community. The question becomes, who is going to be the designer? First, let us consider the dwellings which are designed and built within the community. In the past, most societies had slowly developed the designs which were very appropriate for their life styles and the environment they were living in. Materials and skills were close at hand and a building tradition ensured a harmonious integration with the environment.

Today, with massive disruptions of the environment, migrations of the people and a scarcity of skills and materials, coupled with the adoption of alien architectural styles, has made it impossible to create knowledgable designers within self-built communities. Nevertheless, one often marvels at what has been constructed by these people in spite of all their difficulties.

The architect who is called in to design these communities, in those cases where they are to be built by outside groups, either governmental or private, will face quite another problem. If we accept that every dwelling ought to suit the productive interests of the family, how is he going to design hundreds of different designs in a short period? How long will it take to get the information of these people about what they want to do with their house? And what, if after they receive their place, circumstances have forced them to embark on a different activity to secure their income? One can see, this approach is rife with problems. On one hand, through no fault of their own, people are not able any more to properly provide their own designs and on the other, municipal or private architects do not have the detailed knowledge of the user’s requirements nor the time to address themselves to these needs in order to provide adequate design for everyone.

Meanwhile, construction goes on, for better or for worse, thousands and thousands of houses are built. When they are built by the user, the construction is often inadequate and if built by outside agents the given layout is not functional for the user, unless the person is employed elsewhere. But even then, at these income levels, other members of the family are frequently engaged, producing activities, for which they need space…

To be continued!

Johan van Lengen February 2011



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