embracing informalities

One of my amazement of studying here in TU Delft’s Faculty of Architecture and Built Environment is how they manage to organize numbers of public lectures, lunch lectures, symposium, and presentations about almost everything. So far, I’ve attended a public lecture by Sjoerd Soesters (a controversial Dutch architect whose urban designs are loved by most Dutch), a presentation from Atelier Bow Wow, and Landscape Metropolis symposium. Not much, I skipped a lot, but still, it amazed me.

 

Today I was attending a symposium organized by my seniors in MSc Urbanism programme in TU Delft. It was called “CONFORMING [IN]FORMALITY”. I didn’t know that “informality” has become such a sexy topic to be discussed here in Europe, not when they are all living in certain formalities we hardly found in developing countries like Asia. The programme was mainly discussed about the affordable housing (in India), “contested spaces, critical practice: recalibrating urban design” (which for me was a little bit vague and superficial), a very intriguing realized project in Makoko, Lagos (THIS IS A MUST SEE PROJECT!!! I shivered just by listen to the presentation and imagine how the project affects a community largely), some projects in South America, and some projects about post-disaster settlement.

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Of all the notions that have been said and discussed, I was mainly triggered by two statements raised in the discussion following the symposium. The first statement was about government and governance; the issue is that we can’t choose our government that often we end up with the most challenging people we have to work with.  The second statement raised by one of the organizing committee, however, had had me at hello. Due to my inability to recall the whole sentence, I’ll rephrase his statement, which more or less…

 

“…I don’t know if it’s true or not, but this is what I have in my head all the time. I think it’s kinda interesting to see that informality has survived and developed in certain way that succeeded as a system in developing countries (in Asia, in Africa) and it seems that what we are trying to do is to – somehow – formalize it to be the world we know. You know, like making guidelines, regulations, methodologies. It’s also funny because we’ve been in this formal world that failed. The post-war housing is considerably unsuccessful compared to the natural growing informal settlement in those countries. I wonder if this is kind of balance, yin and yang, and that we always strive for the world we don’t have?”

 

Amazing statement, eh?!
Well, I have to thank him for saying my mind out loud while I was still busy finding the right words to express it. Haha. However, this symposium has just brought me to a couple years ago when we had similar discussion with my (our) small research group (read: group of nerds who’s doing extracurricular small researches about what we love (and hate) about Bandung city) when we were discussing about Jamika, one of the informal housings / slums in Bandung. Also to some other time, I think it was two years ago, when Pak Apep discussed his findings about the informal street vendors in a warm presentation in Bandung.

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I’ve never been interested in slums and all other social-based design thingy that require me to interact A LOT with people before, simply because it takes too many efforts in solving such social problems anywhere. But then it came to my perception that it IS the real condition (if not the real problem) we’re dealing with. Thus, it also came to my notion that, for me, informality (especially in Indonesia) is a certainty. It is an unconscious side effect and a counter-action to society’s conformity, because conformity is only for those who “fit”. Therefore, informality is often seen as something’s filthy, unjust, indecent, improper.

I would say that informality has become a major inevitable part of our lives in developing country that we have to learn to embrace it as a part of our culture. Paradoxically, I think “informality” often has its own degree of formality in certain way. For many people, it is a system that works perfectly fine. Possibly because it’s based on survival nature of the people, but still a functional system.

Now, imagine intruding such system with “normalities”: adequate living space per person, advanced technical assistance in building their homes, extremely clean environment, and beautiful houses.

Wouldn’t it be nice if they all can live in the same “state” as we do? With proper access to education, health, sanitary. Yes, I agree. We all (supposedly) have the right to access such things. That’s why we’re keep doing the urban renewal things, moving people from slums to social housings.

But it is too often that it doesn’t work as we planned. Seems impossible but true, right?!

Now, let’s try to imagine this.
What would we possibly feel to live in such a small house, with minimum exposure to direct sunlight and fresh air, where the walls seemed squeezing us and creating such claustrophobic feeling, staircases that are anthropometrically unacceptable, and maybe when the walls are never thick enough not to eavesdrop the neighbor’s stories? Unease?

I have a gut feeling that the same thing happens to them, the people with such informalities whom we tried to design for. It is often that we are imposing our terms of “livability” to their standards, which terrifies them. I believe that it’s not they don’t want a better living environment for them and their families; but could it be that they often think that such better living is beyond their capacity? It’s somehow too good to be true that they are afraid of it. Could it be that they are too accustomed to certain way of living that they will feel unease if it’s better than what they used to have?

Perhaps, we have to start to embrace the informalities to understand how they perceive formalities.
Perhaps, we have to deconstruct their way of thinking before we deconstruct their houses.
And since there are no immediate solutions for these informalities, perhaps we have to first concede with this ugly truth that informalities is a certainty to deal with at the end of the day.

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