When informal space appropriation takes the architects’ role

I recently watched Iwan Baan TED Talk entitled Ingenious homes in unexpected places. Iwan Baan is a photographer interested in how we humans appropriate unplanned or unfinished spaces. His TED Talk shows photos of informal communities around the world, where vernacular architecture and placemaking are examples of both human creativity and ingenuity.

The 154 photos presented on his talk show images from Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh (in India) to Caracas (in Venezuela), to Nigeria, Egypt, China and so forth. More information about his talk – that you can watch below – can be found on the TED blog.


This talk reminded me of the work of Douglas Aguiar, a lecturer I had at PROPAR/UFRGS (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul) where I did my Masters. Douglas and his daughter Julia Saldanha Vieira de Aguiar, who is a journalist, produced two great documentaries – both in Portuguese – about informal use of architectural and urban spaces.

Das Garagens (The Garages, 2005) – Presents the Rubem Berta community in Porto Alegre (Brazil). It explores the process of favelização (turning into a slum) of a giant social housing apartment block complex. In a very similar tone to Iwan Baan TED Talk, this documentary shows the creativity and spatial, social and economic transformation following this spontaneous space appropriation. The authors present this documentary as a “tribute to the organizational capacity of people”. (Das Garagens is available here)

Anos de Pedra (Life on the Stone, 2007) – This documentary is about the daily activity of an informal market area installed at Praça XV also in Porto Alegre (Brazil). The commercial activity transforms the space into an area of intense activity. In the authors words this is “a giant self-organized installation full of stories and creativity in the strive for survival”. (Anos de Pedra is available here)

A paper published by Julia entitled ‘For a city that moves: body, street and improvisation’ (in Portuguese: Por uma cidade que se move: corpo, rua e improvise), is also available at the Vitruvius Magazine.

Since I got in touch with Douglas’ research it has changed my mind about the way we do architecture and what are people’s real needs. It sounds silly to see all this and think we have to work for ‘priviledged people’ as Shigeru Ban said in his TED Talk

We are not helping, we are not working for society, but we are working for privileged people, rich people, government, developers. (…) Earthquakes never kill people, but the collapse of buildings kill people, that’s the responsibility of architects. Then people need some temporary housing, but there’s no architects working there because we are too busy working for privileged people.

These ideas combined with the post-earthquake scenario Christchurch faced soon after I arrived made me turn my research to people. I have since then tried to listen what people have to say about their cities and the places they inhabit. I have tried to take more photos of life in places and less photos of architectural ‘monuments’. I have been questioning myself about the image I had and have about what means to be an architect…

What can we do to improve people’s daily lives after all? Isn’t it more important than designing millionaire houses?

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