Academic Paper: Critical Engagement in Informal Settlements: Lessons from the South African experience

Author(s):     Jhono Bennett & Dr. Amira Osman




This paper aims to present an approach to design thinking and teaching that takes the students and lecturers of design disciplines outside of the studio and university campus into contexts of deep complexity – informal settlements.
Conventional methods of architectural practice are deemed to be of limited use or value in informal contexts. These informally- and incrementally- developed contexts appear chaotic and of little architectural value at first glance but, when examined closer, intricate systems of decision-making and negotiation are revealed. The quality of spatial articulation that emerges could not have been achieved through formal planning and design processes. The informal process results in a distinctive spatial quality as well as complex and varied forms of ownership and habitation models.
The resultant fluidity and dynamism of these contexts offers critical lessons in design and the interaction between the different decision-makers/agents intervening at various levels of the built environment at any given time. As students and lectures engage with these contexts, employing tools such as structured mapping exercises, a better understanding can be achieved, as well as more appropriate design-decision making strategies for future interventions. By understanding the existing energies, activities and quality of routes, nodes and thresholds within these contexts, architects are better equipped to propose context-sensitive and sustainable solutions.
The intention is to better prepare students to engage in non-conventional professional practice – while the lecturers, and the institution to which they belong, are able to make meaningful contributions to a broader debate regarding the role of the profession and the professional in contexts of informality.
Through this process, it is also possible to provide much-needed services to identified vulnerable communities. However, the significance of the approach goes beyond that and involves the up-skilling of residents, the gathering of crucial data about the context, acquiring critical first-hand experience of the selected settlements; it also offers lessons on action research and knowledge on sustainable and socially-relevant technical solutions. The latter is achieved by identifying possible catalyst interventions, enabling the testing of development concepts through active build projects.
Key words: Design teaching, informality, non-conventional architectural practice, action research, and design/build.