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AGA KHAN AWARD SEMINAR FORMULATES NEW APPROACHES TO WORLDWIDE CRISIS IN HOUSING - 1988-10-16

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Event - 1988-10-16
Date: 
Sunday, 1988, October 16
Location: 

Zanzibar - venue for eleventh international Seminar
Rapid demographic growth and deteriorating economic conditions in rural areas are adding millions more people every year to the already overcrowded cities of the Third World.

A number of new approaches to the chronic shortage of housing that results were formulated at the international Seminar on the Architecture of Housing' that ended in Zanzibar, Tanzania on October 16, 1988.

The Seminar, organised by the Geneva-based Aga Khan Award for Architecture included visits by participants to the historic stone town of Zanzibar, as well as Mombasa and the island of Lamu in Kenya. The aim of these site visits was to use the presence of more than 60 of the world's leading architects, urban planners and other experts concerned with building, to draw international attention to the rich heritage along the East African coast that is threatened by the encroachment of inappropriate constructions and lack of funds for restoration.

Mowlana Hazar Imam, Chairman of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, told an audience in the Zanzibar House of Representatives that, The lack and deterioration of human habitation as economies grow, urbanisation accelerates and demographics explode, pose some of the greatest practical and ethical problems that developing countries face.

President Hassan Ali Mwinyi who attended the opening sessions of the Seminar, said that Zanzibar was an ideal location to discuss so international an issue as housing because for centuries, the island had been a meeting point of North and South, East and West.

Charles Correa, an Indian architect from Bombay and a member of the Aga Khan Award's Master Jury, said that the Third World's cities were having to play the same role as North America and Australia did for Europe's growing population during the nineteenth century. The long-term answer to the population explosion would have to be found. But in the mean time it was vital to make cities better at absorbing their increasing populations.

More than 540 million people have been added to Third World cities over the past thirty years. Mr. Correa warned, however, against simply adding up these frightening numbers and producing a centralised response. The grim multi-storey blocks that are so typical of today's urban areas are testimony to the failure of this approach. They are a blight on their inhabitants in the industrialised world, but are even more inappropriate in developing countries where they bear no relation to culture or life-style, Mr. Correa said.

Architects must provide city dwellers not with piled-up boxes' but with a whole range of spaces from private living quarters to the baraza or stoop outside a house where neighbours can discuss, and larger places of religious or social gathering. It is vital to involve people themselves in the process of designing their space if it is to be well adapted to local conditions, said Mr. Correa.

Mr. Ismail Serageldin, an Egyptian architect-cum-planner from the World Bank and member of the Aga Khan Award's Steering Committee, contrasted the sterility of the bare geometry of repetitive slab-blocks, so characteristic of public housing everywhere, with the organic' qualities that spontaneous' settlements exhibit despite the miserable and insanitary conditions that usually prevail in these slums which account for the vast majority of the built environment in the Third World.

Despite their glaring shortcomings, slab-blocks do provide a potentially healthy and serviced environment. Why could this not be combined with the individualised organic quality of spontaneous settlements, Mr. Serageldin asked. Beyond the economic factors, he said there are institutional, political and financial reasons whose solution, while well-known, means empowering the weak and disenfranchised members of society to take their destinies into their own hands.

Mr. Serageldin also pointed to what he saw a second fundamental problem in most of the Islamic world: the models that have defined the historical and cultural standard of aesthetics have usually been monumental and rich structures, typified by the Taj Mahal, while the reality for Muslim people today, from Mauritania to Indonesia, is one of poverty.

Ms Mona Serageldin, Associate Director of the Aga Khan Programme for the Islamic Architecture Unit for Housing and Urbanization at Harvard University, distinguished between two types of shelter on the fringes of Third World cities: squatter settlements and informal housing.

Squatters have no legal rights to the land they occupy and their makeshift shacks reflect their fear of forceful eviction and clearance. Homeowners in informal settlements have purchased their plots from individuals who, rightly or wrongly, claim ownership. They quickly demolish their squatter shacks and replace them, within the constraints of the small size and odd shapes in the squatter settlements, with housing built of desirable materials.

Ms. Serageldin said that this unplanned, unregulated and often unserviced informal sector is now responsible for 60 per cent of all new housing in the Third World. It had given rise to all kinds of excesses such as speculation and land grabbing, but it also demonstrated that security of tenure and access to home ownership are crucial incentives in mobilising the funds and energy needed to solve the housing crisis in the Third World. Architects should accept that it is a reality and be more creative about improving conditions in the informal sector instead of shunning it as unaesthetic, she said.

Lessons learned from the informal sector are behind an innovative housing scheme in Hyderabad, Pakistan. Mr. Tasneem Siddiqui, Director General of the Hyderabad Development Authority said the starting point was analysis of the success of the informal sector. The result is a programme that provides the urban poor with shelter and a standard of development within their means. The authority had purchased a large plot of land on the outskirts of Hyderabad which it has divided up into plots. These are then equipped with minimum services. At first, just access to water and transport. A very modest down-payment provides legal title and the family can occupy its plot immediately, thus cutting out the time-lag between purchase and occupation that is the bane of most public housing projects.

Only in the longer-term are improvements made, such as house-to-house water supply, sewerage, electricity and gas. These are financed by the individual householders who continue to pay monthly installments to the Hyderabad Development Authority. The pace and nature of this incremental development is decided by elected committees of plot-owners. Speculation is eliminated by requiring the whole family, with all its possessions, to move onto these plots and start constructing its shelter from the first day of the purchase. Two thousand seven hundred families have already been accommodated.

The Seminar then turned from what Hasan-Uddin Khan, an architect and editor of Mimar described as the process' of housing to the product'. In a paper given jointly by Mr. Khan and Mr. Charles Moore, an American architect and member of the Aga Khan Award's Steering Committee, the authors said that in most traditional societies the house is an extension of the human body. In countries across the Third World, people with hardly any means construct themselves shelters rather than moving into the deadly anonymity of state-built housing blocks.'

The paper then focused on why in the authors' view, the house of the rich are the major indicators of architectural change, filtering down the aspirations and models of self-image that they represent to the rest of society. These links between the buildings of the rich and poor demonstrated that housing was not only a process but a continuum of cultural expression.

The role of the architect was the final theme of the Seminar. John de Monchaux, Dean of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the Aga Khan Award's Steering Committee, agreed that architects should be closely involved in the making of housing by using, more emphatically, other specialised problem-solving skills. The special contribution of the architect is to prescribe the forms for housing that will please its users and persuade the rest of us that particular kinds of problems can be elegantly and handsomely solved,' he said.

For Ismail Serageldin, architects are the custodian of a society's self-image, the articulators of its aesthetic norms and the form-givers who erect the models that bear witness to their times Architects practising in the Islamic world should be encouraged to live up to that demanding role,' Mr. Serageldin said.

Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who teaches sociology at the American University in Cairo and is a member of the Aga Khan Award's Master Jury, said that the alienating forms so characteristic of contemporary mass-housing are due in part to the fact that the architect is no longer part of the society he serves. He needs to be reintegrated into the community.'

Mowlana Hazar Imam, in his concluding remarks, said that the architect must understand the community or family for which he is building, otherwise his diagnosis will be wrong. The architect must not just be a master of form but a communicator if we are to meet the challenge of providing housing in the years ahead.'

The Seminar was organised by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The Award was set up a decade ago to make architects and others concerned with building, aware of the vitality of Islamic cultures while encouraging architecture appropriate to the needs of the twentieth century.

This is done both by honouring specific projects every three years with prizes and by establishing a process of continuing debate. Integral to this process are a series of seminars, each of which serves as a forum where critical issues affecting the built environment of Muslims can be addressed by local and international participants.

Source: U.K. Ismaili Forum (December 1988)


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