Reality as Special Effect

October 1, 2009

The slum and the high-rise: Image from Ricky Burdett’s presentation at Urban Age Mumbai.

There is no discussion on urbanization in the “global south” (as the “third world” was recently rebranded) that does not indulge in self-righteous indignation over “inequality”. The photo of a slum (if possible with a barely naked child playing on a pile of junk – an angel in hell) juxtaposed with a shiny high-rise building has become as ubiquitous in powerpoint presentations and newspaper articles on urbanization, as the meaningless assertion that the world has suddenly become more urban than rural.

The problem with this cliché is that it reduces discussions on urbanization to the binary opposition of the all encompassing categories of the high-rise and the slum. The former representing the ultimate aspiration of any third world citizen and the latter representing its darkest manifestation. All would be fine if that imagery was confined to movies such as City of God, Slumdog Millionaire, and District 9, which use the physical reality of slums as a spectaculareal stage for all types of narratives ranging from classical gangster scenarios to feelgood movies and political sci-fi.

This imagery is so evocative that urbanists, architects and other social commentators cannot refrain from using it repeatedly, regardless of how much it simplifies a reality that is significantly more complex. The fashionable urban legend of the day is that “we” (who live in the first-world tower behind the slum) should take bold steps to improve the lives of slum-dwellers, because 1) they are one billion and growing, and soon they will outnumber us, 2) they resent us and are a latent threat and 3) our life style is anyway unsustainable and at the next financial breakdown, we’ll be with them.

The master of this genre is of course the dark urban prophet Mike Davis who ends his world tour of slum literature (Planet of Slums) with words crying to be absorbed into a movie script: “Night after night, hornet like helicopters and gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties or fleeing cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions. If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on his side.” (Planete of Slums, p. 206)

Reality can be spectacular at times, but we should not mistake complexity for chaos. Understanding the dynamics of urban development in rapidly growing cities requires an analysis of the speculative and intensive processes that respectively produce the high-rise and the slum typologies -and everything in between (everything that’s missing from the picture). This is a task that we have humbly undertaken in the form of an essay that will be published soon.

We question a reading of urbanization that hinges its arguments on the  moral idea of inequality accompanied by anguished cries of despair regarding life in the slum. These cries are usually followed by massive construction projects that transform the space into monochromatic urban landscapes that eventually become the foundations of the same systems that produce those inequalities in the first place.

A closer observation reveals that the cries of despair are the sound track of a regime that has for long accepted inequality as a fundamental principle of economic life, revealing that they stem from impulses that are either absolutely radical or merely rhetorical. The latter is almost always the case.

From a radical Marxist standpoint, notions of equality, social justice and universal rights, disconnected from a critical understanding of the relationship of production that create inequality and injustice in the first place are mere ideological tools, reflective of bourgeois values and relations of exchange. (David Harvey, 2001 pp 272-3)

At the other end of the ideological spectrum, theories of economic incentives have for long argued that the prospect of greater wealth produces incentives for competition and innovation, which are essential to economic growth. The widening inequality between the rich and poor is a by-product of the economic growth that generates high living standards in the first place. The wealthiest societies are often the most unequal. This means that condemning rising inequality amounts to questioning the principle of economic growth which lies at the core of  capitalist societies. This is a fundamental critique with extreme implications that should be fully accepted by any commentator flashing the inequality card.

The fact of the matter is that such a fundamental critique is almost always tempered with reversals in actual practice. The lofty aim eventually boils down to ‘minimizing inequality’, a goal that is doomed to get lost in the labyrinthine mazes of relativity, with moving targets that are shaped by consumption practices, the complexity of aspiration and the slipperiness of speculation. These are wide enough gaps into which the same modes of production ram themselves in to produce exactly the kind of landscapes that generated cries of despair in the first place.

In the global south this usually translates into slum settlements being cleared up for middle class high rises, a process that simply generates more slums everywhere. These middle-class high rises are produced by mathematical calculations designed to accommodate as many people in as small pieces of land as possible, since the visual imagery of inequality – the slum – has to be erased or disguised.

Somehow the idea of rehabilitating into verticality – since it is visually connected to the world of mainstream aspiration is acceptable. It must be noted though that  the mathematics does not respond to the the question of scarcity of land, since there is ample available for luxury apartments that overlook space eating gardens, swimming pools and roads for cars. As high-rises emerge from the ashes, the rehabilitated slum dwellers are told to stay put and not participate in the temptations of their own speculation (meaning selling off their flats at market price and moving elsewhere). Eventually, the lack of economic activities (which were usually enmeshed in their erstwhile slummy habitats) pushes them to newer horizons. More pertinently, when the poor high-rises come in the way of newer construction projects, the ex-slum dwellers are then – in classic double speak -given huge amounts of money to just scoot. This is documented reality in several  cities around the world.

In the global north, the construction industry has a field time producing new ideal homes for everyone – lush countryside homes for the super rich, suburban utopias for the middle-class, downtown studios for the edgy and artistic, and anything that comes at a mortgaged price for anyone willing to give in to over-riding the alienation of living in a space that is either boring or dangerous – by something that is doomed to become boring or dangerous again. At the end of the day, the speculative processes kick in and make the political economy of producing habitats so unsustainable that they implode financially or produce masses of homeless people who do not have the skills and the community support of producing a slummy but livable habitat like their counter-parts in the south.

Our basic argument is this: the rhetorical response to the imagery of slummy habitats by juxtaposing them to glossy brochure habitats, using the emotional twang of inequality to ultimately make way for thought less urban practices has caused more harm than good.

Production practices of cities and built-forms are often invisible since they present themselves as the context within which the game of equity can be played. In reality they produce the context.

For us – who are often accused of being romantic about slums – this is the key point.

Slums are simply the entry point into a deeper and more realistic understanding of urban forms. They are a double-edged ideological tool that are used by everyone – merely as special effects.

District 9: Neill Blomkamp explains how he used reality as special effect

We are pushing for urban practices – architectural and planning related – that begin from this observation and take it ahead. Production practices of built-forms need a complex battery of skills, a combination of knowledge of the history, art, design and practice of construction in which communities, artisanal skills and several other  inputs are embedded. For us, the idea of the city devoid of an understanding of its economy is as sterile as an understanding of urban economy without the intricacies of people’s skills, their abilities and their aspirations.

The word slum in many parts of the world hides a huge variety of habitats within – from villages, to enterprising collective factories, to artisanal workshops – all of which have somehow become relegated to a world where the gods of the future- almost sacredly urban and technological in a high-rise sort of way – never deign to descend. The reason the gods never come there is because somehow their typology does not seem right. They are relegated to the same world of the past – rural – which is the alter-ego of the contemporary. In reality, this is so twentieth-century, industrial and passe.

Technologies of today and the future are all about the merging of categories and boundaries, of thinking afresh and escaping the hardness of mindsets. Design acknowledges it. Thus individual architectural projects are all about the most sophisticated moves possible in terms of attentiveness to the subtleties of aesthetics, scientific thought, environmental concerns and everything to do with the politics of people. But try visualizing cities afresh and we hit a dead-end.

Why? Because then you would have to give up your faith in the hardness of the industrial city, that bad-habit which we wont give up in terms of the totality of visualizing the urban, since it is enmeshed in the rhetoric of the ultimate promise – egalitarianism. Even as it’s lived reality is just the opposite.

To start visualizing afresh, the starting point has to be the other side of the fence. It has to be the category slum and all that it hides.

Built forms, like so many other artefacts and expressions emerge from the space of user-generated practices. This is where we start and would like to end. The present political economy of formal urban practice has relegated user-generated  cities into an ideological world where slums and high-rises comprise the archetypical myth within which other myths are generated. That of the slum of despair, where every one, from extra-terrestrial aliens to our very own poor have to live condemned lives.
Where the high-rise messiah is the one who saves them from this tormented life in hell. What could be more romantic, utopian and misdirected than that?

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