Informal architect

This text was written as a result of the 1-week workshop which took place in Noida, New Delhi. Later on it was published in the Studio book “DIA@Delhi” by Hochschule Anhalt.

We met a teenager in the street of the informal settlement of industrial area Noida. He was 13 years old. The kid could read a paragraph in English, but not able to understand the meaning. For communication we used Google-translator. English-Hindi, Hindi-English. He knew very well how to read and type on his mother tongue Hindi.

Through observations, one can easily see the presence of the basic knowledge of the local community in Noida. Most of them were focused on the primary needs for survival. People knew how to make a shelter, get an access to water, how to grow&sell food, make and stitch cloth, give a first aid assistance. This knowledge was passed from parents to children without the need for any formal institution. One can also find that here kids are working together with their parents in order to «sufficiently» maintain family income [even despite the law in India prohibits it].

Such life circumstances are raising the question for the young:

Why should I go to the school?

The government provides a system of the free access to the public education using extra benefits like lunch, free shoes, and uniform, even bicycles for the girls etc.. At the same time, the facilities are not the same for everyone. The public school we visited in the neighborhood was without tables and chairs, without sufficient amount of teachers, but filled with young kids. One class was filled up with 70-80 pupils seating on the bare floor. Young children don’t see an interest in gaining a formal education that is beyond the basic knowledge.

In these circumstances question of informal education becomes crucial. How do you leave an open door for the young mind and ensure that he/she is able to make his/her decision regarding future and become not only a shop-keeper but maybe, an artist or a badminton player?

As architects, how could we address the question of the education in current circumstances? We could propose re-planning and improvement of the existing public school. Keeping in mind the need of rethinking an approach for the education system. The political will to fund this project seemed to be not there at the moment. Construction of the new building funded by the private means posed a question: if at the end the client stays the same? [As legal construction in the informal areas is prohibited.]

How do we address informality which is a product of unbalanced economy distribution in order to provide opportunities for human growth and development using architectural means? As a group of students, many of us saw the option in the step by step development. Small scale temporary interventions on the streets of the slums in order to provide a spark and curiosity for the knowledge. In this case, an architect may become a manager and a co-worker of the larger interdisciplinary group, where he/she is able to provide any technical or management assistance that is needed. It can be a participatory project where space for education may appear first in the outdoors setting and later on gain indoor spaces if such are needed.

Sometimes the game might be changed and one might find him/herself in front of the question: should I take part in this project or should I drop it? As it happened to us when we were given a big empty plot in the slum area and proposed to design a school. It’s easier to say no, but then the question is aren’t you are dropping the responsibility of making this space better?

Architecture does have the power to inspire, provoke questions, bring opportunities and change. Especially, when it’s being made with a respect to the existing situation, understanding it’s potentials and problems while projecting future changes that space will create. Various future scenarios and involvement of the future users are an essential part of the work, both in the informal and formal settlement. At some point, an architect might become a voice for the public he/she designs and builds with&for. There might be failures and unpredictable outcomes throughout and at the end of the project being realized. It’s hard to deny the need to try in order to bring change even sometimes with a failure. As architecture can’t be done only through thinking about it, it needs to be experienced in order to bring change and inspire.

As a result of our week workshop in Noida, personally, I understood that the urgent wish to propose an immediate and direct intervention must be introduced, but along with a long-term vision of a more stable development and proposal with involvement of the local people and their potential and existing basic knowledge that can be used and elaborated through collaboration.