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Creative Housing Solutions: Remarkable Adaptation or Government Failure?

By Jane Tingley (Intern, IHC)
October 23, 2013

In 1990, construction began on the Torre de David in Caracas, the third highest skyscraper in Venezuela.  After the Venezuelan banking crisis of 1994, construction was halted at only sixty percent completion, the government seized control, and the unfinished building was left abandoned.  However, due to massive housing shortages, in October 2007, some 3,000 individuals started to move into the vacant building and transformed the skeleton frame into a vibrant community, full of grocery stores, barbers, tailors, and even a church and gym open to all residents.  Last month, photographer Iwan Baan gave a TED Talk on this community as well as others around the world that are creating creative housing with limited resources, demonstrating remarkable adaptability and ingenuity.  Despite all the communities lacking the infrastructure to support basic services such as running water, sewer systems, and electricity, Baan explores how residents have developed unique solutions to mitigate the infrastructural deficits.

In Makoko, an impoverished slum community of stilt houses found in Lagos, Baan highlights the recent construction of a three-story floating school by local architect, Kunle Adeyemi.  Threatened by encroaching waters, instead of building in the traditional stilt style, he built a floating school, which would be used both as a primary school during the day, and as a recreation center and market when school is not in session.  Mr. Adeyemi said that this school represents the first step in his vision for the entire community to be rebuilt as a floating city.

In Egypt, Baan explores the Cairo slum, Manshiyat Naser, a community composed of Coptic Christians who have created an economy that revolves around garbage collection and recycling.  While the first floors of most of the buildings are occupied by garbage and recycling piles, the apartments are often ornately outfitted, and the area includes many shops and traditional services.  Somewhat surprisingly for an urban slum, Baan found that some families have transformed former living rooms and bedrooms into cattle and pig stables, providing an extra source of income and nutrition for families.

The last housing solution Baan highlights is in China, where many communities that live on the Loess Plateau in Northern China have built underground houses, known as Yaodungs.  Inhabited by mostly poor wheat and apple farmers who lack the resources to afford building materials, when asked, the residents said that these dwellings, which are 7 meters in the ground, provided the most logical form of living.  Until recently, an estimated 40 million people lived in this style of subtractive architecture.

While Baan explores all these communities through an artistic lens, and concludes they are all examples of people surmounting the odds and exhibiting incredible adaptability, from a development perspective, these communities represent the failure of local and national governments to provide adequate housing. In a New Yorker article, the writer explores how the Torre de David is the greatest example of the failure of the Chávez era – a representation of the “urban policy of this regime, which can be defined by confiscation, expropriation, governmental incapacity, and the use of violence”.  While all of these communities are indeed examples of the ability to adapt the built environment to fulfill basic needs, these unique communities are a direct consequence of government failures in supporting the needs of their most vulnerable populations.

Watch Iwan Baan’s Ingenious Homes in Unexpected Places here.

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